Ethics Now and Then – Chapter 6 – Overview

Pirkei Avot Chapter 6 – Overview

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Chapter 6 was not an original chapter of the tractate Pirkei Avot. The verses are a collection of the sages’ teachings that were not included in the Talmud but are written in a similar style and are supplemental to the preceding five chapters.  It was compiled and included in order that the chapters would correspond to the six Shabbats between Passover and Shavuot, when, traditionally, a chapter of Pirkei Avot is studied each week.

As this chapter is read the week before Shavuot, the Festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, it focuses on the beauty and value of Torah. The chapter opens with a teaching attributed to Rabbi Meir:*

Rabbi Meir said: “Whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah for its own sake merits many things; and not only that, but the entire world is worthwhile because of him. He is called “Friend, beloved of God, one who loves the Omnipresent God and who loves mankind; he brings joy to the Omnipresent God and joy to mankind. It [the Torah] clothes him with humility and reverence, and prepares him to be righteous, pious, upright and faithful; and it puts him far from sin and brings him near to virtue. People enjoy from him the benefit of counsel and sound wisdom, understanding and strength – as it is stated [of Torah]: 

Mine are counsel and sound wisdom; I am understanding, might is mine.**

And it gives him sovereignty and dominion, and penetrating judgment. To him are revealed mysteries of Torah; and he becomes an ever-flowing fountain that never fails and as a river that never runs dry, which constantly gains in vigor. He becomes modest, patient and forgiving of insults; and it makes him great and exalted above all creations.

To diligently and purposefully study and meditate upon the Torah, or teachings, of God –  the foundation of which is the first Five Books of Moses – is the chief discipline that helps to guide one along life’s path and, essentially, bestows meaning, blessing and true satisfaction. The discernment and true judgment derived from its solid and clear concepts of truth, guard those who live by it from error and draw each one closer to God’s good and perfect will for their lives.

According to Rabbi Meir, with the understanding that God’s Word is the “water of life,” when one drinks from it constantly, one’s own spirit, wisdom and understanding become “…like a fountain that never fails.” One’s life becomes ever stronger, “…like a river which constantly gains in vigor.”

Despite the increase of wisdom and blessing gained, however, Rabbi Meir points out that one whose motivation for the study of God’s Word is that “he loves God” and “he loves mankind”; that person will remain “modest, patient and forgiving of insults.” Although his spirit is highly exalted and he is called a “friend and beloved of God,” he fully understands that all gain and success come only from the hand of God Himself, and he relates in love and humility to all his fellowman.

This, surely, should be our constant aim; as the prophet Micah exhorts:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?***

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Dear fellow talmidim-students of the incomprehensibly precious Word of God,

This brings us to the end of the series Ethics Now and Then and our study together of Pirkei Avot. For those who have perseverd through the almost 100 instalments, Kol ha’kavod – all honor to you! And to all students who are studying for the love of our God and our fellow man, may all the blessings described above be yours.

Chazak, chazak, ve’nitchazek! Be strong, be strong [as you persevere in your learning] and may we strengthen one another in our journey of faith.

In Him Who loves us with boundless love,

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~ Keren Hannah Pryor

Footnotes:

* Translation by Irving M.Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol.3, 260

** Proverbs 8:14

*** Micah 6:8

Ethics Now and Then 97 – Avot 5:25-26

Pirkei Avot 5:25 -26

Ben Bag Bag said: Turn and turn about in it [the Torah] for everything is in it; and within it you shall look, and grow old and gray over it, and not stir from it; for there is no better portion for you than this.

Ben Hei Hei says: The reward is in preportion to the exertion.

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The two sages quoted in these final verses of Chapter 5 have the rather amusing names of Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hei Hei.  It is understood that both sages were in fact descendants of proselytes to Judaism whose actual names were disguised to protect them from informers who would have turned them over to the Romans. Clues are given to the veracity of this story in that the first proselytes were Avram and Sara, to whose names God added the letter hei, forming Avraham and Sarah. Hei Hei! In the name Bag Bag, the numerical value of the letters bet and gimmel are 2 + 3, which equal 5, the value of hei.*

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Ben Bag Bag said: Turn and turn about in it [the Torah] for everything is in it…

One should never be content with a one dimensional view of the Torah, or any part of the Word of God. Like a multi-faceted diamond it requires to be studied and viewed and contemplated from every angle – to be turned, turned and turned again. One will never come to an end of its study for, as Ben Bag Bag tells us, “everything is in it.” There is nothing in Creation and life itself that has been overlooked for it was written and given for our guidance and instruction by the Creator of all Himself.

…and within it you shall look, and grow old and gray over it, and not stir from it;

Ben Bag Bag here reiterates the information of the previous verse. One should be looking into, with great concentration and unswerving dedication, the inexhaustible spring of wisdom that is Torah all of one’s life. The more we do so, the broader and deeper our knowledge and understanding will become of all that is good and true and worthwhile. Therefore, even when one is old and gray, and one’s physical strength and energy for other pursuits has waned, the treasure of God’s Word can always be at your side to delve into and to enjoy; an endeavour in which one’s spirit can continue to grow ever stronger.

…for there is no better portion for you than this.

The prophet Isaiah tells us:
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.**
As worthy as our worldly pursuits may be, all material things fade and do not last forever. At the end of one’s life journey there is nothing that will compare with the value of the investment of one’s time and energies in the study of God’s Word in order to grow closer to Him in understanding and in loving relationship. We are promised reward in eternity for our commitment and obedience to His Word;  the portion or reward alluded to here, however, is one’s present portion – the blessing and joy we can experience here and now in our day to day lives.

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Ben Hei Hei says: The reward is in preportion to the exertion.

Much blessing and reward is promised to those who “hear and obey” the Word of God. Ben Hei Hei adds extra encouragement in his use of the word ‘exertion’. To some the study and practice of Torah might come more easily due to a gifted intellect and greater powers of application. Here we are assured, however, that God notices the effort involved as well as the carrying out of the mitzvah – the exertion as well as the execution. Every small effort and struggle in the study of His Word, and in obeying His commandments, is noted and valued and will bring eternal blessing.

 

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Footnotes:

* Pirkei Avos, The Artscroll Mesorah Series, 53

** Isaiah 40:8

Ethics Now and Then 96 – Avot 5:24

Pirkei Avot 5:24 

He [Yehudah ben Tema] used to say: The five-year-old is for [learning] Scripture; the ten-year-old is [of age] for the Mishnah; the thirteen-year-old, for [the obligation of] the mitzvoth; the fifteen-year-old, for [the study of] the Talmud; the eighteen-year-old for the wedding canopy; the man of twenty is to pursue [a livelihood]; that man of thirty [has attained] to full strength; the man of forty to understanding; the man of fifty is to give counsel; the man of sixty [has attained to] old age; the man of seventy to venerable old age; the man of eighty, to [the old age] of strength; the man of ninety [is of the age ] to go bent over; the man of a hundred is as though already dead and gone, removed from this world.

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He [Yehudah ben Tema] used to say: The five-year-old is for [learning] Scripture; the ten-year-old is [of age] for the Mishnah; the thirteen-year-old, for [the obligation of] the mitzvoth; the fifteen-year-old, for [the study of] the Talmud;

Yehudah ben Tema here delineates the  age-related challenges of the traditional Orthodox Jewish world. Education in the Scriptures is of central importance in Judaism, in accord with the verse: “And you shall teach them [Scriptures; commandments] diligently to your children.” *  At 5 years of age, a child begins to learn the Torah; beginning, interestingly enough, with the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, which focuses on the priesthood and is considered a manual of purity and holiness.  Rabbi, Abraham J. Twerski, a renowned psychiatrist, shares a delightful memory of his first lesson in Torah:

“I distinctly remember my first lesson when I was five. My teacher opened the book of Leviticus, where the word ‘Vayikra‘- was printed in large letters except for the final diminutive letter aleph [as it is in all Torah scrolls].

1653290_10152018991892810_2009057238_n (1)He explained that I was beginning to learn the third of the Five Books of Moses rather than Bereishit (Genesis), because Leviticus is about the sacred offerings in the Sanctuary. SInce I was now beginning to learn the holy Torah, I too was sacred, and even dearer to God than the offerings in the Sanctuary.
I was, of course, curious as to why the letter aleph was smaller than the other letters. My teacher told me that knowing that I am holy should not cause me to be vain. The diminutive aleph, the frst letter of the Hebrew alphabet, teaches us that one can retain Torah only if one is humble.”**

At 10 years of age, a child is considered able to begin studies in the Mishnah – the Oral Torah, and the further examination of and commentary on the basic text. Then, at age 13, when a boy celebrates his Bar Mitzvah, at age 12 for a girl, the child is now looked upon as a young adult who can make choices between good and evil and can now take personal responsibilty for his or her actions. Thereafter, at age 15, the boy should be ready for the study of Gemarah, a deeper investigation into the legal intricacies of the Talmud.
As we see, this framework of study relies on layering; building on what has gone before. The child is encouraged to understand and appreciate the spiritual as well as the intellectual core of each layer before moving on to the next.

