Ethics – Now & Then 16 – Avot 1:17-18

Avot 1:17 Shimon his son says: All my days I have been raised among
                 the Sages and I found nothing better for oneself than silence;
                 not study, but practice is the main thing;
                 and one who talks excessively brings on sin.

Shimon his son says: All my days I have been raised among the Sages and I found nothing better for oneself than silence; not study, but practice is the main thing…

As a son of Gamliel and a great grandson of Hillel, thus growing up in the presence of the Sages, we can understand why Shimon believed that silence was a wise policy. In his contact with the leadership of the time he may well have observed those who were brilliant scholars and debaters of Torah but did not live their lives accordingly, hence his emphasis in this verse that “…not study, but practice is the main thing.” He considered that even more important than the learning of Torah is the doing of it.

This proves to be a constant deliberation in every generation. The Talmud records a famous debate between two illustrious rabbis, Tarfon and Akiva; with Tarfon holding that deeds are greater and Akiva that study is greater. The wise conclusion finally reached was that “…study is greater, for it leads to deeds” (Kiddushin 40b). This satisfied all concerned as it brilliantly balances the need for both. Our study and learning of God and His ways should be constant and our deeds should be in harmony; one reflecting the other.

…and one who talks excessively brings on sin.

Many people, such as teachers, actors, lawyers and, dare I say, politicians, of necessity talk more than others due to their occupation. Even in these cases “too much” talk can result in sins such as false promises, providing misleading information, lies and dishonesty. The excessive form of talk generally regarded as sinful, however, is that of lashon ha’ra – gossip or, literally, an ‘evil tongue.’ Maimonides’ commentary on this verse expresses that lashon ha’ra refers to “speech that disparages others, even when it is true and does not actually constitute slander.” [1]

This would have been an immediate and urgent issue for Shimon ben Gamliel for the Second Temple was destroyed in his time and the Talmud records that the destruction largely was due to the hateful lashon ha’ra indulged in by many in positions of spiritual leadership. The Sages considered lashon ha’ra to be deadlier than the sword because “…it can be spoken in Rome and kill in Syria; spoken in Syria and kill in Rome” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1).

Star of David ENT

Avot 1:18 Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: The world endures on
                 three things – justice [din], truth [emet] and peace
                 [shalom] as it is said: “Truth and the verdict of peace are
                 you to adjudicate in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Rabban Shimon quoted in verse 18 is the grandson of the Shimon ben Gamliel of the previous verse. As we see, he is honored with the title of Rabban. His son, Yehudah haNasi, compiled the Mishnah, including Pirkei Avot. The first chapter closes with his powerful maxim, directly connected with Zechariah 8:16. In accord with Deut. 16:18, “the gates” of a city traditionally were the places the elders, or sages, of the city would gather to offer judgments on issues brought to them by the people, “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates which YHWH your God gives you, …and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” The term ‘within your gates’ indicates ‘within your jurisdiction.’ (E.g., Deut. 32:12). The prophet Jeremiah warned Israel that the people of the “kingdoms of the north…shall come and they shall set up every one his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem…and against all the cities of Judah,” thus claiming sovereignty and rule over the City of God and His Land (Jer.1:15).

Rabban Shimon’s maxim also reflecs the saying of Shimon haTzaddik in Avot 1:2, “The world depends on three things: on Torah study, on the service [or worship, of God] and on kind deeds [mitzvot].” It is considered that verse 2 describes the three things for which man was created – to come to know God in intimate relationship through the Revelation and study of His Word and in loving and serving Him and one another in kindness. Verse 18, on the other hand, offers the things that cause mankind to endure; they are the “…spiritual forces by which the social order is held together and civilization is sustained.” [2]

The welfare of humanity, on both an interpersonal and a wider social level, depends on the implementation of justice, adherence to truth and upholding the value of peace. When the governing body of a country or nation has in place a constitution of good and just laws, and judicial courts that fairly administer them, the result will be peace and social order in that society. Historically, we can appreciate how in Western democracies, when government is based on biblical Judaeo-Christian values, societies do indeed prosper and flourish in peace. When corruption enters and governments become increasingly “lawless” or “Bible-less” disintegration and violence also set in.

Emet, truth, in the biblical context, embraces the whole concept of truth-telling, including the principles of honesty, avoidance of deceit and keeping one’s promises. As well as in national and international communication, truth is an essential component in personal relationships. Lies destroy trust and effective cooperation and thus undermine and damage any relationship.

Very often, interestingly, justice and truth seem to conflict with the goal of peace. “Peace at any price” is not usually in the best interests of anyone concerned. When two people or groups, or even nations, are in serious dispute and yet both genuinely are aiming for peace it can be reached when a resolution is reached that both parties can safely and satisfactorily agree on. Enforcing a strictly legal solution that leaves one party feeling unjustly injured and angry will not engender true and lasting peace.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 6b, recalls a debate as to when mediation and compromise are appropriate and when a strictly legal judgment is called for. Rabbi Eliezer insisted that justice should always rule over arbitration. He says, “Let justice pierce through the mountain” – indicating that it is preferable to strive for strict justice no matter the obstacle or the cost. Rabbi Yehudah ben Korha argued, in reference to Rabban Shimon in verse 18, that “…when people turn to courts of law, no peace results, and when there is already peace, people don’t turn to courts. What is that kind of justice in which peace abides? We must say: arbitration.” [3]

The debate echoes the voices of Moses, Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher of God’s Torah received on the mountain, and that of Aaron, Rodef Shalom, the pursuer of peace. The debate of the Rabbis ultimately concluded that, as opposed to always applying the strict “letter of the law,” offering compassionate mediation and taking exceptions and personal circumstances into consideration is always meritorious. No clear point was resolved, however, as to when it is wise and necessary to withhold mediation. This would depend on each individual case and an important and indispensable factor would be adherence to truth.

Yeshua describes the balance of justice and mercy perfectly in his parable of the rich master who compassionately forgave a servant his debt. Later, when the same servant refused to forgive another servant who owed him a debt, the master revoked his decision and had the servant imprisoned (Matt.18:23-25). This is a powerful reminder that our Father’s mercy triumphs over justice and, just as we have been forgiven much, so should we willingly and fully extend forgiveness to others.

Star of David ENT

Conclusion of Chapter 1

Rabbi Chananiah ben Akashia says: The Holy One, Blessed is He, wished to confer merit upon Israel; therefore He gave them the Torah and mitzvot in abundance, as it is said:
“HaShem desired, for the sake of His [and Israel’s] righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious” (Isaiah 42:21).

The tradition arose to read this excerpt from the Talmud tractate of Makkot to mark the conclusion of each chapter of Pirkei Avot. The message conveyed is that: “Torah study and mitzvah performance are a Divinely conferred privilege.” [4] We are reminded that the commands of Torah, which may seem heavy duty at times, are gifts given by our Father for our own eternal reward and benefit.

 

Footnotes:

1. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 48
2. Artscroll Mesorah Series, Pirkei Avos; 14
3. William Berkeson, Pirke Avot; 51
4. Artscroll, Mesorah Series, Pirkei Avos; 15

 

Ethics – Now & Then 15 – Avot 1:16

Avot 1:16 Rabban Gamliel used to say: Accept a teacher upon yourself
                 and remove yourself from uncertainty;
                 and do not give excess tithes by estimating [instead of measuring].

Rabban Gamliel used to say…

This is the first verse that does not link the sage with a predecessor but simply begins with ‘Rabban Gamliel used to say’. What occurs now is a detour from the traditional chain and a record of the sons and grandsons of Hillel who succeeded him as Nasi, or President, of the Sanhedrin. Their identities become somewhat confusing as they alternately were named Gamliel (meaning: ‘God is also for me’) and Shimon, possibly in honor of the past beloved and righteous High Priest Shimon Ha’Tzaddik (Avot 1:1). Some confusion also is likely due to the enormous upheaval of the Roman Revolt at the time and the ensuing destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This resulted in the dissolution of the center of worship and the Sadducean priesthood and also raised the vital need to establish a new location for spiritual leadership. Following an ingenious escape from the burning Jerusalem, and strategic negotiations with the Roman consul, the elderly sage Yochanan ben Zakkai succeeded in acquiring a new center for the seat of the Sanhedrin in the town of Yavneh.

The regular listing resumes in Chapter 2:9, which records, “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel.” It seems, ipso facto, that while Hillel’s progeny were honored and recognized as Nasi, the role of Av Beit Din, with its corresponding authority to make the critical halakhic decisions needed at the time, was reinstated and assumed by Yochanan ben Zakkai.

The following list may be helpful:

(1:16) Rabban Gamliel I, the Elder – grandson of Hillel

(1:17) Shimon ben Gamliel I – great-grandson of Hillel (d.50 CE)

(-) Gamliel II – after 70 CE become Nasi of the Yavneh Academy, with
Yehoshua ben Chananiah as Av Beit Din.

(1:18) Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II (d.170 CE) – grandson of Shimon
ben Gamliel I – Nasi during the Ben Kochba Revolt.

(2:1) Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (135 – 220 CE) – son of Rabban Shimon ben
Gamliel II – compiled the Mishnah, including Pirkei Avot.

(2:2) Rabban Gamliel 111 – elder son of Rabbi Yehudah (Early 3rd Cen.)

The Gamliel quoted in Avot 1:16, was the first to receive the title of Rabban (Aramaic – our Rabbi; Rabbeinu in Hebrew). He was Nasi of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem during the first decades of the Common Era (CE, or AD in the Gregorian calendar) at the time of Yeshua.

Gamliel followed faithfully in the steps of Hillel and he was noted for being compassionate and lenient in matters of halakha. The Talmud records that his decisions were regarded as mipneh tikkun ha’olam – for the improvement of the welfare of the world (Gittin 6:6), and mipneh darkei shalom – for the sake of the way of peace, friendship and harmony (Sotah 9:15).

When Peter and the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin council, he spoke against harming them and warned: “Keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice (Acts 5:34). Notably, too, he was the apostle Paul’s teacher. Paul recalls him with pride in Acts 22:3.

His son, Shimon ben Gamliel, quoted in Avot 1:17, was a noted sage and head of a large yeshivah, or academy for Torah study, with many loyal students and fellow teachers. He faced much opposition from the rival group of Sadducees who still were contending for power and claiming authority in their albeit corrupted priestly roles in the Temple. As the authority and credibility of the Pharisaic Sages was based on their study and knowledge of the Written Torah (Torah she’b’Khtav) along with its interpretation and practical application via the Oral Torah (Torah she’b’alPei) they would attempt to discredit a leading Sage by proving his lack of knowledge in areas of the Torah.

The story is told of Ya’akov, a teacher at the yeshivah, who discovered a plot to oust Shimon from his position as Rosh ha’Yeshivah, Head of the Torah Academy, by publicly quizzing him on an obscure Talmudic tracate, Uktzin, with which he was unfamiliar – thereby shaming him. In the study hall, Ya’akov stood near Rabbi Shimon and proceeded to study the tractate continuously and loudly. Eventually Rabbi Shimon caught on and studied it himself. As a result he was able to face the challenge and retained his post. Sadly, it is believed that the rivals eventually betrayed him to the Romans, who, perceiving Shimon as a threat, had him arrested and beheaded in 50 CE.

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Accept a teacher upon yourself and remove yourself from uncertainty;

While previous verses focussed on the importance of finding a teacher in spiritual matters of the Torah, Rabban Gamliel here undoubtedly is referring to a teacher who is knowledgeable in halakha – the practical aspects of implementing the Torah one is learning; someone whom one can consult if there is any doubt regarding, for example, how to carry out a biblical command or if one has a question in connection with the Oral Law. As the saying goes today in Jewish communities, “Ask the Rabbi!”

