Ethics – Now & Then 33 – Avot 2:21

Avot 2:21  He used to say: You are not required to complete the task, yet
                  you are not free to withdraw from it. If you have studied much
                  Torah you will receive much reward; and your Employer can
                  be relied upon to pay you the wages for your labor, but be
                  aware that the reward of the righteous will be given in the
                  world to come.

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He used to say: You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.

As an extension and amplification of verse 20, Rabbi Tarfon offers further encouragement in stressing that it is not one’s personal responsibility to complete the work God has assigned.

This reassures us of the realistic gap between aspiration and actual accomplishment. The goals we aim for might be high as we set our hearts to answer the call and to obey the will of our Father for our lives. This includes our work, relationships and leisure time, and involves spiritual growth and the control of thoughts, words and deeds in each of these areas. The daily challenge lies in living out the biblical principles of righteousness and in the practical forging ahead with the details of the task at hand. In each area we are exhorted to not be discouraged from “doing the work” due to the enormity, and at times seeming impossibility, of the task, but to understand that we must do what we can without carrying the burden of expectation to fully complete it.

In Rabbinic writings, many well-known illustrations are given of this principle. One example, from the Midrash, recounts that Emperor Hadrian saw a 100-year old man planting fig trees and asked him, perhaps sarcastically, if he hoped to ever eat any figs off of them. The old man replied, “If I am worthy I shall eat and if not, then, as my forebears have worked [to provide figs] for me, so I will work for those to come.” [1]

If you have studied much Torah you will receive much reward; and your Employer can be relied upon to pay you the wages for your labor…

The emphasis here is that the study of Torah, in and of itself, brings immediate blessing. In addition, our Divine Master is trustworthy and faithful to reward our work and efforts in the study of His Word as well as in all we do to implement what we learn in His service.

… but be aware that the reward of the righteous will be given in the world to come.

“Set your minds and keep them set on what is above (the higher things), not on the things that are on the earth.” (Col. 3:2 AMP)

The end of the story and the final outcome of one’s life does not occur in this world. The true and eternal reality will be revealed in the world to come when the Kingdom of God is fully established in the new heavens and earth at the end of time as we know it. We cannot measure our success or rewards in “this-worldly” terms, by natural and physical means.

A story in the Jerusalem Talmud [2] describes how a great scholar, Elisha ben Avuya, lost his faith in God. He saw a young man, at the request of his father, gathering eggs from a nest high in a tree. The youth first let the mother bird fly off, as commanded by Torah in what the Sages deemed the “least of the commandments” (Deut. 22:6). While climbing down, he fell and died. The reward for this specific command, together with the command to honor one’s mother and father, the only one of the Ten Commandments that promises the same, is a long life. The incident seemed to blatantly contradict the promise in the Torah and Avuya’s trust in God was shaken. His son-in-law, Rabbi Ya’akov, taught the understanding that, although some blessing may be enjoyed in this world as a result of faithful obedience, all rewards promised by God are intended for the world-to-come. He believed that if Avuya had accepted this truth his faith would have remained strong. [3]

Our motivation in serving Him is not for the reward but in order to live as a person of integrity, mercy and righteousness in accord with our Master’s will. In harmony with that of Yeshua and the early disciples, the vision of the Sages strongly upholds a cooperative community life, infused with peace, kindness, love and holiness. No one person can accomplish God’s redemptive plan on earth; each of us can only contribute to the whole. When we wholeheartedly support and encourage one another, in a united effort, then His Salvation breaks forth more fully in our midst.

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Conclusion of Chapter 2

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

Footnotes:

1. Lev. Rabbah 25:5
2. T.Y. Pesach – Hagigah 2:1
3. William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 102

Ethics – Now & Then 32 – Avot 2:20

Avot 2:20  Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the work is great, the
                  laborers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the
                  house is insistent.

Rabbi Tarfon says:

In verses 10-19 the focus was on the sayings of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s five major students; Chapter 2 ends, however, with two verses that quote Rabbi Tarfon. Both are related to the work ethic and might well rank in the top most quoted of the tractate. Rabbi Tarfon (Tryphon, Gr.) was a disciple of the learned and pious Yehudah haNasi. He was recognized as a great scholar and his opinion on any matter always was sought first. He also was noted for being modest and unassuming and was highly regarded for his kindness and generosity. [1]

Tarfon was a mentor and colleague of the renowned Rabbi Akivah, who later supported the military uprising against Rome led by Bar Kochba that met with catastrophic defeat at the battle of Bethar (c.135 CE). In the wake of Roman vengeance, thousands were killed and Akivah suffered a particularly cruel execution. Facing the reality of widespread and violent reprisals, Rabbi Tarfon was extremely wary of any messianic figure, probably including Yeshua, and denounced as heretics those who turned away from worship of the One God of Israel in order to follow a new Savior. He is quoted as saying, “If a man pursued me to slay me… I would take refuge in a house of idolatry and not in one of their houses: for idol worshippers do not recognize the Holy One, Blessed be He, and thus deny Him, but they recognize Him and deny Him.” [2]

Tarfon was very wealthy and owned many fields, orchards and vineyards. He thus employed many laborers, whom he treated well and gave fair wages. The Talmud records an incident of a time he visited one of his less frequented orchards and ate some of the fruit. The watchman did not recognize him and mistook him for a trespasser and thief. He apprehended him and beat him mercilessly, then tied him in a sack intending to throw him in the river. Rabbi Tarfon called out and when the watchman realized it was his master, he freed him and fell at his feet begging forgiveness. Rabbi Tarfon responded, “Believe me, with every blow you gave me, I promptly forgave you.” [3] Perhaps this encounter with possible death heightened his already great sensitivity to the plight of others, for he also is quoted as saying, “I doubt whether there is anyone in this generation who is qualified to rebuke others. Everyone has defects of their own.” [4]

The day is short, the work is great…

Ha’yom katzer, ha’melacha merubah… Verse 20 succinctly sums up our very human predicament. To consider the immense challenge of life, with the infinite number of opportunities and possibilities it offers, becomes a daunting task when we consider our physical limitations and finite condition. The Psalmist expresses a cry of despair, “Let me know, O Lord, my end and the measure of my days, what it is; let me know how short-lived I am. Behold… my short existence, or decaying earth-time (cheldi), is as nothing before You!” (Ps. 39:5-6, Heb.)

Rabbi Irving Bunim points out the interesting fact that the word cheldi shares the same Hebrew root as the word choled – weasel. He describes how the weasel “…scampers about at great speed, burrows in the ground and dislikes the light.” He then draws the comparison, “Man’s entire career on earth resembles the weasel’s course: we constantly rush about, burrow in the earth, and hide our deeds from the public eye. The weasel also collects all kinds of bits of scraps and junk that it never really uses. Do not people do the same?” [5]

King David deduces, “…Certainly every man [even] at his best state [is] but vapor [chevel – a vanity, meaningless]. Selah.” When we consider the sum total of our natural time on earth, it can appear disappointing, even meaningless, in the grand scheme of things. Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that “the day” is short. We need to keep our primary focus on each day, with the understanding that we then can gratefully “…declare Thy loving-kindness in the morning and Thy faithfulness in the night.” [6] For, as King David also declares in Psalm 39, “And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You.” Our faith, our hope, the very meaning of all we do is in the Lord and, as Yeshua exemplified and taught, in doing the will of our Father in Heaven.

Yeshua also expressed to the disciples, with the likely intimation that they should learn from Him and do the same. “I must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (Jn.9:4). In the bright days of life, when we are healthy and in a pleasant position, we should purpose to make the most of our time in service to our King. No one knows the length of these bright “days,” nor the length of the “nights” that will befall us, the dark times of suffering and tribulation when work is limited. When the night is upon us, however, we can endure in faith, doing all we can while fully trusting in His great faithfulness.

…the laborers are lazy,

Laziness can take a debilitating toll, either as a natural inclination in man or as a result of negativity when, in the face of the enormity of the task, one arrives at the conclusion: “What’s the use of trying?” Another factor, particularly in youth, could be lack of awareness that, in reality, a lifetime is short. Consequently, a young person, and often one not-so-young, feels he can take his time and wait to tackle the serious tasks of life “later” or when he is motivated and “feels like it.” As a result, although one can remain very active in non-essential areas, one can be “lazy” in the very matters that have eternal value.

…the reward is great,

Interestingly, based on the Scripture verse Exodus 34:7 that describes how God visits the iniquity of fathers on their descendants for three to four generations and the measure of good reward to thousands, which means at least two thousand generations, the Sages formulated a basic principle of reward and punishment. “The measure of good [reward] is greater than the measure of punishment [for evil], by a ratio of 500 to 1.” [7]

This encourages us in the performance of any mitzvah, good deed. When we see the punishment recorded for any transgression, for example, theft, mistreatment of the poor, idle gossip or cruelty, we understand that when we choose to do the opposite, positive action in each instance, the reward will be five hundred times better and greater!

…and the Master of the house is insistent.

Our God is a generous Giver and great in His blessing and reward for our service to Him. He also is pressing in His demands, knowing how vital each one is in His purposes in the earth. The full importance and meaning of each task He sets us, His servants, is known only to Him. Only He can prescribe the nature and timing of the task and only He can evaluate our performance of it.

The Hebrew word for ‘work’ is avodah, which means both work and worship. When we undertake to do all that we do “for the sake of Heaven” and tackle each next thing, whether big or small, to the best of our ability with our given and sometimes limited resources and talents, we can fully trust that our true Master in Heaven is storing our reward, our just ‘wages,’ for when our avodah-work on earth is done and we stand in avodah-worship in the glory of His Presence.

Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan records two further sayings of Rabbi Tarfon that relate to the importance of work. “Man dies only from idleness, not from working.” Also, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, did not bring His Sh’chinah (Divine Presence) to dwell on the people Israel until they had done the work, for it is said: ‘Let them build Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst’” (Ex.25:8). [8]
Footnotes:

1. Talmud Yerushalmi, Yevamoth IV,12; Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 31b
2. Talmud Bavli, Shabbath 116b; Kiddushin 31b
3. Talmud Yerushalmi, Sheviis 4, quoted in Rabbi A. Twerskiʼs Visions of the Fathers; 135
4. Ibid; Arachin 16b
5. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol.1; 207
6. Psalm 92:3
7. Tosefta, Sotah IV, 1; cf. Rashi on Ex. 34:7
8. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol.1; 218

Ethics – Now & Then 31 – Avot 2:19

Avot 2:19  Rabbi Elazar says: (a) Be diligent in the study of Torah and
                  know what to answer an Epikuros (a heretic), (b) know before
                  Whom you toil; and (c) know that your Employer can be relied
                  upon to pay you the wage of your labor.