The Talmud describes three specific areas in which parents are responsible to teach their children.: the Torah, how to make a living, and how to swim!***  We can understand the first two, but to swim?  What if the family do not live anywhere near water? No matter, say the sages, one cannot guarantee that the child will never be near water, so the effort must be made. Included in this directive, however, is the exhortation to train children how to survive in any “sink or swim” situation! Parents need to teach, to the best of their ability, the basic skills of how to “swim” and survive in the often turbulent sea of life.  Young people today are afforded greater opportunities, but also daunting challenges and temptations. The need for training in the core, ethical issues of personal and moral responsibility, as well as the value of  integrity and care in inter-personal relationships, is greater than ever.

…the eighteen-year-old for the wedding canopy; the man of twenty is to pursue [a livelihood]; that man of thirty [has attained] to full strength; the man of forty to understanding; the man of fifty is to give counsel;

With this solid foundation of teaching, it is considered that a healthy young man should be ready for marriage at age 18, by which time he will certainly have developed a growing interest in the opposite sex! Young Jewish couples, as part of a strong community, are given much help in setting up home together. In Israel, they will also be performing compulsory army training and duty. Only thereafter, around age 20, do they pursue their careers.

By age 30, a young man has reached his full strength. He will, hopefully, be established in his chosen profession or skill, have a secure home and family and should be enjoying the full blessings of Shalom – wholeness, peace and contentment. By 40 years of age, his continued study of Torah and practice of the ways of God would have borne much fruit and wisdom in his life. By age 50 he should be ready to give wise counsel to others.

…the man of sixty [has attained to] old age; the man of seventy to venerable old age; the man of eighty, to [the old age] of strength; the man of ninety [is of the age ] to go bent over; the man of a hundred is as though already dead and gone, removed from this world.

“Old age” is reached at 60. In Jewish thinking, ‘old age’ is not a negative prospect! The elderly are respected for the maturity of their intellect and their wisdom of judgment based on long experience of life. By 70, a person is naturally ‘white-haired’ and has reached a venerable old age, which bears further acknowledgement and respect. The age of 80, when a person has gained even further insight spiritually but is weakening physically, is considered the extremity of old age.

It is recognized, medically, that when a person reaches their ninetieth year their strength will have waned drastically. Although a traditional birthday greeting in Hebrew is, “Ad me’ah ve’esrim!” – “[May you live] until 120!”, as Moses did, that is not a likely, or even desirable, age to aspire to. In general, we are grateful for any years we are given beyond the “four-score years and ten.” One’s greatest aim should be to live an old age of clarity, continued spiritual growth, dignity and respect; and to accord the same to others.

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Footnotes:

* Deuteronomy 6:7

** Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers, 321

*** Kiddushin 29a

Ethics Now and Then 95 – Avot 5:23

Pirkei Avot 5:23 

Judah ben Tema said: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father in Heaven. He used to say: The brazen-faced is headed for Gehinnom; and the shamefaced for the Garden of Eden. May it be Thy will O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our portion in Thy Torah.

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Judah ben Tema said: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father in Heaven.

The book of Job confirms that we humans are able to learn much about life by observing the behaviour of animals: “He teaches us through the beasts of the earth, and makes us wise through the birds of the sky” (35:11). In this mishnah, Judah ben Tema directs our attention to four specific animals from which we can learn and would do well to imitate in our endeavors to “do the will of our Father in Heaven.” This should be the aim of all our efforts in life, as it was Yeshua’s, who said: “Father… not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), also, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50). And He taught us to pray,

“Our Father…may Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

Our Father, indeed, has spelled out His will for us in His Word. However, Irving J Bunim points out that another Sage, Rabbi Yochanan, comments: “…had we not received the Torah, we would learn modesty [in personal bodily functions] from the cat, [the wrongness of] robbery from the ant, marital faithfulness from the dove, etc.”

The four animals referenced in this mishnah by Judah ben Tema are:

1. The leopard, from which we can learn boldness.

Seeking the will of our Father through study and prayer requires intense focus and concentration. A large factor in developing this skill is to be bold enough to remove our attention from any external distractions, such as when friends or others may want to distract us from the things of God and  from living a life set apart to Him. To act contrary to the social norm requires courage and the single-minded boldness of the leopard who unselfconsciously focuses on his prey and pursues it with great intent.

The Hebrew word עז – az – bold, as in az ca’namer – bold as a leopard, also carries the implication of “a constancy and intensity that ultimately prevail.” ** In Proverbs 21:30, Solomon uses the term in, “Love is as strong [az] as death.” Through the process of aging, death constantly and surely encroaches until it triumphs over every life. Irving Bunim  adds, “So should our love be for our Creator – the love we express through [obedience] to the Torah and its mitzvoth: so constant , intense, persistent, that it must prevail against all obstacles.”***

2. The eagle, from which we learn to go higher in our quest for intimacy with our Creator.

The eagle flies alone and reaches greater heights than any other bird. We can only achieve success in our quest for a deeper and more intimate relationship with our Father God personally and alone with Him. As we grow in knowledge of Him and His ways, we must “walk it out” on earth and with the others in our lives. As we do this, our love for Him grows and our spirits can soar to ever greater heights and closer communion with the Beloved of our souls.

David the Psalmist makes an interesting comment on the eagle: With the blessing of the Almighty…”your youth will be renewed like the eagle” (103:5). A similar comment is found in the words of the Sages: “Scholars of Torah, the older they grow, the clearer, wiser, and more settled and orderly their minds grow…but as for the ignorant, the older they grow the more foolish and distraught their mind grows.”**** Everything in nature dies, except for the mind and spirit of man. When we apply our lives to the Word and will of our Father, as we see so perfectly demonstrated in His anointed Son Yeshua, we retain the lightness and purity of the very young. One’s spirit constantly drinks and is refreshed from the true fountain and source of life.

3. The deer, from which we learn eagerness and speedy efficiency in doing the will of our Father.

We see many occasions in Scripture where the righteous hurry to do a good deed. Our forefather Abraham is the first role model in this regard, as we see in the incident of the three strangers to whom he extended hospitality. In Genesis 1:6-7, notice how many ‘hurrying’ words there are in just two verses:

And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hasted to dress it.

The desire to accomplish a good deed as quickly as possible, and to not waste any time in delaying or lazy dawdling, indicates a heartfelt enthusiasm in wishing to act in accord with the Father’s will.

We read in the opening verses of Psalm 42.

“As a deer pants for flowing streams,so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Just as a deer runs swiftly to a source of water when it is thirsty, bounding over every obstacle in its path, so should we eagerly pursue the living water of the Word of God . Even when faced with deterrents or difficulties, we must diligently make time for study and application of the teachings of God. Without this water for our souls we are in danger of spiritual dehydration and all the connected ills. Rather, aim to remain as alert and swift as the deer.

4. The lion, from which we learn the power derived from courage and strength to stand our ground.

When we have accomplished the traits of the leopard, eagle and deer, we then can stand in the strength of a lion. The lion is self assured and confident in his title of King of the Animal Kingdom. A connection is made between a lion and Samson. Samson, of course, had great physical strength but what is alluded to by Judah ben Temah is moral strength and courage.

In Pirkei Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma taught:

“Who is strong? He who subdues his evil inclination.”

True strength of character lies in having self control and being able to discipline one’s baser urges – to overcome the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination to do evil. When we can rule over ourselves, and train our will to work in harmony with the will of our Father in Heaven, then we can stand like a king and, in His authority, accomplish the Kingdom work He has assigned for each of us to do.

He used to say: The brazen-faced is headed for Gehinnom; and the shamefaced for the Garden of Eden. 

Although Judah ben Temah encourages us to be bold and courageous in our service of God, he points out the difference here between ‘brazen faced’ and ‘shamefaced.’ Even a very religious person, who does many good deeds outwardly, faces the danger of becoming arrogant and self-righteous and can pride himself in his power and authority over others. He then can become ‘brazen’ and not see or ancknowledge his faults and weaknesses; thus he cannot repent of them and will face the punishment of Gehinnom.