The ‘teacher,’ however, does not necessarily need to be one and the same person. Indirectly, Gamliel is highlighting the roles of the Nasi, who is regarded as a spiritual leader and the Av Beit Din, who establishes legal decisions. The central challenge is to not remain unclear or doubtful in any action one takes in ‘walking out’ the ways of God one is studying in His Word, but rather to seek advice and counsel from respected and trusted sources.

We can see the need for this practice beginning with Moses. The people heard the Ten Words spoken by God, including, for example, “Honor your father and mother” and “You shall not steal.” They seem straightforward, but, life being what it is, a flood of questions arose. “My father died and my mother remarried a man who mistreats me. Do I have to honor him?”
“How exactly do I honor my parents?” “My brother has laid claim to a camel that I believe is rightfully mine. If I take it back is that stealing?” Etc., etc., etc.!

We indeed are very grateful for our Father’s gift of His Son and Messiah, who came to dwell among us as the very Torah Incarnate, to Whom we can look as our Shepherd along the path of truth and righteousness, the way of God’s Torah. We also rejoice that soon after Jesus’, Yeshua’s, Resurrection, and fifty days after His sacrificial death at Passover, the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, was poured out upon the disciples as they worshipped in the Temple at Shavuot, Pentecost; just as Yeshua had promised: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16:13).

It is a comfort and assurance that we can, and must, look first and always to the Lord for guidance and trust that, by His Spirit of holiness, He will direct our steps and give us the wisdom we need in making decisions. However, we are created in God’s image as beings who are interdependent. We are meant to be in relationship and in communication with others, to learn from and to teach one another. God always speaks to us, and very often He chooses to do so through other people.

…and do not give excess tithes by estimating [instead of measuring].

The second part of the verse again emphasizes a ‘legal’ matter; that of tithing. We can recall Yeshua’s ringing confrontation with those leaders who were splitting hairs legalistically and ignoring the true issues that were pleasing to God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah: justice (tzedek) and mercy (rachamim) and faithfulness (emunah). These (tithes) you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). Yeshua is not critiquing them for tithing their herbs but calls into question their hearts and attitudes in the doing of it.

Gamliel here stresses the importance of performing our mitzvot, our acts of obedience to God’s Word, with care. Even in tithing, one should not simply “guesstimate” but should pay careful attention to one’s giving in order, interestingly, not to give an “excess”! A central tenet of the Bible is that we should have open hearts and hands constantly ready to give to others. God Himself is our example as the Giver of all good things. If one is careless in giving, however, the risk arises that one could in turn become needy and dependent on others, causing a loss of self esteem.

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is a perfect example of giving that pleases God. The book of Acts records: He was “…a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (10:2).

Ethics – Now & Then 14 – Avot 1:15

Avot 1:15 Shammai says: Make your Torah [study] a fixed practice;
                 say little and do much;
                 and receive everyone with a cheerful face.

Make your Torah study a fixed practice…

The extended concept of Torah includes all the teachings of God; His Words of revelation to us of Himself and also His commands and directions in accord with His purposes both for our lives as His people and in the wider scope of history. The foundation of His Word is the Torah, or the Pentateuch; the first five books of the Bible. This Torah is the springboard for all that follows. Even Yeshua, who walked this earth as the Torah of God incarnate, was grounded as a child in the study of the Hebrew Scriptures. In his time, of the Second Temple period, young boys began their study of Torah at age five, beginning with the book of Leviticus, as they do to the present day in most Orthodox communities. The aim being that the Scriptures would become “yours,” as this verse literally reads: “Make your Torah a fixed priority…”.

The brilliant commentator Maimonides was a well respected physician and philosopher, yet he emphasized in agreement with Shammai that the study of Torah should be the central priority and the constant preoccupation of one’s life, with all else secondary. In practice, this simply means that one should fix a consistent time for study of the Word and determine that other claims on one’s life will not detract from it.

The Hebrew word ‘Aseh [make] your Torah…’ also means ‘Do’. William Berkson points out that the phrase therefore can be read as, “Do your Torah consistently.” In other words, ensure that you are applying what you learn and that your actions remain consistent with your knowledge of God’s Word. To underscore the importance of maintaining a regular study routine he refers to a later Talmudic sage, Rava, who lists it as the second of six questions he suggests will be asked on the Day of Judgment [1]:

1. Did you deal honestly in business [or in your dealings with others]?
2. Did you fix times for Torah study?
3. Did you engage in [some form of] procreation?
4. Did you hope for salvation [for all]?
5. Did you engage in critical discussion of wisdom [and take life seriously]?
6. Did you understand how to infer one thing from another [and thereby foresee the     consequences of your actions]? [2]

When one places value on God’s Word, which Yeshua enfleshed, lived and demonstrated, and treasures it as ‘a pearl of great price’ (Matt. 13:46), the study of Torah becomes essential to one’s very existence. It is highly important to be a good steward of one’s practical, day-to-day resources and to take care of work and business matters to the best of one’s ability – the doing of which is listed first on Rava’s list! However, when one “orders one’s steps” in accord with and in obedience to the Word of God, it is a person’s devoted study that leads to the transformation of all the areas of his or her life; the moral, intellectual and spiritual, which then are reflected in the physical.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski relates the story of a certain pious Orthodox Jew who owned a shoe factory. He visited his Rabbi to share some business concerns and to ask his advice. After a brief interview the Rabbi said, “I am aware that people put their feet into shoes, but why are you putting your entire head into shoes?” [3] When one’s head is absorbed with the ‘business’ of God and His Kingdom, we can trust Him to guide our feet in the way we should go. We can place our trust in His promise and faithfulness to provide all our needs, including physical and financial. As Yeshua emphasized so beautifully, “For your Father knows that you need all these things. But, seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness [i.e. Study His Word, learn of Him and walk in His ways] and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:25-34; Lk. 12:22-31).

To gain understanding of the Psalmist’s declaration in the very first Psalm: “Ashrei, blessed and joyful, is the one…whose delight is in the Law [Torah] of the Lord, and on His Torah he meditates night and day” (Ps. 1:1-2), ensures that God’s Word will remain the focal concern and the major influence in one’s life.

Say little and do much….

Most commentaries refer to the example of Abraham to illustrate this gem of wisdom. When he invited the three desert travelers to stop for refreshment, Abraham said: “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread…” (Gen. 18:4-5). In fact, he hurried to have a sumptuous meal prepared and served them a fatted calf as well as cakes of fine flour. He said little but did much. Often we are tempted to do the reverse; we promise much, usually with every good intention, but actually manage to do very little. There is more talk and communication in the world today than ever before in history. People’s lives generally are filled with constant Tweeting, Skyping, cell-phoning, text-messaging and Facebook chatter. We do well to note Shammai’s reminder that the real world is still a world of deeds; and real achievement lies in doing. The wise course of action is to “say little and do much.”

An interesting concept described in Jewish literature is that the Lord allots each person a specific number of words to speak during one’s lifetime. When this allotment is used up, one’s life ends. [4] The conclusion is drawn that the less one speaks, the longer one will live and the more time one will have to serve the Lord in doing good. Given the importance of words, as well as our related activities, we need to ask ourselves: Do my words speak life? Do they edify and build up, or do they break down and “profit nothing”? Are they words of spirit and truth or of the flesh and the world? Yeshua provides us with the yardstick, as it were, with which to measure our words: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (Jn. 6:63).

Yeshua, as the Word of God enfleshed, constantly reinforces the priority of hearing and doing the Word. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we will come to live and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the Word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (Jn.14:23-24).

In his last impassioned prayer to the Father before his arrest, Yeshua spoke these resounding words: “Holy Father… now I come to You, and these things I spoke in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your Word; and the world hates them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. …Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth” ( Jn.17:11-17).

Further questions worth our consideration: ‘Am I certain that I am hearing His Word of truth in order that I may respond in obedience to Him?’ And, ‘Are my words in harmony with His?’ The challenge we face is that of discernment. God speaks to us all the time and in different ways by His Spirit. In order to hear Him, however, our own chattering thoughts and the relentless cacophony of the world need to be stilled. Our ears then can be attuned to the sound of His voice. Remember the prophet Elijah. He heard God speak not in the storm or the whirlwind, but in the whisper of a still, small voice (1Ki.19;12).

Words spoken in harmony with God’s Spirit of holiness will resonate with our spirits and bring true peace and joyful edification, even when they are difficult or challenging. Words that are influenced by the enemy of our souls, even when they are flattering and may comfort our flesh, will not truly edify or bring life.

…and receive everyone with a cheerful face.

It is interesting that Shammai includes this word of counsel as he had a reputation for having a stern personality and had little patience with foolishness or ignorance. The Talmud records, “One should always be as humble as Hillel rather than overbearing as Shammai” (B.Talmud, Shabbat 30b). We can assume that Shammai was aware of this negative character trait and, to his credit, he may have been speaking to himself here as much as to his students.

The Hebrew term translated ‘everyone’ is kol adam, which also can be translated as ‘the whole man.’ Although one characteristic of a person may be offensive to you, when you take into account the ‘whole’ person and find their good qualities you can greet them with a genuinely cheerful countenance, even when more serious interaction is to follow. If we all could accomplish this, the world would certainly be a more pleasant place in which to live and work.

 

Endnotes:

1. William Berkson, Pirke Avot
2. Shabbat31a
3. Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers, 58
4. Ibid; 59

Ethics – Now & Then 13 – Avot 1:14

Avot 1:14 [Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
                 And if I am [only] for myself, what am I?
                 And if not now, when?

This is very likely the most well known and oft-quoted of Hillel’s sayings, and possibly of all Pirkei Avot. Hebrew songs are written that capture the poetic lilt of the opening, ‘Im ein ani li, mi li ?’ The key questions posed by Hillel in this verse touch upon the pivotal factors of our daily existence. The concepts addressed are central to a person’s self esteem and to his or her relationship with others.

In most commentary the questions are viewed as rhetorical, in effect: “Stick up for yourself or no-one else will; if you are only concerned with your own selfish interests you are unworthy; don’t procrastinate, now is the time to take action!” These, of course, have merit; however, when we are faced with an important decision, it also is worthwhile to apply them as questions that can aid us in finding the best solution.

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If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

The first level of meaning, in this section of the verse, is applied to our physical existence. In general, it requires one’s own efforts and diligence to make a living and to acquire the means of providing for one’s needs and, where applicable and appropriate, for those of one’s family. Each of us needs to define our role and the accompanying responsibility in our particular situation. Once the roles are clear, for example in a working or marriage relationship, the responsibilities, and the accompanying authority and accountability, can be allocated in a way that is most beneficial to each person. This also assures the most harmonious and productive functioning of the home or the business.

One also can read this question as, “If I am not myself, who can I be?” God has created each person as a unique individual with a specific call and purpose to fulfill during their time on this earth. He is faithful to lead and direct our paths according to His purposes. As we walk, we need only look to Him trusting to to hear His voice and to go forward in loving obedience. Although He knows the end from the beginning of our path, most often we only see one step ahead. What is important, as we faithfully take each step, is simply to be the person He created each of us to be and this only He can confirm in one’s deepest heart. Our Father, the Creator of all, knows us and defines us and our true identity is found in Him.

The view, “If I don’t fend for myself, no one else will,” carries a hint of cynicism and could foster independent self-reliance. Independence is good, up to a point, but can result in pride in those with strong personalities and who forge ahead successfully in the material sphere of life.

Another point to consider is that things don’t always work out so well. As the saying goes, “Stuff happens!” The economy collapses, disaster strikes in one form or another, and then the question becomes, “If I cannot help myself, who will be for me?” When the test comes, it usually clarifies those who are your true friends and allies – who truly is for you.