Rabbi Elazar says: (a) Be diligent in the study of Torah and know what to answer an Epikuros…

Rabbi Elazar, who previously was commended by his teacher Yochanan ben Zakkai for his observation that a good heart was the most worthy characteristic to acquire, now, in the first point of his summation, agrees with Rabbi Yossei’s emphasis that one must be diligent to study Torah (Avot 2:17). In the milieu of the God-fearing Sages this almost went without saying. In appreciation of the fact that it was a gift from God and a revelation of Himself and His will for mankind, the regard and reverence of Torah was a given. The desire, out of love for the Giver, to absorb it into one’s very being in order then to live in obedience to God’s will and in accord with the desire of His heart, was the force that motivated the Sages and their students; as it has all who have served and honored Him through the centuries to this very day.

In Rabbi Elazar’s time, Hellenism was a great challenge to faith in the One God of Israel. Together with the occupation of Israel by the Greek and Roman Empires, came the influx of the Hellenistic culture; including idolatry, the inordinate focus on physical prowess and outward beauty, and the powerful influence of Greek philosophy. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher (341 – 270 BCE) who, although he lived three centuries before Yeshua was born, had greatly influenced the philosophies of the time. Elazar therefore adds that a further benefit of being thoroughly versed in Torah was that one would be equipped to answer an Epicurean. Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary written in the 19th century, when most readers might not have been familiar with Epicurus, translates the phrase as, “Be diligent to study the Torah and know what to answer him who treats the Law with scorn.” [1] Other translations read, “…know what you will answer an unbeliever.”

There are many historical records of Rabbis being placed in situations where their faith in God, or the reality of God, is challenged by a king, emperor or a leading figure. As an example: the Sages were instructed to send a representative to Rome to dialog with the Emperor Hadrian and also with the philosophers of Athens. The one chosen was the student who was immersed in Torah even from his mother’s womb, the pious Rabbi Yehoshua. The Emperor Hadrian challenged the belief that there was a God who ruled the world – a greater Ruler than himself! He challenged, “If you do not show Him to me I cannot believe He exists.” Rabbi Yehoshua replied, “It is simple to see God; just look at the sun and you will see Him.” The Emperor tried to do so but quickly looked away. “How can I look into the sun? The light blinds me!” Rabbi Yehoshua responded, “Let Your Majesty hear what your mouth is saying.The sun is but a small fragment of God’s Creation, and its light is minuscule compared to the light of God. If you cannot look into the sun, how can you expect to look at God?” [2]

Among the many streams of Greek philosophy why does Rabbi Elazar specify the Epicureans? Outright idol worship and polytheism had little attraction for the Jewish people. The core belief of Epicureanism, however, was that all matter, including human beings, consisted solely of “atoms and the void.” The world, therefore, had no inherent purpose or meaning. All was governed by chance and human will. As a result, a peaceful, pleasurable existence was the highest good a human could achieve. It was a very amiable philosophy that valued communal life, kindness and friendship; a worthy lifestyle, but an atheistic one. It deduced that there was “no judgment and no judge.” [3] The ethical guideline espoused by Epicurus harmonizes with the teachings of Hillel and Yeshua in regard to doing to others what you would have them to do to you. “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing “neither to harm nor be harmed”), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.” [4] However, to deny that the world was created, exists and is governed according to a Divine purpose and plan is to deny God. Epicureanism, thus, was in direct conflict with faith in the God of Israel and His Word.

Although Epicureanism died out with the rise of Christianity, it has slowly revived since the Renaissance and the further discoveries of science, such as the atomic theory of chemistry. William Berkson points out that Auguste Conte, in the 19th Century, “…reintroduced Epicureanism in a new form as part of Positivism,” a view that “…everything not provable by a mechanistic explanation is to be rejected, including all tribalistic religions.” [5] When we consider Rabbi Yehoshua’s response to the Emperor Hadrian that there exists a Creator and Ruler of all, including the sun, it is little wonder that Darwin’s theory of Evolution, a conjecture in recent generations, which concurs that humanity evolved by chance from chaos, feeds into the Epicurean-based modern altruistic philosophy. If one can eliminate the Creator, the very foundation of the Word of God is undermined and consequently so is faith in Him.

One of the greatest modern scientists, Albert Einstein, observed that there was a realm beyond physics, “…a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds.” Einstein recognized that, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, science cannot answer the “ultimate questions of why there is time, why there is diversity, why there is a world rather than nothing, and why indeed there are laws of nature.” [6]

Heschel also wrote in I Asked for Wonder: “He who seeks an answer to the most piercing question, what is living? will find their answer in the Bible: man’s destiny is to be a partner [with God], rather than a master [over man]. There is a task, a law, a way: the task is very redemptive, the law, to do justice, and the way is the secret of being human and holy.”

(b) know before Whom you toil…

Rabbi Elazar, after emphasizing that once one “knows” the Torah, and becomes intimately bound with the Word of God, then one can “know” in intimate relationship the One through whom all exists and for Whom one toils upon this earth. How deeply grateful we can be that God, our mighty Creator, chose to give further revelation of Himself in His Son, His right hand of Salvation, the embodiment of His Word and His chesed (loving-kindness), that in Yeshua, Emmanuel – God with us, all mankind might come to a knowledge of God and enter an intimate and eternal relationship with Him.

We realize that the fullness of God is far beyond what our human minds can grasp or understand, and yet, through His Son, His Word, and by the gift of His Spirit of Holiness our lives increasingly can be entwined with the Father’s and, as we look to Yeshua, we can walk in harmony and accord with His will and Kingdom purposes. We cannot now fully “look” at Him without being blinded by the radiance of His glory, yet we can eagerly anticipate the promised revelation at the end of Time: “Beloved we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

(c) …know that your Employer can be relied upon to pay you the wage of your labor.

We are encouraged to remember while laboring on earth that our true Employer is our Father in Heaven. He calls us to do His will and to fulfill His purposes for the life He has given us. It is to Him we must ultimately give account. While we labor we have the comfort of knowing that He watches over us, not as a hard taskmaster who gives burdens too difficult to bear and makes great demands with little reward, but as a loving Father who guides and trains us. One who disciplines when necessary for one’s own good and, even when they might not be evident in the material world, stores up great and generous rewards in the world to come.

In His amazing grace, He also is with us in the Shepherding presence of His Son to whom He has given all authority as King of His Kingdom. Through all of life’s journey and toil, the light of His Truth shines with promise and the gift of His Spirit empowers us. The seven flames of the Menorah lit by the High Priest in the Holy Temple, the symbol of His Word, remind us of the seven Hebrew words of the prophet Zechariah, Loh be’chayil ve’loh ve’koach, ki im b’Ruchi; “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord (4:6).

We read an echo of Rabbi Elazar’s exhortation in the testimony of Timothy, a servant of the Lord: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Messiah Yeshua, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and His Kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” [7] Through all his toil and trials he proclaims: “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me. …The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” [8]
Footnotes:

1. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers; 37
2. Talmud, Chullin 60b
3. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 96
4. Wikipedia – Epicurus
5. Ibid., 97
6. Ibid., 97-98
7. 2 Tim. 4:1-2
8. 2 Tim. 4:17-18

Ethics – Now & Then 30 – Avot 2:18

Avot 2:18  Rabbi Shimon says: (a) Be meticulous in reading the Shema
                  and in prayer; (b) when you pray, do not make your prayer a
                  set routine but rather [beg for] compassion and supplication
                  before the Omnipresent, as it is said, ‘For He is gracious and
                  compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and
                  relenting of punishment’ (Joel 2:13); and (c) do not judge
                  yourself to be a wicked person.

Rabbi Shimon says: (a) Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer…

The Shema is the one unifying prayer of all Israel; the first taught to young Jewish children and the last uttered before death. “Hear O Israel! Shema Yisrael! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Adonai,YHWH/ Eloheinu. Adonai/YHWH, Echad.”

The Midrash offers the interesting comment that initially this proclamation was made by Jacob’s sons at his deathbed. By this time they had lived in Egypt for many years and were influenced by that culture, even if superficially. They enjoyed a comfortable life and Jacob-Israel’s deep concern was that his sons and their families might gradually become assimilated and turn to the pagan gods of Egypt. To reassure him of their faithfulness to the God of their forefathers they proclaim, in effect: “Hear us, O Israel our father, we believe with perfect faith that the Lord, YHWH, is our God and that He is the One true God.” In great relief Jacob whispers the blessing that forms the second verse of the Shema: “Baruch Shem kavod malkhuto, le’olam va’ed! Blessed be His Name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever!”

In the biblical narrative, these resounding words first were proclaimed by Moses to the people of Israel, the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, after their deliverance from Egypt and the Revelation of God at Mount Sinai.[1] Before they could go forward as His holy nation and the subjects of His Kingdom to face the hostile pagan nations, the Israelites needed this one foundational truth – the knowledge of the One, the true God – to permeate their very beings. Only when one knows Him, and understands who we are in relationship to Him as His people in the world, can one proceed to the next verse of the prayer, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5).

Moses then continues with an exhortation that emphasizes the importance of the Ten Words spoken by God, together with the Torah and teachings he is now passing on to them. “These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your hearts and you are to teach them carefully to your children. You are to talk of them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your home and on your gates” (Deut. 6:6-9).

Two further sections were added by the Sages before the Shema was set as a daily prayer in the Siddur (The Jewish Prayer Book), and it was recommended that it should be recited morning and evening. First, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 was added, which describes God’s promises of rain and good harvest when His people love and serve Him and of His wrath when they turn from Him to idolatry. Then Numbers 15:37-41 was included, which outlines God’s instructions regarding the making of tzitzit, fringes worn on the corners of garments, that would be a visual reminder to be holy in obedience to His mitzvot, commandments.

(b) When you pray, do not make your prayer a set routine but rather [beg for] compassion and supplication before the Omnipresent, as it is said, ‘For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and relenting of punishment’ (Joel 2:13)

The Siddur contains beautiful set prayers and Orthodox Jewish males are expected to pray the three daily prayers of Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon) and Ma’ariv (evening). Rabbi Shimon here cautions, however, that a person’s prayers should not become a matter of habit and rote. Prayer, tefillah, is communication with God and, in Judaism, both the fixed times of prayer, prayed by men [2] with a minimum quorum of ten – a minyan, and also personal, unprescribed prayer from the heart, hitbodedut, are of vital importance in one’s relationship with Him. God is Omnipresent and, while it is good to have a particular place to pray, one also can turn to Him in prayer at any time and in any place.

There is power in corporate prayer; it strengthens and unifies those who pray together. However, it can become a duty to be accomplished as quickly as possible in order to get on with other important matters and the benefit is lost. Hence Rabbi Shimon’s advice to carefully prepare one’s heart before prayer and to focus on the meaning of the words with kavvanah – deep heartfelt concentration. One should always remember with Whom one is communicating and that He is kind and compassionate, and quick to extend His love, forgiveness and grace when we call to Him. Then, whenever we turn to Him in prayer, praise or petition, it will be with all our hearts, mind and strength and at no time could it become a meaningless, “set routine.”

(c) …and do not judge yourself to be a wicked person.