To be ‘shamefaced’ in this context does not mean to be constantly ashamed. It is a quality more in line with ‘bashful’ as in the teaching of Rava:

“Whoever has these three distinguishing marks – compassion, bashfulness, deeds of kindness – it is certain that he is a descendant of Abraham.”***** 

Bashfulness is both a humility that does not seek self promotion and a sensitive conscience that responds to any action, word or thought that is not pleasing to the Lord. We need to remain ashamed to sin, to recognize when we do and repent of it and endeavor to overcome it. This kind of healthy shame, as opposed to condemnation, opens the way for repentance and repentance keeps us in right standing with our Father.  This, in turn, assures us of a home with Him in Paradise.

May it be Thy will O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our portion in Thy Torah.

The fact of the Holy Temple once again standing in Jerusalem indicates that the Jewish people are once again settled in the Land and the wearisome, unending battle against our foes, whether external or internal, is settled in peace. Perhaps swords have been turned into plowshares and the wonderful promises in Isaiah have been fulfilled. The leopard is lying down with a kid, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together and :

“They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters fill the sea.”(11:6-9).

To that we can say a hearty, “Amen!”

 

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Footnotes:

* Irving J. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3 – Talmud Bavli, Erubin 100b

** Ibid., 213, quoting the commentary Yen L’vanon

*** Ibid., 213

**** Ibid., 214, quoting Talmud Bavli, Shabbath, 152a

*****Ibid., 218, quoting Talmud Bavli, Yebamoth, 79a

Ethics Now and Then 94 – Avot 5:22

Pirkei Avot 5:22

Whoever has within him these three qualities, is of the disciples of Abraham our father; but [if he has] three ‘other’ qualities, he is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam. If one has a good eye, a humble temperament, and a lowly spirit, he is of the disciples of Abraham our father; if he has an evil eye, a haughty temperament, and an insatiable spirit, he is of the disciples of Balaam the wicked. The disciples of Abraham our father eat [enjoy the fruits of their virtue] in this world and inherit the world-to-come; for it is stated, “There is inheritance enough to bestow upon My friends, and their treasuries I will fill.” But the disciples of Balaam the wicked inherit Gehinnom and descend into the pit of destruction; for it is stated, “And Thou, O God, will bring them down into the pit of destruction; men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in Thee.” *

 

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Whoever has within him these three qualities, is of the disciples of Abraham our father; but [if he has] three ‘other’ qualities, he is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam.

The previous three verses in Avot refer to the righteous qualities of unselfish, unconditional love, of ensuring that one’s communication and conversations are “for the sake of Heaven” and of encouraging others to grow spiritually and to do good.  It is not surprising that this next verse refers to our father Abraham, for these qualities describe him well. On the other hand, the opposite traits of selfishness, communication that is against Heaven, and leading others to evil, epitomize the wicked prophet Balaam.

Both men were wealthy and respected in their individual capacities, and each was recognized as one who had extraordinary communication with Heaven. The mishnah, or verse, indicates that, apart from their personal characteristics, what distinguishes the two is the qualities, or ‘fruit’, found in the lives of their disciples.

If one has a good eye, a humble temperament, and a lowly spirit, he is of the disciples of Abraham our father…

In Avot 2:23, the sages describe a “good eye”  as meaning a generous nature. One with a ‘good eye’ gives liberally, is not jealous of another’s success nor envious of another’s possessions. He is content with his lot in life. A “bad eye” indicates the opposite and means one who has a greedy, envious and insatiable nature.

Abraham was noted for his generous hospitality. He also evidenced a humble temperament, nefesh shefalah, in that he had restraint and self control. He did not desire or lust after excess luxury and wealth but was satisfied with whatever God provided. The third quality, a “lowly spirit” – ruach nemucha, indicates that he was modest and did not desire or demand status and power

… if he has an evil eye, a haughty temperament, and an insatiable spirit, he is of the disciples of Balaam the wicked. 

Balaam was known as a powerful prophet in the region of Ammon and Moab. His words, when first he attempted to curse Israel but instead spoke forth blessing, are still the first words of prayer uttered at the start of the morning service in synagogues:
“How goodly are your tents , O Jacob; your dwellling places, O Israel.” ** 

Balak, the king of Moab, had called on him in order to come to Moab and to curse the Israelites who were encamped on his border. God at once told him not to go. Still Balaam persisted, even after an angel blocked his way and his own donkey reprimanded him!

The question is: Why would Balaam want to curse a people he had no familiarity with? Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan (B45) offers a motive. “As long as the Israelites had not left Egypt the various nations would consult him [as a seer]. Once they left Egypt, even a Hebrew serving-girl was wiser than he [having seen God’s miracles and encountered His Presence at Sinai]. So he began to cast a hostile evil eye on the people of Israel.” *** 
He saw the Israelites as a threat to his personal prestige and renown. His pride, “haughty temperament,” was injured. Perhaps they would affect his income – the wealth he accrued from those who sought his services. His reference, in discussion with Balak, too: “”If Balak should give me the fill of his house in silver and gold…” (Num.24:12-13), was a hint at where his true motivation lay.

Renowned Hassidic Rabbi, Nachman of Breslov, described the devotion to money as a false god: “Money worship, like idol worship stems from a lack of trust in God. The more it is uprooted, the more the world radiates with the blessing of the Holy One’s love.” ****

Our father Abraham radiated chesed, the loving kindness of God, which drew many to life in His Kingdom; while the greed of Balaam led to the downfall and death of many.

The disciples of Abraham our father eat [enjoy the fruits of their virtue] in this world and inherit the world-to-come; for it is stated, “There is inheritance enough to bestow upon My friends, and their treasuries I will fill.”  
But the disciples of Balaam the wicked inherit Gehinnom [Purgatory] and descend into the pit of destruction; for it is stated, “And Thou, O God, wilt bring them down into the pit of destruction; men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in Thee.”

In the Apostolic writings, too, Paul clearly proclaims the reality of reward and punishment: “For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” (Romans 1:18)  “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6-8).

We see that  those who walk in the ways of God, and emulate Abraham the first father of our faith, will inherit eternal life in the World to Come. The followers of Balaam, however, will inherit Gehinnom. The valley of Hinnom (Gei Hinnom) lies outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. In Canaanite times, children were sacrificed there to the idol Moloch. In later history it became a refuse dump, where fires burnt constantly. By association, then, it became known as Purgatory or Hell, where the wicked suffer in their after-life.

The mishnah also reminds us that those who follow God, as Abraham did, are called His friends and will enjoy the pleasant fruits of goodness in this world. He will provide all they need. Those who, with the characteristics of Balaam, proudly and greedily trust in their own strength, eventually will find they are living a “hell on earth.”

Interestingly, Rabbi Nachman, in his quote above, links the worship of money to lack of trust in God and anxiety about one’s future. When one does honest work and lives in accordance with God’s commands and instructions, and places one’s trust in His provision, we find ourselves in a place of experiencing His blessing and love. We then can wholeheartedly proclaim: “I will trust in Thee!”

 

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Footnotes:

* Psalm 55;24

** Numbers 24:5

*** Quoted by Irving J. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 3, p.203

**** ADVICE, p. 139; quted by WIlliam Berkson, Pirke Avot, p. 177

Ethics Now and Then 93 – Avot 5:21

Pirkei Avot 5:21

Whoever makes a multitude meritorious, no sin shall come through him; but whoever brings a multitude to sin will not be given the means to achieve repentance. Moses attained virtue and brought a multitude ot virtue; so the merit of the multitude is referred to him, as it is stated: “He effected the righteousness of the Lord, and His ordinances with Israel.” Jeroboam the son of Nebat sinned and brought a multitude to sin; so the iniquity of the multitude is referred to him, as it is stated: “…for the sins of Jeroboam which he sinned and made Israel sin.”

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Whoever makes a multitude meritorious, no sin shall come through him; but whoever brings a multitude to sin will not be given the means to achieve repentance.

In general, each person has free will to choose whether or not to sin. Faced with the complexities of modern life, however, the matter is not as straightforward as it seems and incidents arise that trigger inadvertant sin. A thoughtless word or action can have repercussions that cause others to stumble and sin. The more influence a person has, and the wider the reach of his words and actions, the more careful and diligent he needs to be.

The principle also applies on an individual level. If we consider that each life is like a whole world, the effect we have on even one other person is of great importance. This mishnah of Pirkei Avot, however, particularly cautions those in positions of influence and power to be very concerned and careful that their communication and actions toward others will encourage them to do good and to act with integrity – to lead honest and commendable lives. Conversely, a dire warning is given that if such a one leads many others to sinful conduct, and their lives are adversely affected as a result, he himself will not find recourse to repentance but will have to account for the negative consequences in the lives of others.