And, if I am [only] for myself, what am I?

The most common translation of this part of the verse includes ‘only,’ which renders the question rhetorical and restricts the meaning to the negative issue of selfishness. The reality that prideful selfishness is at the root of the majority of sins warrants attention, together with our recognition of the need to minimize this negative trait in our lives. This powerful “I” of the ego, always insisting, “I want…,” “I come first!,” “I have a right to…” is called in Hebrew the yetzer ha’ra – the evil inclination. Just as one has a God-given conscience, a leaning toward good, one has a fleshly ego that consistently pulls one toward self gratification, and the quicker, more instant the gratification the better! The apostle Paul bemoaned this reality very emphatically! “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, [the yetzer ha’ra] warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom.7:22-23).

One’s true ‘self’, made in the image of God, is directed and strengthened by one’s spirit that is wooed and led by God’s Spirit of holiness. The ongoing battle during one’s journey through life, is between the spirit within and, as referred to by Paul and what Abraham Twerski calls, the “physical-animal drive” that needs constant harnessing. Twerski quotes the concept that this yetzer ha’ra, that demands gratification at any cost, is like an alien power that seeks to destroy its host (Kiddushin 30b).[1] The true “you” within, has great spiritual capacities when trained by the Word of God in Messiah and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are assured, by the Lord of hosts, that we can overcome the evil inclination, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” (Zec.4:6).

One also can read this section of the verse as a continuation of the first: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And, if I am for myself, what am I?” This again emphasizes the need to be clear and aware of one’s call and role, and the ethical issues of what I owe to others in that role and what others owe to me. In other words, “How best can I function together with others in my role for the mutual benefit of all?” The balance indicated by Hillel is that one should take the initiative in serving one’s personal interests as well as the interests of others. We need to carefully balance our own needs together with our obligations to others. William Berkson describes this balance as: “…a contrast to both the ‘look out for number one’ ethics of Ayn Rand and the view of Calvin that self-denial is at the heart of being good and ethical.”[2]

And if not now, when?

The last of the three questions addresses the strategic and important issue of timing. In a rhetorical sense it is a directive against the chief of all time wasters: procrastination. As a positive question, it raises the necessity of examining options and also of deciding when to take action. Is the matter urgent? Would it be wiser to postpone the decision, or to delay the action? If now is not the best time to act, when would be? We know, only too well, that hesitation often can result in missed opportunities. However, on the other hand, acting too quickly and impulsively can have disastrous consequences.

Kohelet reminds us, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven:…” (Ecc.3:1-18), then continues to list different key actions of life. Hillel is asking, in effect, “Is this the right time to act? And, if so, what is the appropriate action to take?” To arrive at the most fitting and productive answer requires a balance of the principles of initiative and of security. After prayerful consideration and seeking the counsel and wisdom of others where possible, one needs the freedom to act in accord with reasonable and creative judgment based on one’s assessment of the situation, while protecting one’s security in all areas as far as one is able.

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Hillel’s three questions tackle basic practical issues of daily living and, just as they have throughout the generations, they remain relevant and applicable to active decision making and problem-solving for us today.

 

Endnotes:

1. Rabbi A. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 56
2. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 42

Ethics – Now & Then 12 – Avot 1:13

Avot 1:13 [Hillel] used to say: He who seeks renown loses his reputation; he who does not increase [his Torah study] decreases it; he who fails to teach [Torah] deserves death; and he who exploits the crown [of Torah] shall fade away.

Interestingly, the flow of the Hebrew text of Pirkei Avot is interrupted and this verse is written in Aramaic. This was the lingua franca of Babylonia, where Hillel was raised, and was a common language in the Ancient Near East. As the place of exile for the Jewish people after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, since the time of the prophet Daniel, Babylonia had become a great center of Torah study, in which the Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita would later be predominant. After the return to the Land of Israel at the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Aramaic remained the language of trade and the market place, as well as of biblical scholarship together with Hebrew.

With reference to Hillel, the Talmud says: “In ancient days when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and re-established it. Then it was again forgotten until Hillel from Babylon came up and re-established it” (Sukkot 20a). Although the bulk of the Talmud is written in Hebrew in accord with the Scriptures, the Gemara, the commentary and discussion in relation to the Talmud is written in Aramaic. Yeshua certainly was familiar with the language and he speaks it on certain occasions; for example, when he said to the synagogue leader’s young daughter who had died: “Talitha, kumi!” “Girl,” or, literally, he uses an affectionate term, “Little lamb, get up!” (Luke 8:54).

As mentioned in connection with Avot 1:12, Hillel was instrumental in formulating rules for interpreting the Word of God that provided a structure and set careful boundaries for the ongoing teaching and study of the Scriptures while encouraging creative and practical application in daily life. This structure could be applied contemporaneously by each future generation in order to keep Torah relevant without compromising the integrity of the Scriptures. Personally, Hillel was admired and respected for his middot (character traits) of savlanut – patience, annavah – humility, and kavannah – devotion to learning. He also, like Aaron, was recognized as a rodef shalom, one who seeks peace.

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He who seeks renown loses his reputation…

In Aramaic, ‘name’- sh’mah and ‘reputation’- sh’meh sound very similar, thus the verse also can be translated as, “He who seeks a name for himself loses his reputation.” This is linked with another mishnah (verse) in the Talmud: “Anyone who chases after honor, the honor will flee him” (Eruvin 13a). Not only will the honor or fame he pursues flee from him, but also the honor, or reputation, he has will desert him.

There are many nuances in the interpretation of this verse. For example, it could simply mean that with fame one is bound to have critics who will do what they can to spoil your reputation. Election campaigns offer proof of that. The context here, however, seems to imply that the person who seeks fame is motivated by an inflated ego or, perhaps, is using improper means and methods to gain personal attention or selfish advantage. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch proposes that a good name that endures must come unsought, and it will come only to him who performs good and commendable deeds without aiming to impress others. This is reminiscent of a familiar saying: Character is who you are [as a person], reputation is who others think you are [your persona]; seek to build character [the real you]!

Two of the most prestigious medieval commentators, Rashi and Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Rambam) agreed that even if one did not seek to promote oneself, a rise to fame would bring with it the possibility of pride and disaster. This is reflected in the often quoted verse, Proverbs 16:18, “Pride precedes a fall.” Sadly, many examples of this truth are seen in the rise and fall of countless movie stars and entertainers. The sages concur, however, that a physical toll can be paid by one in a position of prominence even when the person is righteous and has every good intention. They draw a comparison with a model of righteousness, Joseph the son of Jacob, who, although the second youngest of the twelve, died before his brothers.[1]

…he who does not increase [his Torah study] decreases it;

An area in which man can never feel that he has “done it all” and can now relax, sit back and leave it to others, is the study of Torah and the doing of mitzvot – the practical application in one’s life of the study, which results in good deeds.

According to Rabbi Hirsch, he who stands still on his path [of Torah study] is actually regressing. One who does not study is not experiencing the fulness of life because he neglects to acquaint himself with the goals and the purpose for which he was given life and fails to acquire the skill and knowledge necessary for their fulfillment.[2]

…he who fails to teach [Torah] deserves death; and he who exploits the crown [of Torah] shall fade away.

In a later chapter of Pirkei Avot, reference is made to three crowns that can be bestowed upon a child of God in this life: the crown of Torah, the Crown of Priesthood and the Crown of Royalty. This verse warns that one who exploits the “crown” of the knowledge of Torah for selfish ambition, and uses it gain personal honor, will not gain any long term satisfaction from his endeavors.

One commentator makes a connection here with Hillel’s teacher Shema’yah’s warning in Avot 1:10, that one should not try to use or exploit the power of the ‘crown’ – the powers that be, at that time the Roman government. Many who did, lost their lives at the hands of the Romans, even preceding the rebellions and wars.[3] The context here, however, is in relation to the heritage of Torah learning and in using it for selfish ends.

The blatant statement, “…he who fails to teach deserves death” is startling, to say the least. The understanding, however, is related to the fact that Torah, the Word of God, is life. “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deut.32:47). The life indicated is predominantly that of the spirit. Therefore, the implication is that, rather than growing and advancing spiritually, by not sharing the knowledge one has gained of God and His Word one would stand to suffer spiritual death.

The inherent purpose of acquiring knowledge of God’s Word, as with all benefits acquired in life, is not to hoard and store it up for oneself but to freely and generously pass it on for the benefit of others. As Yeshua emphasized, “In your going [as you go forward spiritually, learning and growing], raise up many talmidim [students]” (Matt. 28:19). Each one can trust the Lord for unique opportunities and creative ways to share one’s knowledge of the good news of God’s Word with others and so to extend His Kingdom on the earth.

 

Endnotes:

1. The Pirkei Avos Treasury, Artscholl Mesorah Series; 40
2. S.R. Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers; 15
3. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 40

Ethics – Now & Then 11 – Avot 1:12

Avot 1:12 Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them. Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron: a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace; love all people, and bring them near to the Torah.

Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from [Shema’yah and Av’talyon].

Hillel and Shammai were the last of the zugot, the ‘pairs’ of spiritual leaders. They were in office during the reign of Herod the Great. Hillel’s grandson, known as Rabban Gam’liel HaZaken (the Elder), functioned as Nasi without an Av Beit Din during the decades before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE/AD. It is this Gam’liel to whom the apostle Paul proudly refers as his teacher (Acts 22:3).

Hillel was renowned for his humility and is considered one of the greatest of the Sages. He also was noted for his devotion and dedication to the Written and Oral Torah. No doubt his influence impacted the life of the young Yeshua as he grew and learned. It is possible that Hillel and Shammai were among the group of Sages with whom the twelve year old Yeshua was discoursing when his worried parents found him in the Temple courts (Lk. 2:42ff).

Hillel was a descendent of King David. According to tradition, like Moses he lived until age one hundred and twenty. He grew up in Babylonia and at age forty, when he desired to study under the acclaimed teaching of Shema’yah and Avtal’yon, he returned to Jerusalem with his family. Although the move left them impoverished, Hillel was content to work as a menial laborer. He would give half his daily earnings to the support of his family and the other half to gain entrance into the Beit Midrash (study hall) of the Sages.

A famous story recounts how, one cold and snowy Friday, Hillel had not found work and in the late afternoon when he approached the study hall the guard would not allow him to enter without payment. He then climbed up on the roof and lay next to the skylight in order to hear the teaching. It started to snow heavily but he remained. On Shabbat morning, when Shema’yah and Av’talyon entered the Beit Midrash, they noticed it was darker than usual and, looking up, they noticed the silhouette of a man on the skylight. It was Hillel, frozen and covered with snow. They had him brought down, washed, and revived next to the fire. They also ordered that he be allowed entrance to the Beit Midrash at any time without paying a fee. Hillel studied for forty years, after which time, for another forty years – roughly from 30 BCE to 10 CE/AD – he served as Nasi and was recognized as the leading and most beloved scholar of his generation.

The school of study Hillel founded is known as Beit Hillel, the ‘House’ of Hillel. He was aware of the political uncertainty of the times and, in order to safeguard the balanced study of the Hebrew Scriptures for future generations, he was the first to establish a method of scriptural interpretation that came to be called “the seven rules of Hillel”.[1] The interpretations of Hillel and his students were generally more flexible and lenient than those of Shammai, who also had a following of students and a house of study called ‘Beit Shammai.’ The Talmud records 316 arguments between the two schools of thought. Of these the rulings of Beit Shammai were less strict only 55 times. In general, Jewish halacha (lit. ‘way to walk’ or practical rulings) has continued in the spirit of Beit Hillel; that of study and devotion coupled with kindness.