This appears to be a moral warning to not see oneself as hopelessly sinful – born in sin, a slave to sin – and so to give up on improving one’s character by standing against any temptation or weakness. We always should see ourselves as the redeemed of God in Yeshua, who paid the ultimate price and overcame sin and death. Every person is a beloved child of the Father with a free will and the power to choose good over evil, life over death.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch translates this phrase as, “…and do not consider yourself as wicked when left to depend on your own efforts.” Sometimes one may physically find oneself facing life’s challenges alone and isolated from a like-minded community. The biblical ideal always is to live in community, to participate with others in study, prayer, work and play; to be in a place where people can support and encourage one another and share both joys and sorrows. There are times, however, when support and encouragement may not be there and one may be inclined to consider, “What good can I do on my own?” Our weaknesses can loom as large obstacles causing us to become disheartened and to see everything in a negative light, including ourselves.

Rabbi Hirsch points out that prayer is a gift given by a redeeming God who longs to communicate in love with His people, and he exhorts, “Prayer uttered in the proper spirit will be the source from which you derive the strength and Divine aid that you need in all your efforts.” [3] We do indeed find guidance and support when we pray and find the comfort of Divine aid in our great High Priest, Yeshua, who constantly is interceding on our behalf before the Throne of Grace [4] and who assures us that we are never alone. “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20)

 

Footnotes:

1. Deut. 6:4
2. Women are not obligated to these time-bound prayers, as with other time related commandments, although they are free to do so if and when they can.
3. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers; 37
4. Romans 8:34

Ethics – Now & Then 29 – Avot 2:16-17

Avot 2:16 -17  Rabbi Yehoshua says: (a) An evil eye, (b) the evil
                         inclination, and (c) hatred of other people remove a
                         person from the world.
                         Rabbi Yosei says: (a) Let your fellow man’s money be as
                         dear to you as your own; (b) apply yourself to study
                         Torah, for it is not yours by inheritance; and (c) let all
                         your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.

Rabbi Yehoshua says: (a) An evil eye; (b) the evil inclination; and (c) hatred of other people remove a person from the world.

Although Rabbi Yehoshua originally stated that a good friend was the greatest asset on one’s journey through life and a bad friend was the worst liability, here, in summation, he states that an “evil eye… removes one from the world”. In other words, in agreement with Rabbi Eliezer in Avot 2:14, he says that one who ungenerously views another person’s success with envy, or sees their life as better than his and resents it, is separating himself from God and forfeiting his own peace of mind and joy of life. The tenth commandment tells us not to covet anything, or, in effect ‘to cast an evil eye on anything’ that belongs to a neighbor, whether his wife, his car or any of his assets. To do so, therefore, is considered as serious as stealing from him, or lying against him.

His second point “the evil inclination” can be seen as the bridge that unites the first with the third, “hatred of people.” The evil and good inclinations – yetzer ha’ra and yetzer ha’tov – are terms used in describing the concept that all people have a leaning, or inclination, toward both good and evil and God has given us free will to choose between them. The apostle Paul describes it well in the seventh chapter of Romans: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. …For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

In other words, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” One’s true inner being is in harmony with the Law of God and responds to what is true and good. On the other hand, one also has a fleshly inclination, yetzer ha’ra, that draws one to the rule of sin and to give way to excessive passion or destructive urges such as lustful sexual desires, vicious rivalry or unrighteous anger. The Rabbis recognized, however, that the yetzer ha’ra has a redemptive side if it is controlled and expressed as healthy competition and creative achievement, and not exercised at the expense of another. “But for the yetzer ha’ra no man would build a home, take a wife or start a business. Thus said Solomon, ‘All labor and all excelling in work, that is from man’s rivalry/competition with his neighbor’ (Eccl.4:4).’” [1]

One could say, therefore, that the great challenge of life is the taming of one’s yetzer ha’ra and the strengthening of one’s yetzer ha’tov in accord with the will of God. From all accounts, Rabbi Yehoshua resembled Yeshua in that he was a perfect model of submitted strength. He never compromised his ideals and beliefs and was free of the vices of envy, rivalry and malice towards others. He harbored no hatred of people, which one may consider to be the ultimate outcome of the negative and harmful influences of an evil eye and the evil inclination; instead, he would prove to be the “good friend” he advocated in Avot 2:14. In spite of inevitable conflict and serious incidents of scholarly disagreement, Rabbi Yehoshua, without evidencing jealousy and by avoiding angry rivalry, would remain a friend to all until the end.

Rabbi Yosei says: (a) Let your fellow man’s money be as dear to you as your own…

The pious chasid, Rabbi Yosei, did not view money or personal possessions as private treasure that provide security and power. Rather, he saw them as good gifts that God bestows upon people in order to also bring benefit and blessing to others. All good things indeed are from God, as the Psalmist writes: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! …when you open your hand, [Your creatures] are filled with good things” (104:24,28). “For He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things” (107:9). And as the apostle James beautifully describes: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (1:17). God is the great Giver and, as His children, we should likewise take delight when we are able to give to others. Yeshua proclaims, in a perfect example of the Rabbinic hermeneutic of kal va’chomer, a comparison from lesser to greater, ‘If…, then, how much more…’: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).

Rabbi Yosei, in this verse, views the other side of the coin. While having a light hold on one’s own possessions and being generous with them, one should be considerate and careful with the goods of others, including their business, reputation or family. One should safeguard them against harm or damage in the same way one would protect one’s own. This characteristic would preclude against envy and also against indifference toward the fate of others.

(b)…apply yourself to study Torah, for it is not yours by inheritance;

Although it is written in Scripture, “The Torah which Moses commanded us is the inheritance (morasha) of the community of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4) the Sages comment, “Do not read morasha but m’orasah, betrothed.” [2] What is the difference? When one receives an inheritance one has not worked for, there is a possibility that one might squander it and not esteem it too highly. When one is betrothed, however, it proves loving commitment. It is the first step of a covenant marriage and carries with it the solemn promise of the bridegroom to cherish his bride and to devote himself to caring and providing for her. The evidence of his word is the ketubah, the written and signed marriage document. The bride and groom then apply themselves to studying the “manual” in preparation for the next big step…the wedding and starting life together. In the same way, we should wholeheartedly devote ourselves towards studying the “manual” of the Word of God in the process of becoming one in loving unity with the Author Himself. In Yeshua, His uniquely begotten Son, the Father sent His Word made flesh – the Living Torah – to help us do that and to open the way in the m’orasah, beloved Bridegroom, for all to receive the morasha, the inheritance of an eternal covenant relationship of Love. This involves a sacred, solemn obligation of commitment to apply ourselves in preparation for the final Wedding Feast and for eternal life together in the delight of Echad – Oneness.

As we make the effort to prepare and to persevere in study, the Lord promises, “My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your children… or from your children’s children,” says the Lord, “from now on until eternity” (Isa. 59:21).

…and (c) let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.

The renowned Maimonides said that Rabbi Yosei conveyed more in this one sentence than others can in whole volumes. [3] It expresses a central principle of Jewish faith, which also is described in Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your path.”

The injunction, “…all your deeds,” includes the most menial as well as the most spiritual. Our Father is interested in every facet of our lives and has given mankind much to enjoy and to derive pleasure from, both physically and spiritually. How do we ensure that our actions such as eating and drinking, working, leisure activity and, where applicable, sexual relations with one’s spouse are “for the sake of Heaven”? The heart of the matter again seems to be one’s inner motivation and intention; to do whatever we are doing with the aim and purpose of honoring and pleasing God, and for the sake of His Name. Will what we do and, more importantly, how we do it, bring honor to His Name or will it shame His Name? Is it in line with His Word and a reflection of Yeshua, the Light of the world?

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, [4] refers to the prophecy of Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55;10-11). How does this relate?

The Hebrew word for rain is geshem, and it denotes physical matter in general. As rain falls from heaven, so does our spiritual provision come from Heaven. As rain brings water and life, the Word of God comes from above to bring the spiritual water of life. As we note in the cycle of water in nature, after rain falls it returns in a different and invisible form to the heavens. Once rainfall reaches the sea or a lake, the process of evaporation causes the water molecules to rise as gas and form clouds in the atmosphere. When conditions are right, rain again falls to earth. How, then, does the water of God’s Word, once it is sent to earth to accomplish His gracious purposes, return to Him again?

Rabbi Chaim proposes that, in the cycle of the blessing of God’s Word, a person’s responses and actions produce spiritual blessings that return to Heaven and bless God. Each time we utter words of praise and thanksgiving, acknowledging our gratitude for all our Father has provided and all He has accomplished on our behalf, blessings return to Him. Every physical action, in thought, word or deed, done with the intent to obey His will and to please Him, bestows a spiritual blessing. The Word He spoke is fulfilled and returns to Him – and the cycle of blessing continues.

 

Footnotes:

1. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7
2. T.B. Pesachim 49b
3. Rambam, Shemonah Perakim, Introduction, v
4. Referenced by Irving M. Bunim in Ethics from Sinai Vol 1; 197-198

 

Ethics – Now & Then 28 – Avot 2:15

Avot 2:15  They each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer says: (a) Let your
                  fellow’s honor be as dear to you as your own and do not anger
                  easily; (b) repent one day before your death; and (c) warm
                  yourself by the fire of the Sages, but beware of their glowing
                  coals lest you be burnt – for their bite is the bite of a fox, their
                  sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss the hiss of a serpent,
                  and all their words are like fiery coals.

They each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer says: (a) Let your fellow’s honor be as dear to you as your own and do not anger easily…

In summary, as it were, of their previous observations, each of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s five students say three things. Rabbi Eliezer had considered a ‘good eye’ of generosity and open-heartedness towards others as the highest quality of character. Here, he links anger and honor. Outbursts of anger toward another, whether they be friend, colleague or simply another human being, will very likely violate their self respect and honor. The one who is the target of anger will feel pain and humiliation. Even if there is just cause for anger, we should diligently avoid causing another that pain. The Talmud considers respecting the honor and dignity of another of such importance that it says: “Anyone who exalts himself, who derives honor out of the degradation or shame of his neighbor, has no share in the world to come.” [1]

In our daily lives, more often than not, it will be those closest to us who can truly upset or anger us. The actions of strangers do not affect us as deeply, unless they are directed against us personally or against those we love. When the conduct of a friend or family member causes one to feel angry, rather than giving vent to the emotion, one should immediately consider one’s own weaknesses and errors. Just as one is quick to make allowances and to forgive oneself, so should one be ready to “cut them some slack,” as the saying goes, and be quick to forgive another.