 Moses attained virtue and brought a multitude ot virtue; so the merit of the multitude is referred to him, as it is stated: “He effected the righteousness of the Lord, and His ordinances with Israel.”

Parents and teachers are faced with the responsibility of the influence they have on the lives of the young ones in their care. Young children in particular learn more via the attitudes and behavior they witness and experience than from verbal lessons taught. When the words spoken are right and good but are accompanied by negative, unrighteous behavior a child, who cannot understand the concept of: “Do what is said but not what is done,” will be impressed and scarred by the unrighteous behavior they witness.

The more lives that are affected by those with influence, the greater the responsibility they bear. However, those who instruct and influence others to walk in righteousness, in the ways and ordinances of the Lord, will accrue a corresponding measure of reward. The Sages use Moses as an example. He transmitted and taught the words of God to a great number of the redeemed Israelites; however, the number of those who have been reached with the Torah, through the generations since the Exodus, is exponentially greater.

Moses must well have been aware of the great responsibility he carried and we see that he evidenced single-minded devotion to the people under his care. His self-interest was negated and his focus on the well-being and growth of the Israelites was absolute. He indeed reflected the characteristic of God, with whom he spoke ‘face-to-face,’ in the chesed, loving-kindness, with which he cared for others.

Jeroboam the son of Nebat sinned and brought a multitude to sin; so the iniquity of the multitude is referred to him, as it is stated: “…for the sins of Jeroboam which he sinned and made Israel sin.”

The Sages refer to Jeroboam, the king of Judea as an example of one who brought many to sin. He set up the two golden calves in Beth El and ordained many priests to lead those in his kingdom in worship of them, pronouncing: “Behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28). His desire was to set up a cult center that rivalled the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jeroboam, in fact, as William Berkson describes, “…was instrumental in splitting the united kingdom of Solomon into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the former led by him and the latter by Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.” * We also read in 1 Kings 13:33-34, that he did not repent and his whole house “…suffered annihilation from the face of the earth”. Berkson adds: “The northern kingdom of Israel eventually dissolved without a legacy [the ten tribes were lost and scattered], whereas Judah endured and its legacy is today’s Jewish people.”** It appears that God, in His mercy, is today also restoring a complement of the lost tribes of the house of Israel to the restored Land of Israel.

It is important to note that no person who sincerely repents will be denied forgiveness by God. What the mishnah is referring to is that a person who deliberately plans to lead others into sin very likely will not repent. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a renowned psychologist, asks the question: “Why would a person wish that another person should sin? …What gain is there in causing others to sin?” He answers the question himself: “It is only an ego drive that can lead a person to cause others to sin. …His guilt feelings for his own improper behavior are mitigated if others sin along with him.” *** This type of person is unlikely to do teshuvah, to repent, because his conscience becomes deadened and, in justifying his actions, he eliminates the sensation of guilt and its accompanying feelings of distress that motivate a person to repent.

In leading his people into idolatry, with the egoistic purpose to block not only their worship of the true God but also the possibility of their allegiance to Rehoboam the king of Judea rather than to himself, Jeroboam carried the penalty not only for his personal sin but the sins of all those affected by his orders and influence.

 

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Footnotes: 

*  William Berkson, PIrke Avot, 174

** Ibid.; 174

*** Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., Visions of the Fathers, 315

Ethics Now and Then 92 – Avot 5:20

Pirkei Avot 5:20

Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end; and every one which is not for the sake of Heaven will, in the end, not endure. Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Korach and his entire assemblage.

 

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Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end; and every one which is not for the sake of Heaven will in the end not endure.

The Sages uphold the reality of the solid, unwavering authority of the Written Torah and, in addition, the need for the Oral Torah – the correct interpretation and application of the written text. The Oral Torah constantly is open for debate as each generation faces new innovations and challenges. As a result of such debate, decisions are established that affect the life of each community as well as Judaism in general.

Any debate, argument or controversy naturally will have at least two sides or opinions. What this mishnah, or verse, tells us is that the conflict or discussion itself is not the main issue but the how and why of the argument. What is the inner motivation of those involved? The basic difference addressed is whether the debate is “for the sake of Heaven” or not. Heaven often is used as a euphemism for God. Thus, the question can be rephrased, “Is the basis of the argument for the sake of God’s Name and Kingdom?” We can examine the two examples given.

Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Hillel and Shammai.

Hillel and Shammai were two of the most noted Sages in Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple. Each had their own school with a large group of students or followers. There was constant disagreement between them as the School of Shammai usually took a much stricter view on points of Jewish law, or halacha ( how to walk it out) than did the more lenient School of Hillel. However, it was well understood that both groups honored God and the truth of His Word and shared the central objective of teaching and guiding their people in the ways of Torah and in helping them learn how to observe and keep the commandments or mitzvoth.

Although they often disagreed strongly, the Talmud records that there was no personal rivalry or bitterness between Hillel and Shammai and their followers. They would enjoy Shabbat meals together and there was intermarriage and fellowship between the two schools. Irving Bunim quotes the Talmud: “Three years did the Schools of Hillel and Shammai debate, each claiming, “The halacha is as we teach.” Then a heavenly echo resounded, “Both these and these are the words of the living God; but the halacha follows the School of Hillel.” And the Talmud asks: “If both are the words of the living God, why did the School of Hillel merit to have the normative law established as it taught?
Because they were kindly and humble, teaching both their views and the views of the School of Shammai.”*

The final halachic decisions were established by the majority vote of the ruling body of Sages and all sides would accept the decision without contention. The differing views of any debate “for the sake of Heaven” are recorded in the Talmud as they present an integration of thought that offers lasting enrichment and consideration of the matters at hand.

And which is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Korach and his entire assemblage.

We read in the book of Numbers, chapter 16, the account of how Korach and his followers rebelled against Moses’ God-given authority  and wanted to usurp his position of leadership. Korach also was of the tribe of Levi and related to Moses and, being obviously a powerful personality, he decided that he was as entitled and better suited to lead. Although his words sound very pious and holy, Korach’s goal was to gain personal power and the assembly (eidah) that he gathered about himself were influenced to that end. They were not seeking to know God’s will and truth in the matter; their aim and motivation were not “for the sake of Heaven” but were purely selfish.

In the end, Korach and his band, who opened their mouths against the purposes of God, were punished when the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them all alive. The words of Hillel and Shammai continue to instruct God’s people today, while nothing of Korach’s was left to endure.

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Footnotes:

* Irvng M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol.3; Talmud Yerushalmi – Berakoth i 4; Kiddushin i 1

Ethics Now & Then 91 – Avot 5:19

Pirkei Avot 5:19  Any love that depends on a specific cause, when that cause is gone, the love is gone; but if it does not depend on a specific cause, it will never cease. What sort of love depended upon a specific cause?  – The love of Amnon for Tamar. And what did not depend upon a specific cause? – The love of David and Jonathan.

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Any love that depends on a specific cause, when that cause is gone, the love is gone;  but if it does not depend on a specific cause, it will never cease.

“All you need is Love!” sang the Beatles. There is truth in that pronouncement but much depends on the definition of the much used and abused word, “love.” In modern times, love is big business. At the same time, marriages and families are diintegrating at an alarming rate. The concept of love has become distorted to the point of becoming almost meaningless. The evil of hatred and the abuse of others, in many ways, is flooding the world like a tsunami. Why is this? This mishnah, or verse, addresses the difference between love that is shallow and fleeting, or non-existent, and love that is strong and enduring.

The Sages  allude to how, biblically, the concept of love is based on love for God, which in turn is based on a form of ‘devotion’ that is selfless – the kind that is without a specific, or selfish, cause besides the reality of God Himself. In our growth as a person made in His image, a child of our Father in Heaven, we learn of love through our knowledge of, and relationship with, Him; the true source of Love.  In the Scriptures we see God’s love described as chessed – a faithful loving-kindness that is emet, truth. We read in Exodus 34:6, where God reveals His atributes to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in, chessed ve’emet, steadfast love and truth [sometimes translated ‘faithfulness’].

Chessed ve’emet – gracious loving-kindness and truth often are linked in the Bible. As the Psalmist sings: “For Thy lovingkindness is great above the heavens; And Thy truth reaches unto the skies,” (108:1).” I will worship toward Thy holy temple, And give thanks unto Thy Name for Thy lovingkindness and for Thy truth” (138:1).