An illustration is given of an incident when, after Shammai had chased off a would be convert who wanted to study Torah quickly, al regel echad – standing on one leg, he appealed to Hillel who received him patiently and gave him the now famous answer: “What you would hate done to you, don’t do to someone else. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”[2] This key teaching of Hillel’s is also expressed in a positive form by Yeshua in his Sermon on the Mount: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets” (Matt.7:12).

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Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron: a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace; …

We find a beautiful eulogy to Aaron given by God through the prophet Malachi: “The Torah of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many away from sin” (2:6).

It is a good thing to “love peace” but to be a disciple of Aaron, to learn from his example, one must also be a “rodef shalom” – a pursuer of peace. We should be proactive in establishing peace in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, whether among friends and family members, at work, within the community, or even on a national level. Whenever God gives the opportunity in our walk with Him, we should be prepared and willing to act, with His words of truth, and attempt to effect reconciliation and to maintain shalom.

Aaron received a powerful tribute from God; one we can consider in light of the fact that it was Aaron, in his role as leader when Moses was meeting with God at Sinai, who allowed the forming of the idol of the Golden Calf. This affirmation of his character and God’s later appointing and anointing of Aaron as High Priest, enable us to view his actions in a more kindly light – to judge favorably and to “give him the benefit of the doubt!”

Aaron understood the people on a personal level, more so than Moses did. Moses grew up as prince in Pharaoh’s palace and then was in exile in Midian. He loved his people and would fight and sacrifice for them, but it was Aaron who knew the bitterness of slavery; who had endured the long years of hard labor and had tasted hopelessness with them. He understood their fear when Moses seemed to have disappeared in the cloud, perhaps never to return, and that they needed something tangible to look to, like the gods of Egypt. He also knew that he would be unable to withstand them if they rose up against him physically and in anger. If he died they would be left without a leader.

We can appreciate his wisdom in attempting to calm them – to bring peace – by suggesting they all return to their own tents and wait until the next day to celebrate a feast (Ex. 32:5). This might give them pause, a time to rethink, and would also gain time during which Moses may well return and the catastrophe be prevented. Sadly, this did not happen and many proceeded with the sinful and idolatrous revelry. Many, however, including the Levites, chose to stand with Aaron and were spared the later fate of the idolators.

Aaron was a forerunner of Yeshua, who is now our High Priest before the Throne of God (Heb.4:14-15). During his ministry on earth, Yeshua, like Aaron, knew men’s hearts. Aaron said to Moses, “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Ex.32:22). Yeshua saw right through any outward show or action into the depths of a person and the motives of the heart. He did not try to sway or persuade people with emotional oratory or great intellectual argument, but our Sar Shalom, Prince of Peace, in loving patience and with “the Torah of truth in his mouth” constantly spoke words of repentance and reconciliation and demonstrated righteousness through his own life.

…love all people, and bring them near to Torah.

With regard to Aaron, who went out of his way to reconcile married couples, Midrashic literature recounts that “…in gratitude, couples whose marriages he had strengthened, would often name their next son after him. At Aaron’s funeral, there were eighty thousand other “Aarons” that walked behind his bier” (Kallah Rabah 3).[3] It was fitting, therefore, that Aaron would wear over his heart the Choshen, the breastplate of the High Priest, with its twelve precious stones representing the tribes of Israel. The breastplate symbolized unity and Aaron was very instrumental in maintaining that unity and the blessing of peace that it brings.

This juxtaposition of ‘loving people’ and of drawing them near to Torah, the Word of God, and thereby to God Himself, captures the heart of any ‘evangelistic’ outreach. We see the first shining example of reaching out to others to share the light of the truth of God in the father and mother of the household of faith, Abraham and Sarah. They did not stand on soapboxes and preach, but pitched their tent wherever God directed and then simply shared their lives and lovingly served whomever He brought their way. The deep motivation for sharing one’s faith, as illustrated by Abraham and Sarah and continued throughout the generations, is to share with others the knowledge of God conveyed through the revelation of Himself and the Word He gave and to “draw them under the wings of the Shekhinah” – into the place of His Presence, lovingkindness and protection. As personified and exemplified by Yeshua, this can only be done in love and with a heart of peace.

 

Endnotes:

1. L. Kravitz and K. Olitzky; Pirke Avot; 8
2. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a
3. The Pirkei Avot Treasury; Artscroll; 38

Ethics – Now & Then 10 – Avot 1:11

Avot 1:11 Av’talyon says: O Sages, be careful with your words, for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters; the disciples who follow you there may drink of them and die, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.

Av’talyon says: O Sages, be careful with your words…

Av’talyon, as Av Beit Din, is directly addressing the Sages, the spiritual leaders and teachers of the Sanhedrin. We can assume, in that context, that he is making a specific reference to the heresies and idolatries of the Hellenistic culture that were exerting a powerful influence at the time.

On a wider scale, the verse addresses the teaching, studying, and discussion of Torah and stresses the great responsibility of leaders to take care with their teaching, the words they share, for they will have influence on those who hear them and will engender consequences.

Again the exhortation here is to be clear in the meaning one intends to convey in order to avoid misinterpretation. Respected scholars and those in positions of authority need to be constantly aware that their words will likely be taken very seriously and applied in the lives of others. Unclear teaching or poorly chosen words could lead to actions that result in chillul HaShem – desecration of the Name of God – rather than kiddush HaShem – a hallowing or honoring of His Holy Name.

No matter one’s position, or the stage of learning one has reached, each one has the responsibility to avoid the profaning of God’s Name. Our aim in life, as ambassadors of our Father’s Kingdom on earth is to represent and honor His Name, in the authority of our great High Priest and soon coming King, Messiah Yeshua. In Hebraic understanding, a name is closely related to the character of a person. As a child learns from and grows in the ways of a good earthly parent, and imitates his and/or her positive character traits, so we, as children of our Father in Heaven, should constantly be learning from His Word by His Spirit of holiness and allowing His character to form and develop in our lives – that His Name may be all the more glorified.

…for you may incur the penalty of exile, and be banished to a place of evil waters;

Historically, a connection can be made with the mention of “exile” in this verse and the persecution the Pharisees had suffered under the Judean kings who had supported the Sadducees. In fact, Yehudah ben Tabbai, the predecessor of Av’talyon, was forced into exile and spent some time in Alexandria, Egypt, where there was a strong and thriving Jewish community.

About a century later, it is likely that Joseph and Mary fled to Alexandria with Jesus, not long after his birth, in order to to escape King Herod’s slaughter of children under two years of age in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, Egypt was viewed as an environment alien to Torah and thus a place of “evil waters.”

…the disciples who follow you there may drink of them and die, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.

The Word of God is described consistently as mayim chayim, living water, or the waters of life. Anything contrary to the Word can therefore be described as “evil waters.” We can recall a clear and striking example of this concept in recent history in the case of those who followed self-proclaimed prophet Jim Jones and who literally drank the toxic Kool Aid flavored water and died as a result.

Yeshua came to earth as the Incarnation of the pure water of the Father’s Word and could proclaim in truth, at the very climactic water-pouring ceremony in the Temple on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, “If anyone is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn. 7:37-38). Yeshua embodied the purity, values and truth of God’s Word and character. We can look to Him in perfect trust and with confidence that, as we follow our Shepherd, He will lead us only to green, nourishing pastures alongside still and life-giving waters.
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Although the intent of the verse is associated more commonly with doctrinal heresy that leads to spiritual death, it is considered by scholars that this last section may have been added around one hundred and fifty years later by Yehudah bar Ilai, after one of the worst slaughters of Jews until that time. The Roman armies, under Emperor Hadrian, had defeated the rebellion led by the proclaimed Messianic leader Bar Kochba, who mistakenly had been supported by Rabbi Akiva and other well-respected Sages. Many Sages, including Akiva, were cruelly executed and thousands of their students fell as victims in the Roman reprisals. Once the wide-sweeping retaliations had ceased, Yehudah bar Ilai regrouped the surviving sages and scholars in the Galilee and he was instrumental in re-establishing a Sanhedrin and the preservation of the study and teaching of Torah. He was deeply aware of the responsibility of restoring and securing the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures for the next generation and for those of the future. The lesson had been learned that together with the defense of what one believes to be good and true doctrine come the dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism that inevitably lead to violence and to dishonoring the Name of God.

The ultimate proof that fanatical dogma and misplaced ideals have dire consequences was evidenced in the suffering and death of millions, including the murder of six million Jews, as a result of Nazism and Bolshevism. The sad reality that man has not learned from so great and tragic a travesty is the continued litany of violence and genocide evidenced, for example, in Rwanda, Sudan and other areas influenced by radical Islam.

One of the modern attempts to face and deal with this danger is the credo of tolerance, in particular that of religious tolerance, which had its start in England in reaction to an exhaustion after the protracted centuries of religious wars. Although tolerance has merit, up to a point, it can lead to the opposite danger of a “stand for nothing, fall for anything” mentality. When evil is tolerated it slowly but surely gains ground until it is accepted and even seen as ‘good’.

The prophet Malachi warns: You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord…” (2:17). This is echoed by another prophetic word, which we do well to take note of in our present day:
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).

While interaction with and learning from other cultures can be creative and productive, it is wise first to have a clear and solid grounding and a dynamic understanding of one’s own Bible-based values and beliefs.

Ethics – Now & Then 9 – Avot 1:10

Avot 1:10 Shema’yah and Av’talyon received the tradition from them. Shema’yah says: Love work; despise lordliness; and do not become over familiar with the government.

The next pair of Nasi and Av Beit Din (the spiritual leaders – President and Chief Justice of the Sanhedrin) took office in 65 BCE. They were Shema’yah, whose name literally translates as “Hear God,” and Av’talyon, meaning “Father of young ones.” Fitting names for leaders! It is recorded that they both were descendants of of the Assyrian King Sennacherib (Gittin 57b) who had, like Ruth, come to faith in the God of Israel.

Shema’yah says: Love work…

Shema’yah had strong convictions regarding the value of honest labor and emphasized that one should love whatever work one was privileged to undertake. The first human beings were not created merely to enjoy a life of ease and relaxation surrounded by blue seas and palm trees, rather they were to work with God in tending His Creation. They were exhorted “to be fruitful and multiply.” In the case of this first couple as well as their subsequent descendants, this was naturally applied to the procreation of the species and also in tilling the soil from which would come forth food for sustenance (cf. Gen. 2:5).

In the context of the mind and the spirit of a human being created in the image of God, we also have the ability and the responsibility to “till the soil” of our inner being – to “break up the fallow ground” (Hos.10:12) of our hearts, to remove stones of hardness and bitterness, to sow seeds of truth and righteousness and to produce the living fruit of the Spirit. This work also requires joyful diligence and includes the disciplines of the study of the Word of God, prayer, dialogue and the practice of obedience to God’s will and of deeds of loving-kindness to others.

The Sages of Israel encouraged the pursuit of a balance of work and study. They did not sanctify work, however, and neither did Yeshua. They did not teach, or even consider, for example, that material success as a result of one’s work was a sign of God’s favor. Biblically, although we are enjoined to engage in six days of work, the crown of the week is Shabbat, when the aim is to do no mundane work but to focus on and enjoy our Creator and all the good He has created.

To a very large extent in American culture, the initial Puritan and biblical work ethic has been lost. Many early founders and people of influence, such as Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, steered the Protestant work ethic toward what William Berkson, the American director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family, terms, “The Success ethic: the equating of competitive success with self-worth and happiness.” He goes so far as to say, “In time, success became an idol that Americans worshipped.”[1] That may sound extreme, but it is worth our while to consider the influence that this “success ethic” has in the lives of young (and not-so-young) people today and the effect it has on the decisions they make and the goals to which they aspire.