(b) Repent one day before your death…

The second statement is one of Rabbi Eliezer’s most often quoted maxims: “Repent one day before you die.” As no one naturally knows the day of one’s death, one cannot know the day before either. Rabbi Eliezer is exhorting us to regard each day as if it could be one’s last and, consequently, to value each day and to view it in an eternal perspective. One would then be quick to ‘mend one’s ways’ and to repent of any shortcomings. Yeshua’s striking parable of the foolish, rich man illustrates this well. His lands yielded such a great harvest that he determined to tear down his barns and build bigger ones in which to store the crops. He rejoiced that the bounty would provide income for many years and he could rest back and “…eat, drink and be merry. But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Lk. 12:16-21). As God is the true Provider and Source of all blessing, it is not wise to hoard and store up blessing for ourselves, but rather to give and to share whatever extra there is above one’s own needs and thus to keep the cycle of blessing flowing.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, apparently in connection with this teaching of Rabbi Eliezer, also told a parable that is recorded in the Talmud. It tells, in effect, how a king issued invitations to all his servants to attend a banquet but gave no time for the event. The wise servants hurried to prepare themselves and, dressed in their finest clothes, they waited at the entrance to the palace. They knew the King had everything at his disposal and could announce the banquet at any time. The foolish ones went about their regular business thinking that a banquet would take lengthy preparation and they would have plenty of time to get ready for it. Suddenly, the call went out, the palace doors opened and the servants were summoned in. The wise ones entered his presence dressed for the occasion, while the foolish ones rushed in dirty, wearing grimy work clothes. The King then commanded, “Let those who are dressed and prepared properly for the banquet sit and eat and drink; let those who did not, stand and look on!” [2]

The story carries strong echoes of the parable Yeshua told of the ten virgins; five of whom were prepared with sufficient oil for their lamps as they awaited the arrival of the Bridegroom for the wedding feast and five who were not (Matt. 25:1-3). Interestingly, considering Rabbi Eliezer’s exhortation regarding repentance, which was one of Yeshua’s main emphases and, in fact, was the subject of his first and last actual teachings during his ministry on earth, [3]
the Midrash adjures, “Repent while you have your strength, as long as the lamp still burns, add oil to it, before it goes out. Once the lamp is extinguished, the oil will avail nothing.” [4]

Oil, in the context above, is used as a symbol of repentance; as also is ensuring one is clean and properly dressed in order to enter the King’s presence. This requires a daily accounting, as it were, of one’s thoughts, words and deeds, and a readiness to repent in order to keep one’s lamp lit in eager anticipation of the arrival of the Bridegroom King!

(c) Warm yourself by the fire of the Sages, but beware of their glowing coals lest you be burnt – for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.

Rabbi Eliezer’s third point appears more obscure. He encourages all to draw near to the “fire” of the knowledge and teachings of the Sages in order to obtain the warmth of understanding and the spiritual satisfaction they provide. He also, however, gives a strong and seemingly exaggerated warning! One could, in the process, burn oneself and sustain injuries comparable with the bite of a fox, or the sting of a scorpion or the attack of a serpent. How could this be?

The benefits of fire are clear. It offers warmth and many practical benefits, such as heating water and cooking food. The Torah itself often is compared with fire. However, if one draws too close to it fire burns and yet if one moves too far from it one becomes cold. It is wise to know the correct distance to stand in relation to it in order to enjoy the heat that will reach out with encompassing warmth and illumination. It is foolish, whether in over-familiarity or inordinate curiosity, to disrespectfully reach in and grasp a glowing coal for oneself.

Christian scholar, Dr Herbert Danby, in the preface to his English translation of the Mishnah (the collection of rulings and interpretations made by the early Sages), writes: “Considering the centuries of intensive study devoted to the Mishnah and its associated literature by Jewish commentators from the time of the Talmud to the present day, to neglect or ignore their results is as presumptuous as it is precarious.” [5] If one is too quick to tear down or to ignore the teachings of the Sages, which are like fences of protection around the Scriptures, one increases the risk of exposure to the attacks of the elements of evil that are crouching ever-ready to devour the unprotected.

Yeshua, as he grew from boyhood, learned from the wisdom of the Sages’ interpretations and applications of the Torah and, when their teaching reflects the light of the Truth of the Word of God, his teachings meld with theirs. He condemns any hypocritical rule of man that adds unnecessary burden and makes “the commandment of God of no effect” (Matt. 15:3-9) but he commends the righteous teachings of the Rabbis that correspond with the Word of God, which Yeshua himself enfleshed, when he emphasizes: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Torah or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill [to add meaning]. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the Torah till all is fulfilled. Whoever, therefore, breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever does and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:17-20; Lk.16:17).
Footnotes:

1. T.Y. Chagigah 2,1
2. T.B. Shabbat 153a
3. See Matt. 4:17 and Lk. 23:28-31, which essentially was a call to repentance
4. Midrash to Ecclesiastes 9:8; quoted in Ethics from Sinai Vol. 1, by Irving M. Bunim; 187
5. Ibid., 188; Dr. H. Danby, The Mishnah, London 1933; vi

Ethics – Now & Then 27 – Avot 2:13-14

Avot 2:13  He said to them: Go out and discern which is the good way to
                  which a man should cling. Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye.
                  Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend. Rabbi Yosei says: A good
                  neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the outcome
                  of a deed. Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart.
                 He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to them: I prefer the
                 words of Elazar ben Arach to your words, for your words are
                 included in his words.

Avot 2:14  He said to them: Go out and discern which is the evil way from
                  which a man should distance himself. Rabbi Eliezer says: An
                  evil eye. Rabbi Yehoshua says: A wicked friend. Rabbi Yosei
                  says: A wicked neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: One who
                  borrows and does not repay; one who borrows from man is
                  like one who borrows from the Omnipresent, as it is said: ‘The
                  wicked one borrows and does not repay, but the Righteous
                  One is gracious and gives (Ps.37:21). Rabbi Elazar says: A
                  wicked heart.
                 He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to them: I prefer the
                 words of Elazar ben Arach to your words, for your words are
                 included in his words.

He said to them: Go out and discern which is the good way to which a man should cling.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai now encourages his disciples, who have proved to be good students and have gained much wisdom, to go out into the world and to observe the ways of people in everyday practical affairs and to see how their learning could best be applied in daily life. In the testing of life experience, what quality would appear to be the most important to cultivate in order to cling to the truth they had learned? He is intimating that if one’s understanding of what is good remains abstract, intellectual knowledge and does not connect with life it will prove to be empty and unproductive. The Hebrew words he uses in telling them to ‘go out and see’ – tze’u u’reu – poetically remind us of the first command God gave to Adam and Eve – p’ru ur’vu – be fruitful and multiply. A true disciple does not keep his learning or gifts to himself but, rather, seeks to share them with that they may bear fruit in the lives of others. In so doing, his own life is enriched.

Interestingly, the students’ replies reflect the outstanding characteristic of each one. In verse 14, Yochanan ben Zakkai instructs them also to observe and discern the evil or wicked way that a man should shun. We can compare both responses simultaneously.

Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye – ayin tovah.

The chief characteristic of a ‘good eye’ is that of generosity. As we see from the beginning – B’reishit – our Father God is the first and greatest Giver. As those made in His image, so too should we be givers. Giving, or having a good eye, is clarified in Proverbs 22:9, “He who has a good eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor.” This quality of generosity and helping others can be applied in regard to the ‘bread’ of one’s income, to tangible goods, and to the ‘bread’ of one’s knowledge. With a ‘good eye’ one is always on the lookout to give in whatever way possible in order to be a blessing to others.

What truly characterizes a ‘good eye,’ maybe more so than outward actions, is a person’s inner motivation: “A generous, unselfish spirit, an open-hearted receptivity to people, things and ideas; a wholesome acceptance of yourself and your lot in life.” [1] When one is kindly accepting of others and fully content with one’s “lot,” generosity , on all levels, will flow naturally from one’s life to bless others.

Conversely, as Rabbi Eliezer describes in verse 14, having an ‘evil eye’ – ayin ra’ah – denotes one is on a path of wickedness that one should strive to avoid. An evil eye is evidenced by a selfish, miserly spirit, which indicates that the person constantly is discontented with their lot in life and, as a result, is envious, jealous, critical and resentful of the happiness or success of others. They cannot cry with those who cry or rejoice with those who rejoice. When one suffers a dissatisfied outlook on life and is filled with complaint, the readiness to reach out, to share and to give help to others is negated. Rather than adding blessing, one increases the burden of others. The Torah specifically warns against this negative attitude: “Beware, lest your eye be evil against your needy brother, and you give him nothing.” [2]

Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend – chaver tov.

Life is like a journey through a wilderness – B’midbar – and the path you take and with whom you share the road is highly important. After his observation and deliberation, Rabbi Yehoshua proffers that being, and having, a good friend is of utmost value on life’s journey and that a bad friend could lead one on an evil path. It is a well-known fact that peers and associates have a great influence in a person’s life; either for good or bad. The complexities of relationships with friends and colleagues cause these to be areas of constant challenge and endeavor. However, when true friendship is forged and enjoyed, a strong, unshakeable bond of trust and harmony is set in place that bears ongoing good and benefit to all concerned. The way is made smoother and more pleasant, no matter the circumstances.

On the other hand, in the case of a bad friendship, the foundation of the relationship will prove to be unstable, as unpredictable and uncertain as shifting sand, and the effects will be negative and painful. The journey along the road will be made more difficult and possibly dangerous. The positive exhortations in Rabbi Yeshoshua’s answers are that one should be careful in choosing good friends and, also, that one should diligently aim to be a good friend.

Rabbi Yosei says: A good neighbor.

Rabbi Yosei is described as a chasid – a pious and good person. Understandably, he must have been a considerate and courteous neighbor who would have lived according to the unselfish principle later recorded in Avot 5:13, “What is yours is yours and what is mine is yours.”

The Torah records three specific areas where God emphasizes that one must love – Ve’ahavta.

  1. You shall love the Lord your God – Ve’ahavta et YHWH Eloheicha. (Deut. 6:5)
  2. You shall love your neighbor as yourself – Ve’ahavta le’rei’acha kemo’cha. (Lev. 19:18)
  3. You shall love the stranger in your midst as yourself – Ve’ahavta [ha’ger ha’gar itchem] kemo’cha. (Lev. 19:34)

Yeshua proclaimed that the first two can combine, as two sides of a coin, as the greatest commandment for if one truly loves the person who is made in God’s image, then you love God who created them and loves them. Vice versa, if you truly love God, who is Father of all, you will, if only for His sake, love His children. As God created all people, this automatically includes number 3, the ‘stranger in your midst.’. Yeshua then extends this love to include even one’s enemies – the most challenging love of all (Matt. 5:44; Lk. 6:27). He says, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Lk. 6:32). He sums up the concept in saying: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Lk. 6:39).

However, Rabbi Yosei also points out in verse 14 that one should, if possible, avoid a bad neighbor. Those who are unscrupulous and inconsiderate can make life very unpleasant and difficult. On the other hand, wherever one finds oneself one should aim to be the best neighbor one can be; first and foremost to one’s spouse, who is one’s closest ‘neighbor,’ and family, and then to those in one’s neighborhood and other circles of community.

Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the outcome of a deed.