If our love for God is based on a purely “selfish cause,” one primarily focussed on oneself, it will not stand and endure.When we are only interested in what we can get from God, whether it be salvation, protection, provision of finances and material goods, a good job, success in ministry, fame and recognition, etc., etc., etc., the result will be an empty relationship. The heart of the matter is found in the “pure heart” of: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place [the place of His Presence]? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-5)  Only when we long for His Presence and, with His help, can purify our hearts from selfish concerns, are we able to gain true knowledge of God and grow in intimate relationship with Him.

We find many echoes and expressions of this intimate love of God in songs, psalms, hymns and prayers by those who can express our love for Him in words. An example is  this poem by medieval Jewish philosopher, physician and poet Yehudah HaLevi:

With all my heart, You, Truth, with all my soul
I love You, openly and secretly.
Your Name is with me – who would steal it from me?
My most beloved, He! – how could He not be with me?
My light is He! – how could my wick lack oil?
…You, fountain of my life! May my life and my song
be to Your praise as long as there is breath in me.

With this form of ‘selfless devotion’ to our God, which can inform our human relationships, well-known psychologist and counselor Rabbi Abraham Twerski describes how “…marriage relationships can withstand both internal and external stresses.”*  In marriages, which are designed to be a reflection of God’s relationship of echad, oneness, with His people, the inevitable inter-relational challenges can be worked through with empathy and consideration. The same factor applies in friendships as well as in congregational and business relationships. When one learns to love God through growing understanding of Who He is, one then is able, as Yeshua taught, in quoting Leviticus 19:18, to: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In this context, Yeshua also makes the connection with first loving God and then loving your fellow man: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:38-39).

What sort of love depended upon a specific cause?  – The love of Amnon for Tamar.

King David’s son Amnon had a great desire, an intense lust, for his half-sister Tamar.** When this was gratified through deception, all that remained was intense hostility toward her. Rabbi Twerski comments that this hatred “…was magnified by the guilt over his failure to resist the impulse” and, one hopes, in order that he could repent, he also experienced guilt over his deception and rape.

Sexual desire often is a cause for a relationship. Other examples of selfish desires are security, social standing, financial gain, family honor, etc. While these factors, in and of themselves, happily may be accrued, they should not be a ‘specific cause’ for a loving relationship. All worldly gains are fragile and can be lost in a moment. When this type of cause is gone, so too will the love be gone.

And what did not depend upon a specific cause? – The love of David and Jonathan.

In contrast, the love between David and Jonathan was not one of self-gratification and so it endured. Their loyalty to one another transcended any personal advantage. Jonathan knew that David would succeed to the throne as the king of Israel in place of his own father, Saul. This knowledge could have caused deep resentment and spurred intense competition for that honor and position. Jonathan’s self interest could have resulted in a relationship of bitterness and hatred. He, however, remained a devoted friend to David until he and Saul were killed in battle. David’s loyalty and devotion to Jonathan also is proven in that, after his friend’s death, which he grieved deeply, David took special care of Jonathan’s descendants.***

WIlliam Berkson sums up this form of loving devotion well: “Our love is, as a rule, neither merely the momentary passion of Amnon, nor the purely disinterested [platonic] model of David and Jonathan, but rather partakers of both. Indeed… eternity [Olam HaBa – the Presence of God] detached from life as it is lived [in Olam HaZah – this world, in relationship with others] is cold and indifferent. We find meaning in the wedding of hope and memory; the kiss of the moment.” ****

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love,
love one another earnestly from a pure heart
” (1 Peter 1:22).

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Illustration: Australian artist Michael Leunig

Footnotes:

* Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers,
** 2 Samuel 13:15
*** 2 Samuel 1:26
**** William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 171

Ethics Now & Then 90 – Avot 5:18

Pirkei Avot 5:18  There are four types of students who sit before the Sages: A sponge, a funnel, a strainer and a sieve: a sponge, which absorbs everything; a funnel, which lets in from one end and lets out from the other; a strainer, which lets the wine flow through and retains the sediment; and a sieve, which allows the flour dust to pass through and retains the fine flour. 

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There are four types of students who sit before the Sages: A sponge, a funnel, a strainer and a sieve: 

A great influence in the way a student studies, and the results of that study, is his or her goal and motivation for learning. This will determine their ability to discern what is important and also their ability to apply the concepts involved in practical and meaningful ways. In the classic commenary, Avot de-Rabbi Natan, the observation is made that what distinguishes a good student from a poor student is if he or she truly is interested in listening and learning or if they primarily are learning for the sake of getting ahead materially and gaining prestige.

One who is interested in the practical application of concepts is more likely to grasp their meaning and to gain deeper understanding. He will be able to make better judgments on issues and can retain those of value and discard the trivial; hence being a “sifter” rather than a “sponge.” In this context, the students of the Sages are studying the Written Scriptures and the Oral Torah. William Berkson points out that “…the Talmudic style of study, which is focused on applying ethical and legal ideas to case studies, if done correctly, fosters such an [intentional way of thinking] and a practical understanding.”*

 …a sponge, which absorbs everything;

This type of student is able to remember all he learns, which is a great blessing. A downside, however, is that he is not capable of distinguishing between the meaningful and the trivial.

…a funnel, which lets in from one end and lets out from the other;

For whatever reason, this student absorbs nothing. The teaching he hears, as per the saying, “goes in one ear and out the other.” Needless to say, this is a serious disadvantage to any progress he might want to make in his studies.

…a strainer, which lets the wine flow through and retains the sediment;

This student also suffers a disadvantage in that he remembers only the minor, irrelevant points of a lesson, and forgets the major, key points. He might remember the funny jokes, the mannerisms of the teacher, or what was happeing in the class, but he misses the riches and depths of the material being taught.

 and a sieve, which allows the flour dust to pass through and retains the fine flour. 

At the time of the sages, as described in the Talmud, Menachot 76b, the grains of wheat, once separated from the chaff, were placed in a large sieve and repeatedly shaken in order to eliminate the outer layer of inferior flour dust and to retain only the fine inner kernels. It is a gifted student who can “sift” material and ignore superfluous information while retaining the essence of the material he is studying.

Although the verse itself is simply descriptive and does not pass judgment on the four types of students, medieval commentator Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin says of them: “The first is a simpleton, the second is a fool, the third has an evil portion, and the fourth is wise.” *

Irving Bunim makes a positive and interesting application of the four types by attributing them to the scholars or teachers!***  The ‘sponge’ is like an encyclopedia. He retains all the knowledge, whether important or trivial, and can be consulted on every minor detail.
A funnel helps to transfer liquids from large containers to smaller ones. Good teachers have the ability to ‘funnel’ their knowedge in such a way that the less informed minds of their students can receive it.
The ‘strainer,’ like the utensil that holds back the sediment and allows the liquid through, brings the pure liquid to his students. Unlike the ‘funnel’ who simply transfers knowledge, the ‘strainer’ holds back worthless ‘sediment’ that would not apply to the student.
The ‘sieve’ does an even finer job of distilling the very “heart of the wheat” and presenting it in a manner that every student will gain the foundational knowledge necessary to live a moral and spiritually rich life.

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Footnotes:

* William Berkson. Pirke Avot, 169
** Ibid., 169
*** Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 3, 179

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Ethics Now & Then 89 – Avot 5:17

Pirkei Avot 5:17

There are four types of behavior among those who go to the Beit Midrash, the House of Study: He who goes and does not act, attains reward for attending; he who acts but does not go, attains reward for action; he who goes and acts, is pious, a chassid; he who neither goes nor acts is wicked.

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There are four types of behavior among those who go to the Beit Midrash, the House of Study:

Amongst the four described who “go to the place of study” are two who, in fact, do not go at all. In every Jewish community a ‘center’ or synagogue is established that is comprised of both a ‘House of Prayer’ – Beit Tefillah – and a ‘House of Study’ – Beit Midrash. The former is a sanctuary where the community gathers for prayer, services and celebrations. The latter is a quiet place for systematic study of the Torah and Talmud, which usually is equipped with a comprehensive library. Both are available for all in the community. However, as the Sages point out in this verse, not everyone avails themselves of the facilities.

He who goes and does not act, attains reward for attending;

Among those who do attend the synagogue and study hall there invariably are those who do not engage in heartfelt prayer or fully participate in the services. Even if they attend the Study Hall, they may not concentrate on the teaching or may simply fall asleep over the books. Even if this person absorbs some knowledge he does not act on it. Nevertheless, simply by making the effort to be there, the Sages offer that he will be blessed by God. Even if it be on a subconscious level, the age-old melodies, the words of prayer, and the atmosphere of holiness that hopefully accompanies these, will impress themselves in his spirit.