The question remains, “How do we love work?” The renowned medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides makes the common-sense observation, “..the reason we should love work is that we would otherwise shirk it, become destitute, and be led to earning through dishonest means.”[2] It also is important to find joy in what the Lord has called and prepared for us to do. Albert Einstein expressed it well: “The most important motive for work in school and in life is pleasure in work, pleasure in its result , and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community” (Ideas and Opinions, 62). This ethic, when God-focussed, can apply whether you are a celebrated scientific genius or one like Brother Lawrence (1611 – 1691), who rejoiced in the Presence of God even as he spent hours in a hot kitchen washing dishes, peeling mounds of potatoes and performing other menial chores for the Carmelite community in which he served. He called himself a “servant of servants” and was determined that, “…the only thing I was seeking was to become wholly God’s.”[3]

What a true blessing it is when one can say in faith, as did Yeshua, “I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave me to do!” (Jn. 17:4).

…hate the holding of high office;

The danger of inordinate power and control are inherent in the spheres of both religion and politics. When this is the case, the reaction in the lives of those not in authority is fear. This principle also can be applied in work situations, in family life, and sometimes also in friendships. The focus here, however, is on ‘Synagogue – or Church’ and ‘State’. Both have the power to do much good, but both are capable, as evidenced in history, of executing great evil; even when it is with the proclaimed aim of the “greater good” of the population concerned.

At the time of the Second Temple, Judea and Samaria and the surrounds were part of the Roman Empire and, as we saw in the account of Shimon ben Shetach, much bribery and corruption was occurring as people vied for high office, both in religious and secular circles. The Sages held, as Yeshua emphasized and illustrated, that when our trust is in the One who truly is greater than all men can devise apart from Him, our lives can be based on love and reverential fear of our Father in Heaven and not on fear of man. We can “be still” and our hearts can rest in the knowledge that we are shielded from any abuse of power and negative control of man. We can overcome fear as, “…greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).

Rather than striving for high position, Yeshua proclaimed: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:8-12; Mk. 9:35). The exhortation to “humble oneself” appears many times in Scripture.

…and do not become over familiar with the government.

Shema’yah, also in the context of the Roman domination of the time, advises that one should not aim to befriend those in places of power and authority. Such relationships potentially restrict one’s personal decisions and actions.

The influence of these ‘friends’ could cause one to engage in matters that are contrary to one’s own views and desires. Due to the corruption that often attends power, one should be wary and rather avoid those who like the unrighteous judge in Yeshua’s parable, “…do not fear God nor regard man” (Lk. 18:2).

 

Endnotes:

1. William Berkson, Pirke Avot, JPS; 33
2. Ibid.; 34
3. Devotional Classic, Ed. Richard Foster; 82

Ethics – Now & Then 8 – Avot 1:9

Avot 1:9 Shimon ben Shetach says: “Interrogate the witnesses extensively; and be cautious with your words, lest they learn to lie.”

Shimon ben Shetach was the Av Beit Din of the Sanhedrin and acted as judge in civil and criminal matters. He also was the brother of Salome Alexandra who was married to King Alexander Yannai (or Jannaeus, Gr.), who reigned for 27 years (103 – 76 BCE). This was a period of great contention between the Sadducees, who were favored by King Yannai, and the Pharisees, who were represented by the Sages.
After Yannai’s death, Salome reigned for seven years until 63 BCE. During the years of Queen Salome’s rule, the position of the Pharisees was immeasurably strengthened.

Interrogate the witnesses extensively….

It is common knowledge that in any legal setting, when judgment is required, a sign of reliable testimony is the ability of the witness to give the same account consistently whenever he is questioned. Any uncertainty or varying of details weakens the testimony. Effective examination thus includes probing of facts from different angles.

Shimon ben Shetach may have used the plural form ‘witnesses’ intentionally. A point of strong disagreement with the Sadducees was the latter’s insistence that the proven evidence of just one witness was enough to convict a person as guilty. In accord with the Torah, the Pharisees emphasized that a case must rest on the testimony of at least two witnesses.

…and be cautious with your words, lest they learn to lie.

Leading commentaries share the understanding that this is a caution to judges, and lawyers, to avoid asking ‘leading’ questions that could suggest to the witness the kind of answer that would be favorable to his case but might not be in strict accord with the truth. This also includes paying attention to one’s inflection and tone of voice when asking a question of the witness, as well as the use of any facial expressions that might reveal to the witness the position he is advocating. The code of biblical ethics does not condone the tactics often employed in Western courtrooms that are intended to influence the judge and jury.

How can this view of the administration of justice be applied in everyday family life? Quite remarkably! Psychologist, Abraham Twerski, draws the parallel of the need for parents to be aware and careful of how they speak in order to not teach their children to lie. A caring parent aims to instill the values of honesty and truthfulness in their child. Twerski uses an example of a father not wishing to answer a phone call and telling his child to tell the caller he is not home. Another appropriate example is when a parent or teacher challenges a child in an angry and threatening manner regarding a misdemeanor. The child, through fear, may be encouraged to lie. This also can be applied in adult to adult situations such as boss and employee, someone in authority and a lay person and, in extreme cases, terrorist and victim as well as violent methods of interrogation.

It is an accepted fact that children are more likely to emulate their parents’ behavior than to heed their every word. It therefore takes a conscious effort on the part of adults, just as it does with a judge, to take care with their actions as well as their words. On the other hand, it is interesting to note how Yeshua, with regard to the Pharisees, many of whom had been corrupted by power and the pervasive Hellenistic influence of the ruling Roman Empire, urged his disciples “…do what they say but not what they do” (Matt. 23:2-3). These spiritual leaders knew and taught the Word of God but clearly, evident in Yeshua’s exhortation, it was common knowledge that they did not practice what they preached.

Summer_BreakThe first Scripture verse taught to Jewish children and recited in prayer every day is the “Shema” (comprised of three portions of Scripture: Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21, Num. 15:37-41). “Hear, Israel!” The prophet Micah cautions, “Shema – Listen to the rod [of the Lord’s discipline] and Him who commissioned it and not to those [who have influence in worldly society] who tell lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths” (Micah 6:9-12). Better to hear the rebuke of the Lord than the flattery and deception of the voices of the world and its culture. God’s Word is timeless and the truth of it is changeless. It never goes out of date nor becomes irrelevant. He is speaking at every moment, if only we would listen. The Israelites responded to the revelation of God at Sinai with “Na’aseh ve’nishmah” – “We will do and we will hear”.

The word nishmah also carries the meaning of ‘obey’. To fully hear means to understand and accept what one hears with a heart willing to obey. It denotes a listening obedience to the voice of the Lord. What we see, visually, often can be a distraction and even become an idol. The Israelites doubted Moses would return. They needed a god they could see and formed for themselves a Golden Calf. We can remember the disciple Thomas who doubted and Yeshua’s gracious words: “Have you believed and trusted because you have seen Me? How blessed are those who do not see, and yet have believed” (Jn.20:29). May we be quick to hear His voice and respond in wholehearted obedience, even when we do not “see” or understand completely.

We find a perfect representation of the heart of God’s Covenant Word – the Torah, the Prophets, the Gospel and the Apostolic writings – at the glorious moment of Yeshua’s transfiguration. As the bridge between Divine and human, he met with Moses and Elijah, who represented Heaven’s two witnesses, together with the three earthly witnesses of Peter, James and John. In their midst the Father clearly spoke, saying: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; shema, listen to Him!” (Matt. 17:5).

In this noisy world, echoing with innumerable voices vying for attention, it takes a determined effort to quiet the distractions, to hear the voice of our Shepherd, and to follow in willing obedience. As we hear the “still, small voice,” the whisper of the Spirit of holiness, and act in accord with it, we can help the next generation also to learn to listen and to do.

Ethics – Now & Then 7 – Avot 1:8

Avot 1:8 Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach received the tradition from them. Yehudah ben Tabbai says: “When called to judge do not act as a lawyer; when the parties to a law suit are standing before you, regard them both as capable of guilt, in the wrong; but when judgment is passed, consider them both innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.”

When called to judge do not act as a lawyer;

Yehudah ben Tabbai appears to be addressing those who act in a professional capacity as judges, when it is of great importance to remain impartial in the assessment of a case. Judges must not favor one litigant over another and must not pass judgment until all the evidence is clearly presented. The need to judge will arise in every community of people. To be in the position of judge is difficult and carries great responsibility. In the Western judiciary system the jurists also share this role.

The administration of justice plays a central role throughout the Bible. The book of Exodus narrates how, after God redeems His people from Egypt and forms them as a nation, Moses is faced with the unenviable task of making rulings and judgments on behalf of the individuals. God gave His Word but His people need to interpret it, apply it and live it out. Moses’ wise and righteous father-in-law, Jethro, intervenes and advises him to not carry the demanding and exhausting burden alone. As a result, we see the first formation of shared government in accord with the will of God.

The Scriptures also record that all of history will culminate in a Day of Judgment, when the final accounting will be made in regard to nations and individuals. As those set free from bondage in Yeshua, our Redeemer and Lord, we need not fear this judgment. We do well, however, to remember the exhortation of the prophet Micah: “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” (6:8). As we follow in the footsteps of Yeshua, we can aim to imitate our Father’s mercy and justice and, as we humbly walk with Him, allow His powerful lovingkindness to reach out and touch the lives of others for good.

when the parties to a law suit are standing before you, regard them both as capable of guilt, in the wrong…

To “regard them both as guilty” seems to be the reverse of our Western approach of, “Innocent until proven guilty.” To consider both parties as capable of guilt, at the outset, might seem negative but it is perhaps more realistic. The intention is not to condemn them both but to appreciate that even the most righteous person has weaknesses and is capable of error. Thus, initially, no person can be assumed to be totally innocent and infallible. The truth of a matter can only be revealed through an impartial examination of the evidence presented.

This is good counsel to bear in mind when, in our personal circumstances, we are called upon to judge between opinions, people, ideas or courses of action. It is wise to consider both sides or options impartially; to not immediately or automatically support one above the other like a lawyer defending a client. This objectivity is valuable even when the ‘client’ is oneself! First be open to clearly assess the weaknesses in both cases as well as the strengths – the pros and the cons. One can then make a true judgment with greater clarity and assurance.

The Talmud states beautifully, “Every judge who renders a fair decision is like a partner of the Holy One in the act of Creation” (Shabbat 119b). In every judgment we make, we have the opportunity to purposefully work together with God in bringing justice and healing to our broken and yet holy world. The first tangible symbols of justice, the Holy Law of God, are the two stone tablets that bore the words inscribed by “the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). We can only imagine the depth of emotion Moses felt when, after experiencing the wonder of the glory of the Presence of God for forty days and returning with the gift of His precious Word, he was confronted with the ‘carnival’ spectacle of the people idolizing the Golden Calf. He smashed the tablets in all-too-human despair. However, the holiness of the fragments did not disappear when the tablets were broken; they still carried the letters written by God. Although not stated in Deuteronomy 10, rabbinic literature supposes that they were gathered and placed in honor in the Ark of the Covenant together with the rewritten tablets.

That compelling supposition is a great encouragement. Sometimes we can despair at the brokenness of the sinful world, often evident in our own lives as in that of others, and yet each broken piece is holy. It was created – written on, as it were – by God and is precious in His sight. Our Father, through the work of His Son and the power of His Spirit of holiness, is actively restoring, regathering and redeeming all the scattered pieces. In all we do, we have the honor and sacred calling to participate with Him in that healing work.

…but when judgment is passed, consider them both innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.

Once a trial is over and judgment has been passed and accepted, then both parties should be considered righteous. If the trial involves two parties and they both continue to argue once the verdict is given, the verse here intimates that they both should be viewed as guilty. A righteous person would behave kindly, even if it means foregoing some of his own rights and reaching a compromise.