We know that Rabbi Shimon feared sin. An important factor in avoiding sin is the ability to see the consequences of any sinful action clearly. The lure of sin is that it appears very inviting. However, once one succumbs to temptation and indulges in the sin, the agonies of remorse and guilt can be a torment to one’s soul. In addition, there usually are very real repercussions such as the severing of personal relationships, a ruined business, physical injury and, unless there is recognition of the sin and sincere repentance, a growing alienation from God and a sickening of the spirit. How foolish is sin! Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch used to say that if the hedonists would know the ecstasy of intimate union with the Holy One, blessed be He, they would instantly drop all their worldly pleasures and chase after it. It is not just pleasure. It is the source of all pleasures. [3]

In modern times, we now are offered many more opportunities and choices that necessitate more decisions and, consequently, more chances of failure, loss and rejection. This increases the likelihood of emotional reactions such as fear, anger and anxiety, which can become very deep-rooted. Thus, more than ever, we need the anchor of the truth of the Word of God. We must keep our eyes constantly focussed on our Lord and Shepherd and, in faith, trust Him to guide us in our decisions and to dispel any worry or fear. Yeshua assures his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Interestingly, it is only Rabbi Shimon’s answer in verse 14 that is not the opposite of his first answer; as in, e.g., a good eye and a bad eye. He responds that the ‘bad way’ is to borrow and not to repay what has been borrowed. He explains, “When someone borrows from a man, it is one and the same as borrowing from the Omnipresent God; as it is said, ‘The wicked borrows and does not repay, but the righteous one deals graciously and gives’” (Psalm 37:2). How does this relate to the concept of not seeing the full implications of one’s actions? In a very real sense, when one does not honor an agreement with one’s fellow man, e.g., in not repaying a loan, one also is dishonoring God. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, God gives the command, “If there be among you a needy person…you shall not harden your heart… but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.” In a sense, God is acting as guarantor of the loan. If, therefore, someone does not repay his loan, God is liable.

A lovely story is told of a poor man, and a stranger to the area, who approached Baron Rothschild for a loan of $1,000. He explained that he did not have an endorser who could co-sign as a guarantor of payment, adding sadly, “In fact, the only One who knows and trusts me is the Almighty Himself.” Rothschild gave him a penetrating stare and said, “Very well, that name will be fine!” To the man’s surprise, Rothschild drew up the loan and wrote, “Endorsed by the Ruler of the world.” The man faithfully returned in six months to repay the loan but the Baron refused to take the money. Totally surprised, the man asked why. Rothschild replied with a smile, “The loan has already been paid by the Endorser!” [4]

Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart.

Rabbi Elazar’s responses are, positively, a good heart – lev tov – and negatively, a bad heart – lev ra. Their master, Yochanan ben Zakkai, again informs the students, “I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach to your words, for your words are included in his words.” The Sages regarded the heart as the ‘seat of understanding,’ which would include knowledge, attitudes, motivations and intentions. A person with a good heart would wholeheartedly want to do what was right in every situation and would know, according to his dedication and study of the Word of God, what the right thing was. As Rabban ben Zakkai points out, this quality would include being generous spiritually and materially, being a good friend and neighbor and of having the ability to make decisions with foresight and to honestly fulfill one’s word.

The importance of the heart is stressed in the book of Proverbs, “Above all guard your heart for from it flow the springs of life” (4:23). If we desire our lives to be ‘streams of living water’ as that of Rabbi Elazar’s (Avot 2:12) and in accord with Yeshua’s promise to one who drinks from the water of Life that he offers, we need to ensure that our hearts constantly are protected and filled with God’s Word, Presence and Spirit.

The book of Deuteronomy (Devarim – Words) ends with the Hebrew letter lamed and, in the continuous flow of of the cycle of Torah, it joins with bet or vet, the first letter of Genesis (B’reishit – In the Beginning), to form the word lev – heart! The Torah, teachings of God, and the Living Torah, Yeshua, fills our hearts with knowledge and understanding and guide our every step along His “good way.”

 

Footnotes:

1. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics of Sinai, Vol. 1; 178
2. Deut. 15:9
3. A reference by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, Chabad.org
4. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics of Sinai, Vol 1; 180-181

Ethics – Now & Then 26 – Avot 2:11-12

Avot 2:11-12  He used to enumerate their praises: Rabbi Eliezer ben
                       Hyrkanos is like a cemented cistern that loses not a drop;
                       Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, praiseworthy is she who
                       bore him; Rabbi Yosei the Kohen is a pious person; Rabbi
                       Shimon ben Netanel fears sin; and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach
                       is like a spring, flowing stronger and stronger.

                       He used to say: If all the sages of Israel were on one pan of
                       a balance-scale, and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos were on the
                       other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his
                       name: If all the sages of Israel, with even Rabbi Eliezer ben
                       Hyrkanos among them, were on one pan of the balance-
                       scale and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach were on the other, he
                       would outweigh them all.

He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] used to enumerate their praises:

Yochanan ben Zakkai was known to appreciate and to encourage all his students and he praised his outstanding students according to the unique gifts he was able to discern in each of them. Interestingly, as we see in verse 12, he singled out one in particular, Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, whom he said would outshine all of the sages of Israel combined. And yet, Abba Shaul is recorded in the same verse as quoting Rabban ben Zakkai as saying that if Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos was placed together with the Sages on the one side of the scale, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach on his own would prove to be greater than them all.

The scholars and sages were highly esteemed for their merits and the brilliance of their knowledge and wisdom, as they are to this day, but this verse seems to be exaggerating the competition as to who would be the “top scholar of the day”; particularly if we remember Yochanan ben Zakkai’s counsel in verse 9 that one who has learned much Torah should not “pride yourself in it.” Perhaps more is under consideration than their personal expertise? We can bear that in mind as we examine verse 11.

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Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos is like a cemented cistern that loses not a drop…

Clearly, the predominant gift of Rabbi Eliezer was his great store of knowledge due to his outstanding memory. He retained all he learned to the last detail. He is compared to a plastered, cement water cistern that “loses not a drop.” As opposed, for example, to a water tank above ground wherein water eventually loses its freshness, an important feature of a cistern (Heb. – bor) is that an underground pit preserves the natural sweetness of the water. This indicates that not only did Rabbi Eliezer have a large store of Torah learning but he preserved its original freshness and depth of meaning. Fresh water stored in a bor still is considered ‘living water’ – mai’im chai’im.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, praiseworthy is she who bore him…

According to Maimonides, the great Medieval commentator, Rabbi Yehoshua’s sterling ethical qualities endeared him to all. [1] He was known as a man of moral and spiritual excellence and as a scholar of clear logic and wisdom in both spiritual and worldly matters.

Yochanan ben Zakkai makes specific reference, however, to the blessing of his mother. The Talmud records that during her pregnancy she would visit the Beit Midrash (Torah study hall) and ask the sages and scholars to pray that her unborn child would grow to be a wise scholar, learned in the Word and ways of God. Once her son was born, she would carry him in a cradle to the Beit Midrash so that, from his earliest days, he would hear the sweet chant of Torah study. [2]

Medical science today has proven that an unborn baby responds to sounds and can, for example, identify its father’s voice while still in the womb. When the voices that an unborn child hears carry tender words of prayer and the Word of God they convey blessing indeed.

Rabbi Yosei the Kohen is a pious person…

The Hebrew word translated ‘pious person’ is chasid, which shares the root letters of chesed – lovingkindness, one of the chief attributes of God. Any genuinely pious sage or kohen (priest) would be regarded as a chasid. The designation here must, therefore, indicate that Rabbi Yosei attained a particularly high standard of learning together with great piety and loving-kindness toward both God and his fellow man.

Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel fears sin…

To be described as “sin-fearing” denotes that Rabbi Shimon pursued goodness with great diligence and avoided even an appearance of evil. One can assume that he was an expert in halacha – the exposition of biblical principles and laws of godly living – and a proponent of making “a fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1), that is, of setting safeguards in place to help one avoid the transgression of an explicit commandment of God, the doing of which would desecrate His Holy Name.

…and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is like a spring, flowing stronger and stronger.

As opposed to a river, which is formed as a collection of waters from outside sources, a spring bubbles up from its own hidden source. In this regard, Rabbi Elazar might “outweigh” Rabbi Eliezer. The latter sage was more akin to a river, a valuable collection of the water of God’s Word and a means of conveying it to benefit others. Rabbi Elazar, however, had an additional intuitive and original welling up of insights and wisdom. It appears that this gift did not decrease with age as this scholar is described as one who continued to flow with renewed vigor. It is said, “The older he became, the more beautifully and prolifically his wisdom flowed.” [3] So may it be for all who love and bear forth the precious “living water” of the Word.

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5 Disciples – 5 Books of Torah

In an enlightening study of this verse with Rabbi Alan in Jerusalem, he made a very interesting comparison of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s five disciples and the five books of Torah. A few thoughts:

1. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, described as a plastered cistern, is compared with Genesis (B’reishit – In the Beginning). It is of great importance to retain, remember and to guard this Source of the Word, which establishes the beginning of all life and Creation as well as the truth and nature of the Creator Himself. Not a drop should be lost. His name Eli-ezer reminds us that God is our Help and He is with us in all our endeavors from beginning to end.

2. Yehoshua ben Chananyah’s name translates as ‘Salvation, son of God’s grace.’ He can be compared with the book of Exodus (Shemot – Names), which is the account of God’s salvation and redemption of His people Israel, who were ‘born’ through the waters of the Reed Sea and delivered from the constriction and darkness of Egypt into Light and Life. This parallels with the specific reference to Rabbi Yehoshua’s mother.

3. Yosei HaKohen, the pious Priest, fittingly corresponds with the book of Leviticus (Vayikra – And He Called), which describes the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system. Leviticus is the heart, the central book, of the Torah and it highlights the role of a priest as an intermediary between God and man. One who represents God to man and man to God.

Of the five disciples, Yosei HaKohen is not described as ben, the son, of anyone. This raises an association with Melchizedek “the priest of the most high God” (Gen.14:18), who had no earthly lineage (Heb.7:3); also with Yeshua, who had no earthly father and who has become a High Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, whose Hebrew name Malki Tzedek translates as King of Righteousness (Heb. 6:20). With Yeshua as our High Priest and King, we all receive a royal and priestly calling in the Kingdom of God. May we, therefore, constantly aim to be ‘pious’ – filled with the wisdom of His Word and His Spirit of holy loving-kindness.

4. Shimon ben Netanel is linked with the book of Numbers (B’midbar – In the Wilderness). The journey of the redeemed Israelites through the wilderness can compare with the journey of our life in this world. The generation of the wilderness, dor ha’midbar, were given the Promised Land but at the critical point of entry they “missed the mark” and sinned by not believing God’s promise. Their faith wavered and they saw themselves as too small to take possession of what He had promised. They believed the bad report of the ten spies and could not say, “Not my will but Thine be done!”

The majority of the Israelites did not choose to follow God’s instructions and to go forward in faithful obedience in order to please Him but, rather, chose what their own fearful perception dictated. Their fear of man outweighed their fear of God and, thus, they sinned against Him. We, too, need to overcome our fear of failure and strengthen our fear of missing our Father’s mark. Only once we have done this, will be able to move forward and enjoy the freedom and blessing of becoming a “flowing spring of living water.”