On the other hand, there are those who greatly desire to pray and worship with the congregation and to study and learn Torah but there may be practical reasons they are not able to do so. Their work hours may not afford the time to attend regular study, or they may live at a great distance from the Synagogue and the Study Hall. In this case, the Sages say: “…if someone engages in Torah study for its own sake even one day in the year, Scripture accords him merit as if he devoted all year to it.”*

…he who acts but does not go, attains reward for action;

An individual may prefer to pray sincerely at home and to study alone as well. His actions, in accord with what he learns, may be exemplary and righteous. For this he will gain reward. However, he is losing much. Throughout the Scriptures a stress is placed on community and interaction with others. In Jewish tradition, in order to qualify as a true prayer service, a minimum quorum of ten needs to be present – a minyan. Then prayer will be especially powerful and effective. As the Sages say, “When [at least] ten pray, the Sh’chinah, the Divine Presence, is with them.”**

If it is difficult to join others for study, as noted in the section above, it is praiseworthy to study alone. In ancient times books were not available and all learning was transmitted orally; therefore, in order to learn, one needed to attend a place of study to hear from a teacher. Today, as well as printed and audio material, the Internet offers helpful opportunities to participate in good teaching and much can be learned. On the other hand, a significant aspect of learning God’s Word is satisfied by hearing and observing scholars and teachers, by the association with fellow students, and by participating in questions and discussions. The absence of this interaction will remain a loss in a person’s life. Whenever possible, some form of group study should be enjoyed.

…he who goes and acts, is pious, a chassid; 

We read in Exodus how, after Moses instructed the Israelites regarding the procedure for leaving Egypt, “…the Israelites went and did as the Lord had commanded.” The Midrash comments: “This indicates that they received reward for going and reward for doing.”***

The pious person is described here as a chassid, from the word chessed – lovingkindness. He lovingly interacts with his community and with others. He attends the House of Study, even if he is an advanced scholar, in order to engage with and to encourage the younger students. He, as Irving Bunim well describes, builds “in kindness a bridge of communication and illuminating guidance to the next generation.”**** The chassid is prepared to go the extra mile in the study and learning of Torah, in order to do all that is pleasing to the Lord.

…he who neither goes nor acts is wicked.

This person may be living well, in accord with the surrounding secular culture, but may be totally removed from and ignorant of the Word of God given at Sinai; the Scriptures that were written and transmitted faithfully over subsequent generations. Of such, the Talmud says: “…without the Torah to nurture his spirit, he is not living at all.”***** He has removed himself from the spiritual environment and will remain far from it so as to not be influenced by it. Sadly, his children will suffer the loss too. The blessings of Shabbat and the riches only found in relationship with our Creator, and in the knowledge of His Word and ways, are rejected without any undertsanding of the depths of their meaning and value.

True learning is a life-long commitment and requires a conscious application in one’s life of what one is learning. The only way to gain wisdom is by testing what we have learned against the learning of others. We need one another as we journey on this continuing quest for truth and understanding.

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Footnotes:

* Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 5b
** Irvng Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol., 3,  quoting T.B. Brakhoth 6a
*** Exodus 12:28, M’chilta
****Irvng Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol., 3, 173
***** Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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HIS-ISRAEL to help cover computer and programming costs and to support Keren in her work from Jerusalem.

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Ethics Now & Then 88 – Avot 5:16

Pirkei Avot 5:16

There are four attitudes among those who give charity: One who wishes that he should give and others should not, begrudges others what is theirs; [one who wishes] that others should give and he should not – he is grudging towards what is his own (a miser);  [one who wishes] that he should give, and others too – he is pious (a chassid); [one who wishes]  that neither he nor others should give – he is wicked.

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There are four attitudes among those who give charity: 

The Sages assume they are addressing those who know the teachings of God and understand the basic attributes of goodness, compassion and kindness. A chief principle among these is that of giving from one’s own resources to the needs of others – tzedakah. The fact that the verse refers to two personalities who do not give, highlights that there are those who choose to go against their conscience and who resist the innate generosity that characterizes a child of God. The Psalmist well describes those who give with the right attitude of heart:

It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs
with justice. …He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever; his horn is exalted in honor.
(Psalm 112: 5;9)

One who wishes that he should give and others should not, begrudges others what is theirs;

How can one be willing to give and yet begrudge the giving of others? If not enough is given, not only are the recipients deprived of receiving what they need but the possible giver suffers the loss of the eternal reward of performing a righteous, charitable deed. The Hebrew words used to describe the first two attitudes offer some understanding.  עֵינוֹ רָעָה  Ayino ra’ah – He has a ‘bad eye’ on other’s possessions or on his own. We find references to generosity, and the concept of a ‘good eye’ versus a ‘bad eye’, in other verses of Avot. For example, Rabbi Eliezer, in Avot 2:13, says that the key to following a good path in life is a “good eye” – an open and generous nature. The ‘bad eye,’ on the other hand, indicates a possessive and envious nature and, in Avot 2:16, is said to “…drive a person out of the world.”*

In this first case, it seems that the person wants to receive the honor of being a philanthropist and one who gives generously but he begrudges others the same honor. Rather, as one gives with an open, healthy attitude, giving tzedakah should also inspire others to give to those in need and to good causes.

 [One who wishes] …that others should give and he should not – he is grudging towards what is his own (a miser);

We all are faced with constant choices to nurture our “good inclination” ( yetzer ha’tov ) or to succumb to our yetzer ha’rah – the inclination towards evil. A miserly attitude reflects the latter and is epitomised by the “tight fist” rather than an open and giving hand. This individual exhibits a possessive selfishness over his assets rather than a willing generosity to share what he has with others.

[One who wishes] …that he should give, and others too – he is pious (a chassid);

The righteous chassid understands that giving to the work of God and to others does not make one poorer. The prophet Malachi describes how God challenges His people that by not bringing their tithes to the communal ‘storehouse’, nor making contributions to the needy, they are in fact robbing Him.

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house. And thereby put Me to the test,” says the Lord of Hosts, “if I will not open the windows of Heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (3:10).

As the wise Solomon declares, “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). The true blessings of a righteous giver are the riches that will endure for eternity. Yeshua makes the almost impossible suggestion to the righteous and wealthy leader who wishes to gain eternal life: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:16).  A willingness to keep a light hold on our earthly possessions, and to give and share generously when the opportunity arises, carries not only the joy experienced in the act of generosity but also the promise of eternal reward.

[One who wishes] …that neither he nor others should give – he is wicked.

The hard-hearted individual neither has any inclination to give nor does he wish to see others giving. Perhaps when he is aware of the generosity of others it stirs his conscience somewhat and, as a result, he may actively discourage their giving when he can. This can take very subtle forms that a selfish person may resort to unconsciously. One’s attitude and actions, for which one must take responsibility, have a significant influence on others; particularly, for example, that of parents upon children or of prominent figures and those who look to them as role models.

God’s Word constantly emphasizes charitable giving and warns against a selfish hardening of the heart.

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, … you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart …and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake” (Deut. 157-10).

The apostle Paul highlights the importance of both the act of giving and the attitude of the heart in his second letter to the Corinthians:

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” **

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Footnotes:

* William Berkson, PIrke Avot, 167

**2 Corinthians 9:6-7

Ethics Now & Then 87 – Avot 5:15

Pirkei Avot 5:15

There are four characteristics among students: One who is quick to understand and quick to forget – his gain is canceled by his loss. He who finds it hard to understand and hard to forget – his loss is canceled by his gain. He who is quick to undertsand, then finds it hard to forget – this is a good lot. He who finds it hard to understand and is quick to forget – this is a bad lot.

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There are four characteristics among students: 

The ability to define and discern these particular characteristics in students is very valuable in the field of education. Whether it be in home-schooling, the public classroom and in college, as well as in Bible seminaries and yeshivahs. Modern psychology understands, just as the Jewish Sages observed, that human beings differ in their ability to learn and in the way they learn. This mishnah, or verse, examines two basic factors that are involved in learning: (i) the ability to grasp and understand the meaning of the material being studied and (ii) the ability to remember clearly and to retain in the mind what has been studied and understood.

The Sages list four groups that describe different students and their modes of study.

One who is quick to understand and quick to forget – his gain is canceled by his loss.

Some students learn quickly. They understand the material under discussion and can identify a problem and find a solution before most others in the group. Generally, the teacher may need to explain the concept numerous times, and perhaps describe different approaches to the same point, before the other students gain understanding.