The same rule applies to an individual who, once convicted, accepts judgment and “pays his debt to society.” He should be considered innocent and afforded a new start in life and not retroactively be condemned because he once was found guilty. He may have acted wrongly in honest error rather than through evil intent. Even if the latter is the case, once he shows signs of true repentance and moves forward positively he should be treated as innocent. Within reasonable limits, the better choice always is to give the person the benefit of the doubt.

Ethics – Now & Then 6 – Avot 1:7

Avot 1:7 Nittai of Arbel says: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of [or abandon belief in] retribution.

Distance yourself from a bad neighbor…

Yehoshua ben Perach’yah advised us to judge everyone favorably (Avot 1:6).
On a biblical basis, we believe that all people are created good and we hope, ideally, that each one will discover and live up to their true calling as a child of our Father in Heaven. Unfortunately, there are times in life when people make bad decisions that are reflected in their lifestyle and behavior.

In this verse, Nittai of Arbel cautions in regard to a neighbor who is in close proximity and involved in your life. When a realistic judgment has been made and the person proves to be a bad influence, then the wisest course of action is to keep your distance. If the negative lifestyle of neighbors at home or at work can affect you personally, whether physically or emotionally, then discretion is advised. In extreme conditions it may be advisable to consider changing jobs or moving to a different location.

…do not associate with a wicked person

The counsel of the first phrase is reinforced and amplified in the second. It is good to show kindness to all, but the word ‘associate’ in Hebrew is chaber, as in chaver – a close friend – and indicates becoming closely connected with. We naively may believe that, no matter how wicked a person may be, our influence for good may cause him to change for the better. As often happens, however, a negative environment exerts a powerful influence and association with evil can prove fatal. Only God knows and can reach a person’s deepest heart and He constantly pursues each person in His powerful love. While we must sincerely pray for mercy upon the wicked, it is wise to leave them in God’s hands. There are rare occasions when one specifically is called to act in a particular case, as Moses was with Pharaoh, but in general it is too great a risk to take.

The Midrash sums it up well in commentary on Korach’s rebellion in B’midbar, the book of Numbers, chapter 16. Korach was a Levite and cousin to Moses and Aaron. Dothan and Abiram were of the tribe of Reuben who were camped alongside the Levites and were thus neighbors of Korach. They joined him and along with him became principal instigators in the rebellion. Eventually they suffered the same fate. The Midrash states: “Woe betides the wicked, and woe his neighbor; [but] good attends the tzaddik [the righteous], and good attends his neighbor.” [1]

And do not despair of [or abandon belief in] retribution.

There are various ways one can read this. Very often in life the enemies of God, and even the outright wicked, seem to prosper and to enjoy great wealth and success. They appear to lead a “good” life. The Sages remind us to not be tempted to compromise and to join them in any way for there will be Divine retribution for the lawless. In business, for example, an honest person cannot partner with the dishonest and retain his respectability. Reckoning will come and often the dishonest will escape while the honest is left to face the consequences.

We also can understand Nittai of Arbel to be saying that we should not forget that while the wicked may prosper in this life all must face the Day of Judgment and receive either reward or retribution. This does not mean that we should look forward in a negative manner to the punishment of the wicked but that one constantly should be aware of one’s own behavior and be ready to instantly repent of one’s misdeeds.

Another aspect to consider is the unanswerable question, “Why does the All-powerful God allow bad things to happen to His people?” All we can be sure of as we work through the physical and spiritual challenges that arise, is that even when life is difficult, and even painful at times, the eternal results and rewards will be for our best good. As the apostle Peter reminds us, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Messiah Yeshua” (1Pet.1 6-7).

We also can trust that as we press on to know Him more, and grow in righteousness as we become more like Him, we will be an influence of good to our neighbors and environment. We need not “despair, nor abandon belief” in the character of God and in the fact that He is a just Judge. His love for us is greater than we can yet imagine and on the day that we will “see Him as He is,” all His purposes will be made clear and there will be great rejoicing!

 

Endnotes:

1. Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 4;8

Ethics – Now & Then 5 – Avot 1:6

Avot 1:6 Yehoshua ben Perach’yah and Nittai the Arbelite received the tradition from them. Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: Provide yourself with a teacher; get yourself a friend, and judge all men favorably.

Yehoshua ben Perach’yah [lit. Flower of God] and Nittai the Arbelite received the tradition from them.

This next pair of the Second Century BCE zugot were students of Yossei ben Yo’ezer and Yossei of Jerusalem and they took over the positions of Nasi and Av Beit Din from them. We are told that Nittai was from Arbel, a town in the Lower Galilee north of Tiberias, which is referred to by the prophet Hosea as Beit Arbel. [1]

Provide yourself with a teacher…

Three points are emphasized by Yehoshua ben Perach’yah, which we may assume are each related to the study of Torah. The study of God’s Word is considered a sacred act in the service of God. It should, therefore, be approached with a sense of duty – deliberately, consistently and systematically.

The counsel shared here indicates that the onus is upon oneself to ensure that one finds a teacher that is suited to the area and level of study that one needs at any particular stage of one’s study and learning. The teaching that will benefit yourself will be that which, while challenging your thinking, also comfortably draws response from yourself.

In our day, the Internet has opened endless opportunities for learning and the choices can be overwhelming. Directionless study leads to confusion rather than clarity of understanding. As a result, one could avoid study of the Word altogether and one’s spirit would suffer the consequent lack of nourishment and growth. More than ever, we need to trust in the guidance of the Lord for discernment as to what course of study to pursue at any particular time. Once found, we need to apply ourselves and to see it through to the best of our ability, knowing that He will reward our diligence and service to Him.

When study is undertaken in service and worship of God, we can trust that God Himself will direct us in our pursuits by His Spirit. The Scriptures reassure us that this is indeed the case, as in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in YHWH with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” King David beautifully expresses his confidence in the faithfulness of God to teach him and to lead him in wisdom and truth: “Guide me in Thy truth, and teach me; For Thou art the God of my salvation… Good and upright is YHWH: Therefore will He instruct sinners in the way. The meek will He guide in justice; and the meek will He teach His way” (Psalm 25:5, 8, 9). Also, in Psalm 73:24, “Thou wilt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.”

Yeshua, when teaching his disciples in preparation for his approaching death, assures them: “ When he, the Spirit of truth is come, he shall guide you into all truth…” (John 16:13). We, too, can place our full trust in the Shepherd of our souls, now seated at the right hand of the Throne of Grace, knowing that He will guide us safely in the power of the Spirit of holiness and truth that, through His gift of grace, dwells within us.

The Hebrew word translated as ‘provide’ in Avot 1:6 is osseh, which generally means ‘make’. We can therefore also read this phrase as, “Make of yourself a teacher.” As we saw in Avot 1:1 with, “Raise up many disciples”, the Sages considered it a great mitzvah (good deed) to pass on the teachings of God that one learns to other disciples. Yeshua himself exhorted his disciples, “Go… and make disciples of all nations…. teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). The Greek verb ‘go’ better translates as ‘in your going’ or as you go. As you learn and grow and go forward, trust the Lord to open doors and provide opportunities, each as unique as one’s own particular circumstance, to share the knowledge that is imparted to you of the character and the ways of God. We can do this with the assurance that he is with us and enabling us, as Yeshua promised, “I am with you always, [even] to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Indeed, we read in the inspiring record of the subsequent acts of the first disciples that “…the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples (talmidim – students) multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly” (Acts 6:7).

…get yourself a friend

In Hebraic tradition, both a spiritual teacher and a friend, or companion in study, are considered the highest level of relationship apart from one’s spouse and family. The number of teachers and close friends one will acquire through one’s life is necessarily small and each one is therefore valued and cherished. Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated ‘get’ in this phrase is kaneh, which also means ‘buy’. One cannot literally buy a true friend; however, to build a strong friendship carries a cost in the amount of care, commitment and communication one invests. It’s a give-and-take relationship. In the context of Avot, and Torah study in general, the closest friend one can find is a study partner. The best way to learn is to share ideas, to agree and disagree, to help and encourage one another in learning and in growing “for the sake of Heaven.”

…and judge all men favorably.

No matter how important it is to have teachers and friends who can teach and advise us, this last phrase reminds us that the ultimate responsibility lies with us as we aim to make the most wise and correct judgments in the daily issues we are faced with. More often than not, those decisions involve other people.

The most common symbol for judgment is a pair of scales. In particular cases, the weight of evidence may clearly prove a person’s guilt. However, in our general dealings with others the scales are balanced, as it were; we do not know all the evidence to be had. Only God knows the heart and sees the full picture of any person’s life. We, therefore, are exhorted to judge others in a favorable light; to give the benefit of the doubt in lovingkindness.

Offering an interesting perspective, Rabbi Twerski refers to the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760; the founder of the Hassidic movement in Eastern Europe) who said that the world around us is like a mirror and “…inasmuch as we are unlikely to recognize our character defects, God allows us to see them in others. When we see faults in others, we should be aware that it’s our own reflection that we see, and that those defects are really our own.” [2] Whatever really irks us in others is the very thing that reminds us of a similar weakness in ourselves. Once we are aware of this challenging reality, we can be encouraged to pray for understanding. When the Lord clearly convicts us, we can repent, receive forgiveness and grow stronger in that very area – for His greater glory.

Yeshua taught his disciples emphatically: “Judge not, that you be not judged.
For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged” (Matt. 7:1-2). We may make the application in this context: “Judge favorably, that you may be judged favorably!” This principle also is strongly emphasized in Rabbinic literature as in, for example, “By the yardstick that a man uses to measure – by that will he himself be measured” (Mishna, Sotah 1:7).

Luke expands Yeshua’s teaching beautifully and connects judgment and forgiveness: “And judge not, and you shall not be judged; and condemn not, and you shall not be condemned; forgive, and you shall be forgiven” (6:37-38). Forgiveness implies judgment. When we judge that an action is wrong and has hurt us and had an adverse effect, it calls for either forgiveness or revenge. In this regard Yeshua also taught in the model Disciple’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12) or as David Stern simply translates: “Forgive us what we have done wrong, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.” [3]

I recently read, as part of an anonymous quote worth consideration, that we should aim, in love, to “forgive without punishing.” This is particularly appropriate in response to true repentance, as we see in the case of the two men crucified alongside Yeshua. Both were sinners and yet he said to one, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This indicates that repentance draws forth forgiveness. What made a difference here was the state of the men’s hearts. When facing death, together with the one who was the bearer of eternal life, one heart changed, the other did not. At the same time, we see the greatest display of favorable judgment when Yeshua prayed for those who were crucifying him, “Father forgive them, for they do not understand what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).

The prophet Zechariah exhorts: Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another” (7:9). God’s heart of love always leans toward forgiveness, healing and redemption and his scales of judgment are tipped towards mercy rather than unyielding justice. In His love, may our hearts and lives reflect the same.

 

Endnotes:

1. Hosea 10:14; Pirke Avot, Kravitz and Olitzky; 15

2. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 34

3. David H. Stern, Complete Jewish Bible; 1230

Ethics – Now & Then 4 – Avot 1:5

Avot 1:5 Yossei ben Yochanan of Jerusalem says: Let your house be open wide; treat the poor as members of your household; and do not converse excessively with women. They said this even about one’s own wife; surely it applies to another’s wife. Consequently the Sages said: Anyone who converses excessively with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects Torah study, and eventually will inherit Gehinnom.