5. Elazar ben Arach, “like a spring that ever flows,” is paired with the fifth and last book, Deuteronomy (Devarim – Words). Interestingly, this is the book of Torah most often quoted by Yeshua, who himself was the perfection of a spring of living water. As he dramatically proclaimed at the Water-pouring ceremony on the last day of the joyous Feast of Tabernacles, when the High Priest poured water collected from the Spring of Siloam upon the altar in the Temple,
“If anyone thirsts, let him 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. 37:7-8).

This is not water stored and kept in a cistern but that which must, by nature as living water, mai’im chai’im, flow forth in order to bring about future fulfillment of what is promised. We can picture, in this connection, the river that springs forth from Ezekiel’s Temple and flows to the Dead Sea bringing restoration and life. “For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes” (Ez.47:9).

We are living in fear-filled times. In awe of Him and in fear of sin, may we choose to yield our wills to our Father, the Creator of all and, in faith, believe that our pious acts of loving-kindness now will count for the future and all eternity in accord with His timing and purposes. In Yeshua, fully trusting that El’Azar – God has provided Help, may our lives and words be as springs, flowing with His life, that bring refreshing and hope to all whom they reach.

 
Footnotes:

1. L.Kravitz & Olitzky, Pirke Avot; 25
2. Talmud Yerushalmi, Yevamoth 1:16
3. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 1; 173

Ethics – Now & Then 25 – Avot 2:9-10

Avot 2:9  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel
                and Shammai. He used to say: if you have studied much
                Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because that is what
                you were created to do.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai.

After focussing on a selection of Hillel’s more significant teachings, Pirkei Avot now resumes its ordered list of Rabbis and talmidim, teachers and students/disciples. Yochanan ben Zakkai was Hillel’s youngest student. By 70 CE/AD, however, and the time of the razing of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, he was well advanced in years. in the way of Hillel, and of Yeshua, he wisely had opposed the Zealot-instigated rebellion and war against Rome.

It is recorded that while Jerusalem was under heavy siege by the Roman army, Yochanan ben Zakkai, aware of its imminent fall, succeeded in escaping and reaching the Roman general Vespasian. The Zealots were not allowing fellow Jews to flee the city but were insisting that they remain and fight. In a daring ruse, the old Rabbi pretended to be dead and, in accord with Jewish law to bury a body outside the city within 24 hours of death, two of his closest students, Eliezer ben Hyrkanos and Yehoshua ben Chanania, carried him in a coffin past the Zealots guarding the city gates.

When Yochanan ben Zakkai reached Vespasian he greeted him with, “Peace to you, O King!” Shortly after, a messenger arrived from Rome who announced the death of the Emperor. The Senate had elected Vespasian as the new ruler and he needed to return to Rome immediately. Realizing that Ben Zakkai had prophesied accurately and knowing of his opposition to the rebellion, he promised to grant him any favor he requested. The Sage replied, “Give me the city of Yavneh and its scholars.” [1] Jerusalem would be in ruins but, until its restoration and at least for the foreseeable future, a guaranteed place of safety was ensured in the nearby town of Yavneh, where the study and preservation of the Hebrew Scriptures could continue unhindered.

He used to say: if you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because that is what you were created to do.

Yochanan ben Zakkai risked his life for the Torah, for the Word of God, and he had dedicated his life to study and to teach it. He, therefore, is well qualified to give the exhortation to not “take credit for yourself” if you are a great Bible scholar, “because that is what you were created to do.” The commentary Mesilat Yesharim likewise enjoins, “Intelligence was given you only for the purpose of acquiring knowledge [specifically of God and His Word], and you may not become arrogant for having utilized this knowledge any more than a bird may for utilizing his wings to fly.” [2]

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Avot 2:10  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples.
                 They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben
                 Chanania, Rabbi Yose the Kohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel,
                 and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples.

Mishnah, or verse, 10 introduces us to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s top five students. Ben Zakkai was the outstanding teacher of his time and he highly appreciated the value and role of his students. Whenever possible he would praise them, often publicly. He is a true model of a teacher who regards his or her students in the manner caring and devoted parents regard their children. The Sage poured his knowledge and wisdom into the lives of his students by example. He also encouraged them to not limit their learning to the texts, the written word, but to go out among the people and to learn in ways that would enrich their understanding and application of the Word.

We will see in the verses following that, in his interaction with students, Yochanan ben Zakkai exhibits the exemplary traits of a good teacher. When he judges a student’s answers, his assessment is always marked with perfect tact, respect and appreciation. William Berkson makes an astute observation,
“In the modern world, these qualities still hold as markers of excellence in teachers: an attitude of service to students, warm appreciation and praise, engagement of students with the real world, and tactful judgment of the student’s efforts.” [3] We may consider that these traits also apply in parent-child relationships, where the first vital level of education occurs.

If we literally translate the opening phrase of this verse it reads: “There were five disciples loh – to him, to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.” It is known that he had many, many students but the extra word loh denotes that these five had a special relationship “to him”. A well known, more recent Rabbi, Moshe Schreiber, who also taught many students, once remarked that he had 13 talmidim, because, as he explained, “A true talmid is one who is not detached from his master from the moment he wakes up until he goes to sleep. Everything he does, even his thoughts, follow the model of his master. I have only 13 students such as this.” [4]

As Yeshua taught: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. …Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them. I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built” (Lk. 6:40; 47-48).

Twelve primary disciples are listed in the account of the life on earth of the Master, Yeshua. Talmidim who physically walked with him on a daily basis and learned from him by example and attuned their every thought to his. As his present talmidim, may we also daily be looking to the Master, Messiah Yeshua – Risen Lord, and be learning and growing in the Word and Truth he came to enflesh; to the ever increasing glory of the Father of all.

 

Footnotes:

1. Talmud Bavli, Gittin 56 a-b
2. Artscroll Mesorah Series, Pirkei Avos; 19
3. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 79
4. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Vision of the Fathers; 109

Ethics – Now & Then 24 – Avot 2:8

Avot 2:8  He [Hillel] used to say: The more flesh, the more worms;
                the more wives the more witchcraft; the more maidservants
                the more lewdness; the more manservants the more thievery.
                [However] the more Torah, the more life; the more study, the
                more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding;
                the more charity, the more peace.
                One who has gained a good reputation, has gained it for his
                own benefit; one who has gained himself Torah knowledge, has
                gained himself the World to Come.

He [Hillel] used to say: The more flesh, the more worms…

Hillel’s graphic litany of excess and overindulgence outlined by Hillel describes the transgressions that too easily can follow in the wake of success and wealth. When food is in abundance and one overindulges, gluttony results. When one accrues many possessions, the need increases to care for them and to keep them secure; resulting in additional worry and stress. It is important to note that Hillel and the Sages, while warning against a life of self-indulgence and status-seeking, did not advocate unnecessary self denial or asceticism. The Talmud, in accord with the Scriptures, sees any form of self-harm as contrary to God’s will and purposes for mankind. God blesses us with good things to enjoy with gratitude whenever possible. When one chooses a lifestyle to pursue, the motivating factors will be one’s definition and perception of what constitues “the good life.”

…the more wives the more witchcraft; the more maidservants the more lewdness; the more manservants the more thievery.

In Hillel’s time polygamy and slavery still existed, particularly in the surrounding cultures. The more wealthy a man was, the greater the likelihood he would have many wives. This did not ascertain a peaceful existence. In a polygamous household the possibility of rivalry abounded and wives could resort to “magic potions” or other forms of sorcery to obtain favors from their husband. We see a hint of this in the incident between Leah and Rebecca and the mandrakes (Gen. 30:14-16).

The larger one’s house the more servants and workers are needed to maintain it. Hillel considers the fact that, especially when the staff and family are living in close quarters, the temptation and opportunity for wrongdoing such as promiscuity, adultery, lashon ha’ra (slander and gossip) and theft, increase exponentially.

[However] the more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom…

The positive and worthwhile use of one’s time and energy is summed up in Hillel’s maxim, Marbeh Torah – marbeh Chaim! More Torah – more Life! That, in four words, is the Sages description of the truly “good life”. Rather than a life focussed on the pursuit of material wealth and status, the life in pursuit of truth and the knowledge of God fulfills one both physically and spiritually. The more one studies Torah, God’s Word, the more wisdom one derives in the application of its truth to one’s life and the more one grows in relationship with Him and with others. In addition, a life of Torah ve’mitzvot, the study of God’s Word and the resultant good deeds performed in loving obedience to His will revealed therein, is not transitory but will continue in the eternal joy and delight of His Presence in Olam ha’Ba, the World to Come.

Yeshua exhorts, “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?…For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness [disclosed in His Word and by His Spirit] and all these things shall be added to you” (Lk. 12:22-31). In the final hours before his arrest and crucifixion, Yeshua shares his last discourse with his disciples during which he utters an impassioned prayer to the Father:
“And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in Your Name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. …But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. …Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (Jn. 17:11, 13-14,17).

…the more counsel, the more understanding;

When a person reaches a high status in life, pride can prevent him from admitting that he needs help or advice. The willingness to seek and heed counsel, and to receive both criticism and encouragement, is a great source of strength. The Scriptures often illustrate how foolish it is for anyone to claim, “My strength and the power of my hand have got me all this wealth” (Deut. 8:17).

Our time on earth is limited and we do well to avoid the long and arduous trail of ‘trial and error’. Far better to learn from the recorded history of those who have gone before and from those still at hand who have gained experience and wisdom from the Word of Truth in relationship with the Author, our Father God, and the Living Word, the Word made flesh in Messiah Yeshua.

…the more charity, the more peace.

A prevailing principle in relationships, as stressed in biblical ethics, is stated by Rabbi Chaim Stern, “Marriage is not a matter of give and take, but give and give.” [1] Every loving relationship requires a generosity of spirit – a giving in faith and trust that will result in peaceful cooperation and blessing for all concerned.

The Hebrew word translated here as ‘charity’ is tzedakah. Tzedakah, as used in the Bible, means ‘righteousness’ and a righteous person is termed a tzaddik. At the time of Yeshua and the Sages, as evident in the Gospels and the Apostolic Writings as well as in Rabbinic literature, the word tzedakah had acquired the additional meaning of ‘charity,’ of giving tangibly as an outward expression of inner righteousness. While being righteous and doing what is right will increase and ensure peace in our own lives, using our material and financial means to help others also will strengthen peaceful coexistence in our congregations and communities, and can even have beneficial influence on the social levels of state and country.

One who has gained a good reputation, has gained it for his own benefit; one who has gained himself Torah knowledge, has gained himself the World to Come.

Our material possessions only exhibit what we have and not who we truly are. Even a ‘good name’ or illustrious reputation is an earthly possession. It is of high value and certainly is of benefit in this life; however, similar to material goods, it is something that can unfairly be robbed from one. As William Shakespeare highlights, “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash: ‘tis something, nothing; …But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which does not enrich him, and makes me poor indeed” (Othello III,3). [2]

On the other hand, Hillel again stresses that the knowledge of God acquired through His Word, and the relationship one deepens more intimately with Him as a result, is the treasure that will endure for eternity.