Once understood, the second factor comes into play. How long will each student be able to retain that understanding clearly? There are different forms of memory as well. A fortunate few are gifted with photographic memory and can retain clear images of all they see or hear. Others are helped by visual aids and, in general, all students need much repetition and relearning of lessons in order to remember their content.

Thus, in the case of one who can learn quickly but then forgets as quickly, the Sages point out that what he initiallly gains is lost due to his inability to retain what he learned.

He who finds it hard to understand and hard to forget – his loss is canceled by his gain.

On the other hand, a student who is slow to grasp new material may be able to retain what he has learned far longer and, thus, his initial loss is compensated by his ability to remember the material.

Once a student is aware of this characteristic in himself, he can find ways to help facilitate his learning. For example, he can sit in the front rows of the class to avoid distraction. He can ask the teacher to repeat the point and also ask to see the teacher after class if further clarification is needed. Another possibility is to review the lesson with one of the quick-to-learn students, which would be of benefit to them both.

 He who is quick to understand , then finds it hard to forget – this is a good lot.

The ideal, of course, is to grasp the material being studied quickly and to retain it well. Together with healthy motivation, this student is guaranteed success in his studies.

He who finds it hard to understand and is quick to forget – this is a bad lot.

Conversely, one who has difficulty in learning and remembering will not succeed as easily.

In the realm of Torah study, however, the slower student need not despair.  Irving Bunim encourages: “Unlike other areas of life, for the study of Torah, the Word of the Almighty, there is reward for the effort apart from the achievements.”* Furthermore, he adds, “A factor of ‘heavenly aid’ operates in the study of Torah: with intense application a person may achieve far more that you might expect from his natural mental capacities.”**

Renowned scholar and commentator, Maimonides, comments that no praise or blame is awarded in this verse as “…mental capacities to grasp, absorb, and retain learning are indeed inborn and unalterable. Whatever learning powers a person lacks he cannot acquire”. *** Unless, in the case of study of the Word of God, he is inspired by the Lord for “…the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth comes wisdom and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6).

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Footnotes: 

* Irving M Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 3, 153

**Ibid., 153

***Ibid., 154

Ethics Now & Then 86 – Avot 5:14

Pirkei Avot 5:14

There are four types of temperament: He who is easily angered and easily pacified, his loss is canceled by his gain. One who is hard to anger and hard to pacify, his gain is canceled by his loss. He whom it is hard to anger and easy to pacify, is a chassid (pious one). He whom it is easy to anger and hard to pacify is a wicked person.

Star of David ENT

 

He who is easily angered and easily pacified, his loss is canceled by his gain. 

We can certainly agree that anger is a negative, and at times, destructive emotion. Most people experience and struggle with differing degrees of anger and often it is a cause for much sin and heartbreak.  It is taught in the Talmud that when a man gives way to anger “… if he is wise, his wisdom leaves him” and, conversely, “Among those whom the Holy Blessed One loves is a person who does not become angry as a rule, and one who will overlook irritating causes for retaliation.”*

This first type of temperament combines a virtue with a vice, a positive attribute with a fault.  A person can be easily angered but then, as quickly, can calm down and be pacified. Ultimately, this latter ability nullifies the anger. Little damage is done and, at the end of the day, he will have made peace and can sleep with serenity. He affirms the injunction, “Never go to bed angry.”

One who is hard to anger and hard to pacify, his gain is canceled by his loss. 

With the second type of temperament, on the other hand, the positive trait of being hard to anger is outweighed, and any benefit lost, by the inability to quickly subdue and release the anger. Once enraged, the person remains so and can spend much time, sometimes years, in brooding resentment and sulking in anger over the issue in question. In this scenario, while causing harm to others, the person he hurts most is himself.

In both this and the former type, we find negative aspects. If a person is often angered, even though they are able to calm down quickly,  there will be serious repercussions amongst those they are with on a regular basis. There are times that a show of anger is necessary and constructive; unrighteous anger, however, should be faced and overcome with persistent effort and determination.

He whom it is hard to anger and easy to pacify, is a chassid (righteous person).

A good and righteous person will not harbor any anger. He overlooks the common irritations  that may be insulting or anger-inducing. He has learned what is important and deserving of attention and what should be ignored and forgiven and forgotten. When a serious situation arises that may provoke him to anger, he strives to calm down as quickly as possible and to readily release any bitter remnants of rage or resentment.

Seldom does this ability to easily overcome what is believed to be righteous anger come naturally. It is an indication of a truly righteous person who has grown in maturity and who, in sincerity and humility, has worked to refine his character. He does so because he respects the value of all who are created in the image of God and, most importantly, he loves and honors God Himself.

 He whom it is easy to anger and hard to pacify is a wicked person.

Sometimes bouts of anger and a temper tantrum can be effective in making a person sound important and powerful; someone to be feared. One who is angered easily and often flies into a rage and, in addition, is reluctant to calm down and be pacified is defined as a wicked person. Anger, in general, has its roots in pride and self-importance. The angry person is not concerned with the harmful effect  their anger has on others, nor upon themselves. Worse yet, they show no concern for the Almighty Himself. The Sages say: “When any man gives way to rage, even the Sh’chinah, the Divine Presence, has no importance for him.” In addition, “Whoever is enraged, all kinds of hell have power over him.”** A wicked person allows the anger to possess and control him. Irving Bunim refers to the commentary of Don Isaac Abarbanel, who says: “If we but stopped a moment to observe what fury can do to a person, we would get far away from it. When a man is angry, he loses his taste for food and his understanding of the simplest things. Rage and hate will eat into his very bones until his life begins to be an abomination and he grows to hate himself. Shame will ever cover his face.”***

On an encouraging note, the medieval commentator Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach pointed out that negative character traits are not ‘set in stone,’ as it were, but rather are qualities that we have the power to improve.**** A person can be freed from anger, with the Almighty’s help and, with discipline and wisdom, can enjoy  a life of inner calm. The decision is ours to make.

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Footnotes:

* Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 66b and 113b

**Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 22b and 22a

***Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol 3, 151

****William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 167

 

Ethics Now & Then 85 – Avot 5:13

Pirkei Avot 5:13

There are four character types among men: He who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,” is an average character; some say this is the character of Sodom. He who says: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,” is an ignoramus. He who says: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours,” is godly; [He who says:] “What is yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” is a wicked and lawless man.

Star of David ENT

There are four character types among men: He who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,” is an average character, some say this is the character of Sodom.

On an individual level, this principle is just and reasonable. The assets one has earned and gained belong to the person and those of one’s neighbor belong to him. This appears to be the balanced, average and ethical attitude. However, some Sages point out, rather dauntingly, that this is “the character of Sodom.” We can understand, from a wider perspective, that if the wealthy maintained this attitude toward those who have very little means of their own, and, as a result, neglected the needs of others when they are in a position to extend help, they will evidence the character of Sodom. A law in Sodom “…forbade its people, on pain of death, to feed [i.e., extend any charity or hospitality to] any needy persons or a passing stranger.”*

There is a  danger that, when carried to an extreme, “What’s mine is mine” can become a dire form of selfishness, the very opposite of what God’s Word teaches. Also, what is practiced on an individual basis sooner or later can become a general rule in the larger society. The view of the Sages is that a generous attitude between people and a ready willingness to give charity are qualities that highlight the difference between a good society and a bad one.

He who says: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,” is an ignoramus. 

This belief might work in a very close marriage relationship or in situations of extreme emergency. In general, however, it would be foolish to maintain that whatever a person has belongs to his neighbor and vice versa.

This policy can work, as was seen in the early kibbutz (communal living and farming) system in the pioneering days of Israel, when all willingly and freely co-operate interdependently for the common good. Historically, however, we have seen examples of this policy applied nationally by law  in the form of Communism, which has proven to be a travesty of humanity and the quenching of hope and creativity for the masses by a powerful elite.

He who says: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours,” is godly [a chassid].

At first glance, this attitude also seems foolish and yet the Sages attribute it to a pious and godly person. A chassid, from the root word chessed – lovingkindness, is described by Irving Bunim as “…a man of faith who does not stand on the letter of the law but does even more than what is required of him.”** With love and kindness he will do whatever is in his power to assist others. He will, as the saying goes, “…walk the extra mile.” Also, he will give cheerfully and will not keep a record of what is due to him

He is practical and wise, however, as Bunim adds, “…he is not a complete fool who will give away his wallet to the first person he meets. It means that if a dispute arises in which the lines of demarcation of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ are not clear, the chassid is willing to yield, to give up what might really be his, rather than fight to the bitter end.”*** One should not give all one has and thereby deliberately impoverish oneself and become, in turn, unnecessarily dependent on others for survival.