Let your house be open wide…

The impetus of this portion of the verse is hospitality. The key biblical symbol of hospitality is Abraham’s tent – ohel Avraham, which was open on all four sides in order to welcome passersby from all directions. Yossei ben Yo’ezer emphasized the value of opening one’s home to sages and students of the Word, and Yossei ben Yochanan stresses that, in addition, it should be open to all. This generous trait would have been particularly pertinent to him as he lived in Jerusalem. Jews from the ‘four corners of the earth’ as well as from all parts of the Land, including Yeshua and his family, would go up to Jerusalem for the three major annual Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Although thousands of visitors would arrive in the city, it is recorded in Chapter 5 that no one ever lacked accommodation at these times; which indicates that the Jerusalemites must have had their homes open wide!

The Hebrew word translated ‘wide’, lar’vacha, also connotes ‘relief’.[1] In a wider sense then, offering hospitality, which includes the word ‘hospital’, means rendering help and relief to those in need; something that can be accomplished in many different ways.

…treat the poor as members of your household

Based on God’s command in Deuteronomy 15:11, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land,” the practice of tzedakah – giving to those in need, usually in the form of financial or material aid to the poor – is considered one of the central mitzvot (good deeds commended in the Bible). A glowing example of generous giving is found in Proverbs: “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (31:20). The character trait of giving is first exhibited by God Himself. He is the Giver and the constant sustainer of life. Ultimately, in His great love for the world, He gave His uniquely begotten Son that all may inherit eternal life (Jn. 3:16).

The importance and centrality of the ethic of generous giving is continued in the 1st Century Church, as we see in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he comments on the exhortation he received from Peter, James and John at his meeting with them in Jerusalem. “They asked us to remember the poor; the very thing I was eager to do,” (2:10). These friends and disciples of Yeshua, now the leaders of the early believers, clearly recalled his teaching that when you share your earthly possessions and give to the poor you are storing up “treasures in heaven” (Lk. 18:22).

Yossei of Jerusalem stresses here that what one gives is important and how one gives is of equal importance. We, usually, would offer aid to a family member with kindness and empathy, taking care to not embarrass them but to encourage them and to lift their spirits. In the same way, we should give happily and graciously to others in need as we are able. This motivation and sensitivity should apply whether giving to a beggar in the street, to a friend, or to a trustworthy charitable organization.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, from another perspective, offers the good advice that one should not be over-generous when giving charity, or extending hospitality.[2] If a family member dropped by for a meal, for example, one would not feel pressurized to prepare a lavish dinner but would simply share what was at hand. This understanding removes much unnecessary stress in opening one’s home in hospitality as well as in giving to the needy. We can happily give from the means we have available, whether they be abundant or meager, luxurious or simple.

…and do not converse excessively with women. They said this even about one’s own wife; surely it applies to another’s wife.

This verse can be misread to discourage conversation and verbal communication between men and women, even between husband and wife. Communication is good, and vital to relationship, as we see so beautifully illustrated from the very beginning. God spoke all of Creation into existence and was in communion with the angels when He created the first human beings. A glorious picture of God’s intention in relationship is seen in the Garden of Eden with the Creator’s first conversation with mankind. He walked and talked with Adam, sharing His will and purposes with him and teaching him His ways. As glorious as this must have been, when God instructs him to name the animals Adam realizes he is lonely for someone equal to him to share in the goodness of God and to converse with. Only then God creates and presents him with “bone from his bone and flesh from his flesh” – his female counterpart, Eve.

Genesis 2:25 tells us that this first husband and wife were “naked and not ashamed.” Our first understanding is that they were physically naked – clothed only in the light of the glory of God. An added understanding is that they were transparent and open in their communication with one another. They shared their whole being and therefore were one. They were truly echad in the sight of God and in relationship with one another. They were two-being-one in fellowship in the glory and beauty of the Presence of God – and there we see His goal for all His children, His family, His people; at all times and through all eternity.

Here, considering the world’s fallen condition and the brokenness of man, Yossei from Jerusalem offers the practical advice that one should strive to curtail excessive or meaningless conversation. While this is obvious in the case of indulging in unnecessary and maybe frivolous chatter with other women, which, as the Sages warn, could lead to sin and dire consequences, a man should avoid this excess even with his wife. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch provides an edifying insight: “A man who truly respects his wife will have more to offer her than just trivial talk and idle chatter for her amusement. He will want to discuss with her the serious concerns of life and will derive enjoyment from the resulting exchange of views and counsel.”[3]

A serious form of “excessive talk” is gossip or lashon ha’ra (lit. bad talk or an evil tongue). We might feel that it is fine to tell our spouse, or anyone else, something negative about someone else. If, however, it is information that he/she does not need to know, such as a warning in order to avoid damage of some kind, then it is lashon ha’ra. And if this applies to one’s spouse, how much more is it applicable in communication with others. We should always weigh our words carefully and avoid sharing things that serve no constructive purpose and might cause added distress to another.

Consequently the Sages said: Anyone who converses excessively with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects Torah study, and eventually will inherit Gehinnom.

The Hebrew word sicha, translated as converse here, means idle talk.
General chit-chat about the events of the day, for example, is pleasant and advisable up to a point. However, if we are aiming to elevate and sanctify our days and time in avodah, service of God, as the Sages exhort in Avot 1:1, then sicha is best kept to a minimum and true communion of thought should be our goal. This particularly applies to one’s spouse, one’s closest confidante and partner in life.

Any excessive form of ‘idle talk’ should be avoided with others. With the distraction this causes, valuable time is lost and wasted that could rather be applied to the study of the Word of God and related teachings. Indulgence in this frivolous form of distraction is viewed as a slippery slope that leads to a growing separation from God Himself and which could end in Gehinnom – a lost eternity apart from His Presence.

Let us rather, then, remember the couple who walked and talked with Yeshua on the road to Emmaus and whose hearts burned within them as “…beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk.24:27). In fellowship with Him, and as the eyes of our understanding are opened to see Him more and more clearly, let us joyfully go forth to share His resurrected life.
Endnotes:

1. Pirkei Avot, Artscroll Mesorah Series; 10

2. Rabbi A. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 28

3. S.R. Hirsch, Saying of the Fathers, The Hirsch Siddur,442

Ethics – Now & Then 3 – Avot 1:3-4

Avot 1:3 Antigonus, of Socho, received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He was accustomed to say: Be not as servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving [even a token of] reward, but rather, be like servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving reward; and the fear of Heaven should be upon you.

Antigonus (2nd Century BCE) took over the position of leadership from Shimon Ha’Tzaddik . His focal teaching stressed that while we believe there will be a reward for obeying God’s commands, and punishment for sinning against Him, we should not allow this to be the primary motivation for our actions.

An interesting note in rabbinic literature illustrates how a point taken out of context can lead to great error. This teaching of Antigonus’, that one should not serve God in the hopes of a reward, was misapplied by two of his students who extended it to mean that there is no life after death. Consequently, one of these, Tzadok, is said to have founded the Sadducees – a sect of Judaism that denied resurrection of the dead and emphasized the reward of earthly material wealth. One may surmise that this eventually led to, or at least largely contributed to, later greed and corruption evidenced in the Temple leadership.

…be like servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving reward;

The premise emphasized by Antigonus was that a mitzvah, or good deed, should be motivated by love, to please God; as a lover does something for his or her beloved without consideration for what s/he will get in return. When one acts for reward, the aim is to benefit oneself. When the beloved is the focus, the deed is performed in simplicity and grace, in an attempt to bring joy to the other.

Rabbi Twerski, a modern-day Torah scholar and psychologist, makes an observation on motivation that is worth considering. He points out that “reward and punishment are essentially juvenile motivations.”[1] One uses them to teach small children. When they are disobedient, a scolding or even a spanking reinforces that what they have done is unacceptable behavior and will be detrimental to themselves and/or others. He recalls that as a child he was bribed to go to the dentist with the promise of a comic book after the visit. As he matured he realized that taking care of his teeth was not to satisfy his parents but was ultimately for his own good. Rules were based on their care and love for him.

This concept is simply and beautifully described by Ellyn Sana, in her small devotional book, Grace:
As children, we probably felt sometimes as though rules had no purpose but to make us miserable.
We didn’t always understand that our parents’ love was behind their rules.
As adults, we often have the same attitude towards God’s rules.
We feel as though a life of sin might be easier, more fun.
But instead, it’s just the opposite.
God always knows what will give us joy.
His rules are designed to make us shine.

…and the fear of Heaven should be upon you.

“Fear of Heaven” is another way of saying reverential awe of the majesty of God. This ‘fear’ is what one should maintain at the core, even as one grows in loving and intimate relationship with Him. The same concept is expressed in human relationships. A husband and wife, for example, need to grow in respect of the other even as their love grows. It also is inherent in the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “You shall honor your father and your mother.” We know that our earthly parents are not perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect; nevertheless, due to the fact that they partnered with God in giving one life, they are worthy of a child’s respect.

It is a mistake to consider closeness with our Father as an excuse for laxity in obeying His commandments. Jesus said, “I call you friends/yedidim” (Jn. 15:15). If this, unfortunately, would cause one to relate to the Father, as “our Buddy in Heaven” it inevitably would lead to a loss of “awe” and to taking excessive liberties. Verse 14 has the qualifier, “…if you do the things which I command you.”

The root of yedidim is yad, hand. Yedid (friend) reflects yad, yad , which means “hand in hand”. God, in love, reaches out His mighty, gracious hand of Salvation to us in His Son Yeshua and we can gratefully, lovingly and in great awe take hold and be drawn into His very Presence. What a cause for eternal, awesome wonder. Yeshua then expresses the goal of his teaching for his friends: “…that you may love one another” (Jn.15:17). If we have taken hold of His hand, our other hand will be extended in love to one another.

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Avot 1:4 Yossei ben Yo’ezer, of Tzeredah, and Yossei ben Yochanan, of Jerusalem, received the tradition from them.

Yossei ben Yo’ezer, of Tzeredah, says: Let your house be a meeting place for sages (Torah teachers); you shall become dusty in the dust of their feet; and you shall drink their words with thirst.

After Anitgonus came a change in the structure of leadership. Rather than one person carrying all the authority and responsibility for the people, the position was shared between two. They were given the titles of Nasi (literally, ‘prince’ or president) and Av Beit Din (literally ‘father of the court’, or chief judge).

The first of the zugot, or pairs, were both named Yossei, a derivative of Yosef, Joseph. Yossei, the son of Yo’ezer, was from a priestly family in Tzeredah, a town in the tribal area of Ephraim, and Yossei the son of Yochanan was a Jerusalemite. Yossei ben Yo’ezer was renowned for his piety and learning and was the first to be appointed to the position of Nasi. Yossi ben Yochanan served with him as Av Beit Din. He was the chief judge in any legal matters and presided over the Sanhedrin in the absence of the Nasi.

Yossei ben Yo’ezer said, Let your house be a meeting place for sages…

It was considered an honor and a blessing for a respected sage and teacher to enter and spend time in one’s home; for it to be a “meeting place for sages”. When a godly sage was present it was appreciated that one would learn as much from his actions as from his words.

On wider application, one should aim to fill one’s home with Torah/Bible study and students of the Word in order that it may be filled with an atmosphere of godly Kingdom-conversation. One commentator compares this to a perfumery. Simply by entering and spending time there one would absorb some of the sweet fragrance.

…you shall become dusty in the dust of their feet;

In the time of the Sages, the rabbi or teacher would sit on a chair or bench and the students would sit on the floor around him. Teaching, however, was not only confined to scholars in study halls or school classrooms. As we see with Yeshua, rabbis taught in the Temple precincts and, as itinerant teachers, would travel from town to town and teach the wider populace. In his day the study of Torah and related teachings was a national pastime!