 

Endnotes:

1. William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 75
2. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol. 1; 165

Ethics – Now & Then 23 – Avot 2:7

Avot 2:7  He [Hillel] also saw a skull floating on the water; he said to it:
                “Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and those who
                drowned you will be drowned eventually.”

He [Hillel] also saw a skull floating on the water;

The word ‘also’ appears here because in the expanded version of Pirkei Avot by Rabbi Nathan, [1] this is the second incident experienced by Hillel. The first he describes was an encounter with two sets of merchants who were selling wheat at different prices. When Hillel queried the second group as to why their prices were higher, they explained that it had cost them far greater effort and expenditure to bring the wheat to the market.

As a customer he saw the same product but did not know the background details. In comparison, we might see the same goals achieved in the lives of people and the similar results of their labors, but only God knows what was expended for each one to reach that goal and, hence, how they will be rewarded.

…he said to it: “Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and those who drowned you will be drowned eventually.”

Next, then, Hillel was walking along the bank of a river and saw a skull floating in the water. As the body was decapitated and not given a proper burial, we can assume he was the victim of foul play. Hillel addresses the skull as if he is an advocate in a court of justice and explains a principle of Divine retribution: “If you do harm to others, harm will be done to you, but eventually those who harm you will also be harmed.”

This is an echo of one of Hillel’s most well-known sayings. When he was challenged to sum up all of Torah in a nutshell he said, in effect, “What you do not want others to do to you, do not do unto them.” In Yeshua’s signal Sermon on the Mount he teaches a positive form of the same principle, “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Lk. 6:31).

Midrash records how the renowned Rabbi Akiva once was journeying between towns with one of his students. As they walked they saw a roadside well in the distance with a weary traveler asleep alongside it. They then noticed another traveler approach the sleeping man, rob him of his money bag and run off in the direction of the next town. They hurried to reach the victim and woke him with the bad news. The man was distraught and he explained that the money was the inheritance his father had left for him and it was all he had in the world. When they proceeded on their way, the student bitterly expressed how unfair life was and questioned how God could allow such injustice. Rabbi Akiva stopped and with prophetic insight advised his student that he would only speak to him on the subject of Divine justice this once and never again.

He told him that the robbed man’s father had gained the money in the bag by unfair means when cheating a poor farmer. The father of the robber himself had been a murderer. When the robber reached the next town, he turned down an alleyway where he was recognized by the son of the murdered man, who promptly attacked and killed him in revenge. In the struggle, however, the money bag dropped to the ground. The assailant dragged the body of the robber and dumped it in the nearby river. A while later, a man happened upon the bag of money in the alley. He reported it to the courts and when an owner was not found he was told he could keep it. Who was this man? The son of the poor farmer! This story makes one’s head spin somewhat and clearly illustrates the modern expression, “What goes around comes around!”

Although it cannot fully be understood in this world, belief in Divine justice is an essential principle of biblical faith. It is one that requires acceptance by faith, as in most cases it is difficult to understand from a human perspective. So many questions can be raised such as, “Why, Lord? Why did the child have to die? Why did You allow this illness, that accident, that tragedy, that unfair persecution?” The range is limitless and can be summed up in the now classic question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Obversely, we also can consider the question, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Often, those who are blatantly sinful, who either ignore or mock God and His Word, seem to prosper and gain fame and fortune. Why?

Moses met face to face with God and learned directly from Him. When he was troubled by the suffering of innocent people and asked God for an explanation, he was told that it was something the human mind could not grasp in this world. He would need to wait until his soul left his body and was raised to the Presence of God in the heavenly courts before he could understand Divine justice (Talmud – Berachot 7a). [2]

Only God can see the eternal and infinite picture of both the world and an individual life. We see only a very small piece of the vast, unending puzzle of life. Our trust is secured in the fact that we know, according to His eternal Word, that the rewards and punishments of life are ultimately fair and for the highest good of those who love Him. We read in the book of Hebrews, “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him” (11:6).
A beautiful promise of reward is made in the book of Ruth: “The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (2:12).

In the love of Messiah, from which nothing can separate us, we know “…that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom.8:28). Nothing happens without a reason in God’s scheme of things and, when our lives are entrusted to our faithful Father in heaven, we always can say with confidence, “Gam zu le’tovah!” “Even this is for the good!”

 

Footnotes:

1. Avot De-Rabbi Natan
2. Rabbi A. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 102

 

Ethics – Now & Then 22 – Avot 2:6

Avot 2:6  He [Hillel] used to say: A boor cannot be fearful of sin;
                an unlearned person cannot be scrupulously pious;
                the bashful person cannot learn, and the quick, impatient
                person cannot teach; anyone excessively occupied in business
                cannot become a student [of the Scriptures];
                and in a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.

He used to say: A boor [empty-headed man] cannot be fearful of sin;

Hillel is evaluating different characteristics that display a person’s regard for the Torah and his relationship to it, which also reflects his view of the One who gave His Word. He observes that the boor does not fear sin because he cannot grasp the concept of sin and its implications, which are addressed and clarified for mankind in the Torah. The Hebrew, bur, also means “an empty field in which nothing has been planted.” [1] No seeds of knowledge of God and His truth have been sown in his mind that could take root and flower.

In our Father’s great mercy and love for all His creatures, we know that He sows seeds of knowledge of Himself in unique and individual ways as well as in the wonder of His Creation. As the Psalmist describes: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) and “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge! Selah” (Ps. 50:6).

Perhaps, as in Yeshua’s parable of the sower, the seed is sown but if a heart is hard like stony ground, or if seed is lost or choked by thorns, it will not take root and grow and produce fruit (Lk.8:5-15).

A boor views life as a natural right, and believes that one should gain from it whatever will be to one’s physical advantage and benefit. In this context, it is worth considering a quote of Albert Schweitzer’s: “As soon as a man does not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably mysterious, thought begins.”

…an unlearned [in Torah] person cannot be pious [devout];

The Hebrew term translated here as ‘unlearned’ is am ha’aretz, a worldly person. He or she may have an awareness of God, and enough fear of sin to perform outward ‘religious’ duties, but if the majority of one’s focus and attention is on material matters and the “cares of the world” and time is not taken to study the Word devoutly in order to grow spiritually, a person will not grow in holiness and in intimacy with the Father.

When one does not learn and grow in understanding of the Almighty, through His eternal and Living Word of truth, one cannot devote oneself to walking more fully in harmony and accord with His good and perfect will.

…the bashful person cannot learn, and the quick, impatient person cannot teach;

The Sages generally praise the qualities of humility and quiet sensitivity. However, a negative and unhealthy form of shyness prevails when a person suffers from fear of embarrassment. In a classroom or learning situation this form of self-consciousness is a hindrance and will inhibit a student’s progress. If one is afraid to make mistakes and to ask questions when something is not understood, or in order to probe more deeply into a subject, answers will not be found and the opportunity to learn will have been lost.

Historically, and sadly, in church settings and in Christian education in general, the asking of questions was frowned upon and even strongly discouraged. For many centuries this caused a literal ‘Dark Ages’ in the Church in the area of learning and spiritual growth and resulted in a majority of am ha’aretz sitting silently bound in the pews. Happily, during the past century, with greater accessibility to the Word of God and the growing awareness and understanding of the Jewish Roots of Christianity and its restored Hebraic heritage, the heart of this silent majority again is being stirred and healthy questioning and dialogue are ensuing.

In connection with the “bashful” student, and likely the actual cause of bashfulness in many students, an impatient teacher who is easily angered will not teach effectively. Students will be afraid to enquire, fearing they will be rebuffed or scorned and little godly knowledge will be imparted or received.

…anyone excessively occupied in business cannot become a student [of the Scriptures];

When a person deeply values the Word of God and desires to grow in knowledge thereof, it becomes a high priority in his or her life. While the need to earn a living and to provide for the physical needs of life are obviously important and require diligent effort, the less obvious needs of the nurture and provision for the prospering of one’s spirit also require diligent care and attention.

…and in a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.

This Hebrew verse can translate directly as, “In a place where there are no men – anashim, strive to be a man – ish”. William Berkson offers a worthy modern translation, “In a place where there is no person to make a difference, strive to be that person.” [2] Which reminds me of an anonymous quote I saw recently, “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that, then I realized I was somebody!”

In Yiddish this type of human being – a caring, capable and responsibly aware person, who when he sees the right thing to do strives to do it – is called a mensch (rhymes with bench). One should purpose to be a mensch in every situation. Particularly when there is not another mensch to stand up and take responsibility, one should courageously do one’s best to do what needs to be done.

Leo Rosten describes a mensch in his classic, The Joys of Yiddish. “To be a mensch has nothing to do with success, wealth or status. …The key to being a real mensch is nothing less than character.” [3] He or she is simply decent and has a combination of an ethical backbone and a genuine transparency that reflects the light of their Creator in whose image they are made. May we be mensches…for His glory.

 

Footnotes:

1. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 1; 153
2. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 70
3. Leo Rostin, The Joys of Yiddish; 237

Ethics – Now & Then 21 – Avot 2:5

Avot 2:5 Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community;
               do not believe in yourself until the day you die;
               do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place;
               do not make a statement that cannot be easily understood
               on the ground that it will be understood eventually;
               and do not say, “When I am free I will study,” for perhaps you
               will not become free.

Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community;

In accord with the Hebrew Scriptures, the Sages of Israel define the community, ha’tzibur, as the group who was chosen by God to receive His Torah (teachings) in order to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex.19:6). The reality presented is that each person is a destined part of the tzibur of His people, and they cannot live life in synchronicity with His will in isolation from this community. The Talmud describes it thus: “At a time when the people Israel are immersed in distress and one of them goes off on his own way [refusing to share their suffering], the angels… say, ‘Since this man has separated himself from the community [in its distress], let him not see the consolation and cheer of the community’” (Ta’anith 11a). To stand with Israel in her times of trouble means to rejoice with her in her times of joy and redemption.

We can apply this concept of community on a purely personal level. When one is helpless, as a babe, or in sickness or old age, one depends on the community of family and the social group around one. In the Western culture, and civilization as a whole, it would be impossible to live for long as a hermit, in total self-reliance. This was the first lesson God, our Creator, taught Adam – self-sufficiency was not enough and was not the purpose of Creation. The goal was relationship; a sharing of life and a pooling of resources. Not independence but rather interdependence. The basis of the first murder, and the antithesis of the loving relationship God intends, is reflected in Cain’s terse response to the whereabouts of his brother Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).

To separate yourself from the community, whether considering community socially or globally, in the wider sense, or even in a community of two, does not necessarily mean physically or geographically. The deeper and more subtle implication is that of attitude. To consider oneself “better than” and “knowing more than” whoever the community or other may be, and to harbor attitudes of arrogance and condescension toward the “whomever,” undoubtedly will cause a chasm of separation. A chasm that can only be bridged in humility and respect, and with a willingness to hear and to learn from the other.