He who says: “What is yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” is a wicked and lawless man [a rashah].

This, clearly, is the attitude of the criminal mind, of one who does not respect the rights of another, whether it be their property and, in the extreme, even their very life. They will callously justify their acquisition or taking of it.  In less clear circumstances, at the root of this attitude we find envy and greed and we all are warned in the last of the Ten Commandments to beware of any envy and covetousness that may creep into our own hearts. A person’s covetousness and greed may lead him to think he deserves to take everything he can for himself and will harden his heart against the will of God in the process.

Star of David ENT

In all four descriptions above, we only can hope to follow the way of the chassid, the godly person. How is this possible? Maybe if we keep a light hold on our worldly goods and read the statement as a declaration before our faithful and loving God, to Whom indeed all things belong, including our lives. “What’s mine is Yours and what is Yours is Yours.”

 

Footnotes:

* Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 109b; Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 49:6

** Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 3, 144

*** Ibid., 144

Ethics Now & Then 84 – Avot 5:10 -11 and 12

Pirkei Avot 5:10-11

Seven kinds of affliction come upon the world for seven main types of transgression:
(1) If some give their tithes and some do not, a famine comes through drought: some go hungry and some have enough. (2) If all have decided to give no tithes, a famine comes through tumult [panic] and drought. (3) And if they resolve not to take off the [challah] dough [for the cohen/priest] a famine of extermination comes. (4) Pestilence comes upon the world on acount of death-penalties prescribed in the Torah which are not given to the human tribunal to inflict, and on account of [forbidden use of] the produce of the Sabbatical year [Shmitah]. (5) The sword comes upon the world on account of the delay of justice and the perversion of justice, and because of those who expound the Torah at variance with halacha (normative interpretations of law). (6) Ferocious beasts come upon the world on account of false oaths and the desecration of the [Holy] Name. (7) Exile comes upon the world on account of idolatrous worship, incest and adultery, bloodshed and [the failure to observe Shmitah] the Sabbatical year of the soil.*

Pirkei Avot 5:12

At four periods pestilence tends to increase: in the fourth year, in the seventh [year of Shmitah], with the departure of the seventh, and upon the departure of The Festival [Ha’ChagSuccoth] every year.  It increases in the fourth year, on account of [failure to give] the tithe of the poor in the sixth; [it increases] with the departure of the seventh, because of [misuse of] the produce of the seventh [sabbatical] year; [it increases] upon the departure of the Festival [of Succoth] every year, on account of the robbery of the “gifts of the poor.”*

Star of David ENT

 

These are intense and challenging verses. It would be beyond the scope of the present context to explore each transgression and result described;  we can, however, step back for an overview and to gain some understanding of certain principles that are addressed.

The land referred to by the Sages is Israel, God’s set apart and holy Land; in relation to which, for example, the command of the Shmitah or Sabbatical year is given. The term used in general, however, is the world – or the earth. God formed the first human, Adam, from the earth – adamah (Heb.) This indicates that the actions people, groups and governments take have a corresponding effect on the earth. It is interesting to note that in lands where the Word of God is upheld and the laws of justice, righteousness and morality are implemented, the earth thrives. Trees and flowers bloom and crops are grown. The converse – vast desert and wasteland – is seen in lands that oppose the God of the Bible.

Verses 10 and 11 boil down, essentially, to the well-known adage, “You reap what you sow.” This can apply to an individual, to a community of people and to a nation. The Sages here categorize a difference between if “some” transgress or if “all” transgress, in the latter case the results are more onerous and widespread. Often, disasters such as disease, floods or famine are labelled as ‘punishments from God,’ as if He somehow delights in wreaking vengeance on the wicked – a natural human inclination. Rather, just as He has set natural, physical laws in place, such as the rotation of the planets and gravity, so, also, has He set spiritual laws in place, such as morality and justice. We  find harmony and well-being when we adhere to the physical laws and breathe fresh air, eat healthy food, dress appropriately etc.. In the same way, we find spiritual joy and well-being when we adhere to His spiritual laws of compassionate justice and moral integrity. To do so, however, means that we need to learn them and know them, revere and implement them.

Tithes.

(i) Offerings. A central issue the Sages address is that of tithing. The subject also is related to the seventh year of Shmitah –  the sabbatical year when the land was not to be worked but left to lie fallow (Lev. 25:1-7). At that time most people were farmers. During the six working years, people were instructed to separate portions of their crops or produce, called terumah (offerings) to give to the cohanim (the priests who had no land or income of their own but served God in the Temple or community). Scripture does not state the exact amount for these offerings, however ” …a fortieth part was considered generous, a sixtieth niggardly, and a fiftieth [two percent] a just portion.”** We can apply this, in modern times, to those who gain income from regular work who, then, can give offerings of support to those laboring in the fields of the Kingdom who do not receive direct income.

(ii) The First Tithe – ma’asser ha’rishonThis is the tithe of one tenth (ma’asser is from the root word esser, ten) of one’s harvest, given to the wider work of the Kingdom. We see the principle first mentioned in Genesis 14:18-20, with our father Abraham’s dramatic and meaningful encounter with Melchizedek (meaning my King of Righteousness).

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

(iii) The Second Tithe – ma’asser ha’sheni. Next, a tenth of whatever remained was set aside for the worker and his family towards buying food and covering other expenses on their travels up to Jerusalem to celebrate the three pilgrimage Festivals of Pesach ( Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Succoth (Tabernacles). Now there is a thought for today – to set aside and save a “second tithe” for a trip up to Jerusalem to celebrate a Festival!

In the third and sixth year, this second tithe was renamed ma’asser ani – the tithe for the poor, which was kept and donated specifically for the poor and needy in Jerusalem and all  Israel.

ShmitahEvery seventh year, called shmitah, no planting was done and, therefore, no harvests were gathered. From what grew naturally, the farmer could take only what he and his family needed and the rest was left for the poor in the community to take for themselves.

All these laws are to remind the people of Israel that the Land was His, as is all the earth, and “…the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for Mine is the Land for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). Our life on this earth truly is but a sojourn and the laws of God all serve to remind us of that reality, and, in addition, of the fact that He is the One true owner and  Master of all.

5:3 And if they resolve not to take off the [challah] dough [for the cohen/priest] a famine of extermination comes.

Special mention is made in this verse of the separation of the challah from the dough. The two special loaves baked for Shabbat also are called challah. They serve a similar purpose in reminding us of God’s provision of manna – bread from Heaven – all the years of the journey through the wilderness and of HIs injunction to collect a double portion on the sixth day so as to not work and  ‘harvest’ any on the seventh day. Once the Israelites arrived and settled in the Promised Land and began to grow grain and make their own bread, the law applied, “…when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set apart a portion for the Lord, the first of your dough you shall set apart as the terumah, the portion from the threshing floor” (Numbers 15:19-23).

Again no specific size or amount is mentioned. Any bread that is baked from flour of the five grains of Israel (barley, rye, oats wheat and spelt) and is over 2lbs 11oz in weight should have a small piece of dough separated from the mixture – before it is shaped and baked. This is considered an offering to the Lord, who …”brings the wind, gathers clouds, sends the rains, brings the dew, causes plants to blossom and fruit to ripen – and He said to said aside only one part in ten.” *** This ‘challah from the dough’ is considered holy and should not be eaten but disposed of appropriately. In the time of the Sages this could be given to a cohen in the Temple . Today, it often is wrapped in foil and burnt in the oven separately, as a ‘burnt offering’ to ensure it won’t be eaten, before being thrown out.

When people forget that God is the true Provider of all good things, including man’s staple food, and see themselves as having power and control over all things, His blessing is rejected and “…the heavens over your head shall be brass” (Deuteronomy 28:23). No rain will fall and the ensuing famine could lead to the hunger and starvation of many. How much better to give thanks with grateful hearts and to say, in effect:

“Lord of the Universe, I worked and toiled for this food. But, I did not create the soil and the seed, or bring rain and sunshine. I could not force the wheat to grow. All this is from Your hand and I thank You for our ‘partnership’ and for giving me strength to do my share to bring forth bread from Your bountiful earth for my and my family’s needs. We pray that, in Your mercy You will provide for those whose trust is in You and who might not have food to eat today.”****

Star of David ENT

Footnotes:

* Translations of these verse from Irving M. Bunim’s Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3.

** Mishnah, Terumoth iv 3.

*** Midrash Tanchuma, Re’eh 16

****Adapted from Irving M.Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3, 126