In Genesis 32:25, the Hebrew word vaye’avek, wrestled, is from the same root as avak, dust.[2] If one wrestles on the ground, dust is stirred up. In the same way, one should study and “wrestle” with the Word – discuss, question, debate vigorously. When it is done with respect and “for the sake of Heaven” one need not be afraid to raise some ‘dust’.

As an itinerant teacher, we see Yeshua teaching on hillsides in the Galilee, at the shore of the lake, in the local synagogues and in the homes of friends, as with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. Also in cases such as that of Zacchaeus the tax collector in Jericho (Lk. 19). Mary of Bethany presents a classic and beautiful illustration of a disciple sitting at the feet of her teacher in a home setting and also, as Yossi ben Yo’ezer states in this verse, drinking in his words thirstily (Lk.10:39).

…and you shall drink their words with thirst.

The psalmist describes this longing well: “As a deer pants for water from flowing streams, so my soul thirsts for You, O God” (Ps.42:1). The prophet Isaiah calls to those seeking after God, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…” (55:1) Water is life! In the following verses of the chapter, Isaiah clarifies that the words that go forth from the LordYHWH – are the life-giving food and water; the sustenance that delights and brings peace and joy.

A significant connection is made in the gospels with ‘living water’ and Yeshua – the Torah incarnate, the Word made flesh. In John’s account of Yeshua’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well in Shechem (Jn.4), he recognizes her spiritual thirst and offers her a drink of living water. This analogy, and the life and refreshing she indeed experiences in her spirit, opens her eyes to the truth of who he is – the promised Messiah of God. As a result many people of her village receive the water of eternal life. To taste of this water and to know the life it brings, causes one continually to remain close to the Source and to drink of it gratefully and joyfully with an eternal “thirst” that nothing else can satisfy.

Interestingly, in Orthodox Judaism one says a blessing in gratitude to God before drinking any beverage, whether one is thirty or not. The only exception is water. The blessing is recited only if one is thirsty, when the water is truly appreciated. Nothing gratifies like a long drink of cool water when one is tired, hot and really thirsty! We should experience the same satisfaction and appreciation whenever we study the Word of God that brings life and refreshment to our spirit.

 

Endnotes:

1. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 21

2. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 1; 52

 

Ethics – Now & Then 2 – Avot 1:1-2

Pirkei Avot 1:1  Moses received the Torah from [God Who revealed Himself at Mount] Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; develop many disciples; and make a [protective] fence for the Torah.

Star of David ENT

The opening chapter begins with the initial links of the chain of our biblical heritage. The first is God Himself who spoke the mighty Ten Words to the people He had called, redeemed from Egypt and gathered as His nation at Mount Sinai. He then gave His Torah, or teachings, to Moses – the appointed leader and representative of His newly formed, holy and set apart nation. Moses taught the people and conveyed the safeguarding and tranmisson of the Torah to Joshua, his closest and most devoted student and servant, who was the one destined by God to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land after Moses’ death.

Once in the Land, and the tribes were dispersed to their various allocated areas, a greater number of teachers of God’s laws and ways were needed. Joshua then passed the Torah on to the Elders or Judges. The mantle of leadership and teaching of the nation, as recorded in the book of Judges, was carried by them for 400 years when it shifted to the Prophets. We see this shift happen when leadership is transferred from Eli to the prophet Samuel, (1 Sam. 3:20; 7:15). This transition is interesting as it illustrates how, in the understanding and teaching of God’s Word, there constantly is a need for direct communication in word or vision from the Source, the Great Teacher to whom all things are eternally linked. Both a thorough knowledge of the Word and direct, personal guidance from God by His Spirit are necessary to truly walk in His ways. With this combination, the teachings of God can be preserved faithfully and be transmitted with integrity to the next generation.

The Prophets conveyed the Torah to the Men of the Great Assembly, who were a group of 120 elders, including prophets and great Torah scholars. Among them were Ezra, Zerubavel, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. This form of leadership, which evolved into the Sanhedrin of the Temple and the zugot (pairs of leaders) the Nasi (lit. Prince, or President) and the Av Beit Din (Father of the Court, or Chief Judge), lasted two centuries from about 130 BCE until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the resulting great exile of the majority of the Jewish people from the Land. [1] This illustrious group obviously conveyed many wise teachings, judgments and pronouncements but here in Avot 1:1 they are distilled to three major principles, which although applicable to the individual are directed to the wider community:

 …be deliberate in judgment. 

The Hebrew word translated as ‘deliberate’ is metunim, which also means ‘be patient’. Effective deliberation when making a decision requires sufficient time as well as the mental effort that is involved. To one extent or another, in major issues or in daily, comparatively trivial matters, we all are judges. We often are called upon to make decisions that affect others as well as ourselves. Avot cautions us not to be hasty in our decision making. While avoiding the awful error of procrastination, acting hastily without deliberation might indicate that one is too proud, or too lazy, to seek the counsel of others who can offer objective advice. The most important factor in making any judgment is to take the time to pray and to trust our Father to clarify and confirm His directions in the matter. As Yeshua said: “ …I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (Jn. 8:28). Also, “For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (Jn. 5:19).

…develop, or raise up, many disciples.

The word ‘disciples’ in Hebrew is talmidim, meaning students. A student is one who studies and learns from his or her teacher, not only mentally but in how to live. In our context, as in that of Yeshua’s disciples, the central focus and primary source of study is the Word of God, the Hebrew Scriptures; which, throughout his life, death and resurrection Yeshua filled full of meaning. This was evidenced and reflected in his recorded teachings and that of the Apostles. Yeshua was the Living Torah and he said, “Follow me!”  His life, as he walked this earth, was a shining example and testimony to all mankind of what it means to walk in the ways of our Father. As we walk after Him, we are enabled likewise to raise up and “develop many disciples” in truth and in the knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

 …make a protective fence for the Torah.

God commanded that His foundational teaching, the Torah, be passed down uninterrupted from generation to generation (Joel 1:3). The menorah in the Holy Place was a symbol of the light and truth of His Word and He proclaimed that the tending of it, “…shall be a statute forever throughout your generations” (Lev. 24:3).

The Torah itself never changes. However, just as the methodology of teaching adapts to each generation, for example with the advent of the printing press and then with the invention of new technological tools, so too decisions would need to be made as to how to apply the biblical teachings and commandments in a way that was relevant to the life and culture of the day. In the process, care would need to be taken to safeguard the absolute principles of God’s Word and to ascertain that the basic and inherent truth would not be compromised.

The Sages of Israel, and later the rabbis (teachers), determined to institute rulings that would protect a person from transgressing the core commandments. By way of comparison, if a parent wants to teach a child to not run in the road, which could put his or her life in danger, as well as saying, “Do not run in the road!” additional rules could be made; such as, “You may only play in the front yard if an older person is with you.” Or, “When we are on the sidewalk you must walk next to Mommy or Daddy, and if we cross the road you must hold onto one of our hands.”

Just as a caring earthly parent, the basis of God our Father’s instruction and guidance is a deep love for each of His children. Therefore, as the wise Ben Bag Bag exhorts us in a later chapter of Pirkei Avot:

“Delve in the Torah and continue to delve in the Torah, for everything is in it; look deeply into it; grow old and gray over it, and do not stir from it, for you can have no better portion than it” (5:26).

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Avot 1:2  Shimon the Righteous was [one] of the remnants of the Great Assembly. He was accustomed to say: The world is based on three things – on the Torah, on the service [worship of God], and upon loving-kindness.

Following Ezra, Shimon the Righteous (Shimon HaTzaddik) was the High Priest in the Second Temple for forty years. On one important occasion, it is said, he greeted Alexander the Great at the entrance to Jerusalem clothed in his Golden Garments. The Greek conqueror was so impressed with the glorious appearance and demeanor of the tzaddik that he decreed against attacking Israel and declared Shimon governor of the land. As a leader, he was a living example of the principles he taught others. This verse summarizes the basis of all he believed. Indeed, the might and glory of the Greek Empire, exemplified by Alexander the Great, has long since faded but the truths expressed by Shimon HaTzaddik remain timeless.

The three ‘roots’ of the Jewish nation are the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – who reflect the three principles. Abraham personified acts of loving-kindness through his outstanding hospitality (Gen. 18:1). Isaac, through his honor and trust of his father and willingness to be sacrificed, embodies service to God (Gen. 22). Jacob is described in Genesis 25:27 as “a man of simplicity [wholesomeness] abiding in the tents.” In rabbinic literature, tents are considered a metaphor for places of Torah study. Jacob, despite his long exile in pagan Aram, remained true to the God of his fathers and to the teachings of God that he had learned in their tents.

Renowned medieval Torah commentator, Rashi (France, 1049-1105), offers the understanding that the observance of these three principles was the justification for the continued existence of the world; and, it may even be considered, that God had created the world for these particular values. Rabbi Abraham Twerski M.D., well-known American psychologist and expert in the treatment of substance abuse as well as a respected Hassidic Torah scholar, points out that the three principles correspond to the three essential human relationships: man with God, man with his fellow man; and man with himself. Acts of loving-kindness (chessed) connect one in relationship with one’s fellow man, service of God (avodah – acts of worship, e.g., prayer and praise) connects one in relationship with God; and the study of Torah, the whole inspired Word of God, enables one to understand and connect with one’s true self.

Another interesting triad is offered by way of comparison in the commentary Ein Ya’akov. Three good and sustaining gifts were given by God to the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness:

  • the manna  – Torah [daily bread, represented by Moses who conveyed the Word of God to the people]
  • the cloud of glory  – worship and service [Presence of God, represented by Aaron who entered the Holy of Holies as High Priest]
  • the well of water  – acts of loving-kindness [life-giving water, represented by Miriam, who initially was a midwife and symbolizes the nurturing care of women].

Yeshua confirmed and affirmed these principles by embodying and illustrating them as the radiance of the Presence of God, and the Bread and Water of Life. He encapsulated them when asked what he considered to be the greatest of God’s commandments and he immediately quoted a key verse of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deut.6:5). He then continued, “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev.19:18). On these two commandments depend the whole Torah and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40).

Our love for, and relationship with, our Father God, evidenced in our avodah – our worship and service in obedience to His Word, is tested and proven in our relationships with the people He places in our path. “Aye, there’s the rub!” as William Shakespeare would say, or in American vernacular, “That’s where the rubber meets the road!” Words and deeds are the outward, tangible expressions of what is in one’s mind and heart and are indications of the state of one’s spirit. Is it empty, cold and unloving, or is it nourished with the Word of God, inspired by the fire of His Spirit, and flowing with the giving, sacrificial love of Yeshua?

 

Endnotes:

1. During the time of the Men of the Great Assembly, while under Graeco-Roman rule and facing the threat of dispersion, the leaders realized the need to establish a fixed canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also undertook the task of committing the extensive Oral Torah passed down since Sinai to a written form, resulting in the Mishnah (completed by 200 CE/AD) and the Gemarah, composed of interpretations and elaborations of the former (by 500 CE). The word Gemarah has the Hebrew root gamar, meaning ‘to complete’ and in Aramaic, ‘to study’. The final compendium is known as the Talmud, from the Hebrew root lamad, ‘to study,’ which is also the root of talmidim, ‘students’ or ‘disciples’. The formulation of many Scripture-based prayers, blessings and synagogue rituals are also attributed to the Men of the Great Assembly.

Undoubtably, many if not all of the ruling body known as the Sanhedrin, established once the Temple was standing, were members of the Great Assembly. Wikipedia notes:

The Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin) identifies two classes of rabbinical courts called Sanhedrin, a Great Sanhedrin and a Lesser Sanhedrin. Each city could have its own lesser Sanhedrin of 23 judges, but there could be only one Great Sanhedrin of 71, which among other roles acted as the Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. The number of judges were predicted on eliminating the possibility of a tie and the last to cast their vote was the head of the court.