…do not believe in yourself until the day you die;

Every individual is a product of his or her past experiences; all of one’s ‘yesterdays.’ One of the greatest gifts of God to His children, along with free will, is the ability to change – to learn and to grow in character. He pursues us constantly to this end, that we might make the right choices, today, in accord with His perfect plans and purposes for our lives, and then receive the support and power of His Spirit of holiness to enable us to go forward into tomorrow.

Proverbs 27:1 cautions us, “Do not boast of tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” No one can know with 100 per cent certainty what tomorrow, or even each day, will bring. Our confidence and future security cannot be placed in ourselves or others; and certainly not in material things. Our perfect trust can only be in the Lord, who said,
“Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. ..Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow…” (Matt. 6:25-34).

When our lives are in the hands of the only One Who knows the future, and Who has promised to be there for us, then we can step forward into tomorrow in peace and confidence.

…do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place;

As a young girl, I remember the deep pain, helplessness and embarrassment I felt when a fellow classmate openly and falsely accused me before the rest of the class of stealing something from her. To my great relief, the teacher was able to step in and resolve the situation. However, the scar of the injustice remained. My friend had made a hasty judgment without evidence, due to a misperception, and the experience left me with a desire never to inflict the pain of unfair judgment on another. It is a challenge in a society where that tendency is deeply ingrained.

Hillel’s words of wisdom do well in urging us to avoid judging our fellow man until we can be “in his place.” This sets a healthy ‘brake’ on any inclination to judge a person or their actions. Most often, when we form an opinion of someone or their behavior, we are seeing the person or the action outside of the full context. We do not know the history or all the surrounding circumstances that influenced the person, nor the factors that contributed to the action.

When we are aware of some of the external facts in a particular situation, are we able to empathize with the person and place ourselves in their position? Hillel stresses that unless one makes the effort to understand and appreciate all the person is experiencing, to “be in his place” – or to “stand in his shoes” – and feel what he is feeling even for a moment, then one is judging in a vacuum and is in no position to pass judgment at all.

…do not make a statement that cannot be easily understood on the ground that it will be understood eventually;

There are many ways one can apply this maxim. A person can deliberately express his words in a way that is misleading to the hearer and would cause confusion, even when the speaker knows that the meaning could be made clear later. This, of course, is reprehensible and can be considered in the light of the commandment to not bear “false witness.”

Hillel’s first frame of reference would have been that of teacher and student. The warning, echoing Avot 1:11, is that the teacher be scrupulously careful in his teaching and to avoid any vagueness that could be misunderstood and misinterpreted by his students.

…and do not say, “When I am free I will study,” for perhaps you will not become free.

As well as underscoring the need to study [the Scriptures] Hillel is emphasizing the deep human inclination to procrastinate. Psychologist and Rabbi, Abraham Twerski, states, “Essentially, the procrastinator does not want to do something; not today, not tomorrow, not ever.” [1]

In habitually putting off a difficult task, or in not doing something one does not naturally enjoy, one is simply fooling oneself. Twerski uses the example of avoiding the preparation of one’s tax returns and comments, “If the procrastinator [honestly] would say to himself, “I don’t want to do it, therefore I am not going to do it!”…there is a likelihood that the realization that he must do it will lead him to action.” [2] Facing the reality of the need provides motivation and a stimulus for disciplined action.

May we be faithful stewards and disciplined in all we need to do, things large or small, and may we hear the voice of our Master saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a few things. …Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Lk.19:12-27).
Endnotes:

1. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers, 97
2. Ibid, 97

Ethics – Now & Then 20 – Avot 2:4

Avot 2:4 He [Gamliel, the son of Yehudah HaNassi] used to say:
              Treat His [God’s] will as if it were your own will, so that He
              will treat your will as if it were His own will, so that He will
              nullify the will of others before your will.

Treat His [God’s] will as if it were your own will, so that He will treat your will as if it were His own will…

All sin occurs in rebellion against, and in contradiction to, the will of God.
Since the first sin of Adam and Eve, and the subsequent separation from the Presence of God, both mankind and all Creation have suffered the resulting curses. Throughout history the purpose of the Kingdom of Heaven – Malchut HaShamayim, is the healing and purification of the world until eventually all mankind again will live in harmony and accord with the will of God and be restored to the fullness of His Presence.

At the time of the Second Temple both the disciples of Jesus and the Essene community at Qumran believed that, as Jesus proclaimed, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). They “…saw themselves as participants in the eschatological drama that had already begun to unfold.” [1] The term “Kingdom of Heaven“ is not found in the Hebrew Bible but was coined by the Sages in relation to the Kingship of God, which was first pronounced by Moses after the mighty deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 15:18).

In many instances the Sages equate the term with the “Days of Messiah,” which would occur in this world – Olam HaZeh. The apostle Paul reflects the view of the Early Church that the return of Jesus, the Risen Messiah, was imminent and the good news must be spread with urgency. All should be living with “lamps lit” in readiness and in eager anticipation of the Bridegroom’s arrival (Matt. 25:1-13)). This is echoed in the Didache, the extra-canonical writings, also known as the Teaching of the Apostles: “Keep vigil over your life. Let your lamps not go out and let your waists not be ungirded but ready, for you do not know the hour at which our Lord is coming” (16:1).

Now, two thousand years later, this remains true. While waiting in anticipation as His approaching footsteps grow louder we do what we can in Messiah, and the empowering of the Spirit of holiness, to live according to the Father’s will. We then trust that, wherever He has placed us, the light of His Kingdom can shine in our lives. Whenever and wherever His will is obeyed blessing follows and, in place of the chaos of sin, the peace and beauty of His Kingdom are made manifest.

Throughout his life and ministry on earth, Jesus was the perfect example of the intent, “Father not my will but Thine be done!” In order that true covenant relationship could be entered into in love, God, when He created them, made the choice to give mankind a will – the freedom to choose. Every time we choose to make His will our own, He is able to “treat our will as if it were His own” and to act on our behalf knowing what will be for our most ultimate and eternal good, in accord with the perfect plans He has for each of His beloved children.

When Messiah returns as King of the Father’s Kingdom, he will reign from his Throne in Jerusalem for a thousand years (Rev.19:15-16; 20:6). Talmudic literature agrees that at the conclusion of the Messianic Millennium there will be a general resurrection of the dead of all mankind and the great, final Day of Judgment will take place. Thereafter, the new and perfected heavens and earth – Olam HaBa, the World to Come, will be established. The apostle Paul recounts that at this time Jesus will present the Kingdom, in all its perfection, order and beauty, to the Father and God will be “all in all” (1 Cor.15:28). While we anticipate that glorious day, may His will be done and may we gratefully and creatively partner with our Father God who has “reconciled us to Himself through Jesus our Messiah, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Cor. 5:18).

…so that He will nullify the will of others before your will.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in Heaven, may Your Name be proclaimed as holy. May Your Kingdom come, may Your will come to pass on earth as it does in Heaven.” [2] He described the sustenance, both physical and spiritual, to be found in living according to the Father’s will when he said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work” (Jn. 4:34). Jesus also made the startling declarations, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the Word of God and do it” (Lk. 8:21) and, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven” (Matt.7:21-23).

The strength to let “His will be done” increases as we grow in knowledge of the nature and character of God and who we truly are as those created in His image. Rabbi Solomon of Karlin once stated, “The worst of the evil impulses is to forget that one is a child of the King.” It is His will that we live the fullness of the life He intends for His children. As we remember who we are, and the purpose of our sacred journey through this life, we can devote ourselves to “seeking first the Kingdom of God” and, in the Lord, to work with Him towards seeing it established where we are, here and now.

When we choose humbly to lay down our own will and set aside our selfish desires in obedience to God’s will, He responds in ways that are far beyond our expectations. However, we inevitably and constantly experience tension between our fleshly, self-centered wills and the desire of our spirits to follow the expressed will of God. It usually is difficult to “nullify” our selfish, ego-driven impulses and yet, when we yield our will in accord with His, we experience true inner stillness and serenity; His peace surrounds and Shalom fills our souls.

 

Endnotes:

1. The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion; 40
2. The Didache, 8:2

Ethics – Now & Then 19 – Avot 2:3

Avot 2:3 Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their
               own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they
               do not stand by someone in their hour of need.

Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit…

At the time of the Sages this caution would have applied to the oppressive Hellenistic rulers. The Jewish state was a monarchy from the reign of King Saul until the Babylonian exile. The Hebrew Scriptures record that this included many bad kings as well as the relatively few good ones. After the return from exile, the only interruption to Graeco-Roman rule was the reign of the Hasmoneans after the victory of the Maccabean Revolt in 164 BCE. Unfortunately, after the leadership of the righteous priest Mattathias and his sons – initially Judah, followed by Jonathan and finally Simon – the ‘kingship’ became corrupt and ungodly.

Eventually this led to civil war, at which time the Temple leadership was divided between the two camps of (1) the Sadducees, supporters of the more physically powerful but corrupt Aristobulus, who had declared himself High Priest and king, and (2) the Pharisees, who stood with John Hyrcanus his brother. Aware of the internecine conflict in Judea, Pompey, the Roman general located in Syria after successful campaigns in Armenia, sent Roman legions under Marcus Scaurus to offer bribes and support, which were accepted by Aristobolus. Without encountering much opposition, the Romans later marched on Jerusalem and finally took over power on Yom Kippur, 65 BCE.

The Romans promptly designated Hyrcanus as ethnarch of the Jewish people and he was reinstalled as High Priest. This system of governance led to the appointment, in 40 BCE, of King Herod [the Great], son of Antipater an Idumean, who had little regard for the spiritual authority of the Sanhedrin. As the historian Josephus notes, “For we lost our freedom and became subject to the Romans…and the royal power which had formerly been bestowed on those who were high priests by birth became the privilege of commoners (i.e. Herod)” (Jewish Antiquities 14:77-78). [1] The birth of Jesus, set in 6 BCE by many scholars, occurred during Herod’s rule, which extended until his death in 4 BCE. Three of Herod’s sons were appointed in his place, Archelaus (Herod II) as ethnarch over Judea, Idumea and Samaria, Herod Antipas, who governed Galilee and Perea, and Herod Philip, who oversaw lands in the North East of the region.

When the Roman government tired of the Jewish resistance and rebellion against the Hellenization of the culture and the oppressive measures of taxation, Rome launched a final series of military assaults against them. In 70 CE/AD, at the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the majority of the Jewish population was exiled to many quarters of the then known world. The remnant in Israel, as well as those who were dispersed, continued to regulate their own community affairs through the local synagogue leaders and, indeed, remained wary of their foreign rulers.

…they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in their hour of need.

It is likely that Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, was referring to his father’s personal experience. Rabbi Yehudah had established a good working relationship with the Roman governors who often turned to him for advice. Yet, at a time he needed their help it was not given. Caution became the keyword and all unnecessary contact with government was avoided.

Yeshua also advised prudence when he said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant… just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Lk. 8:21). The bottom line is, as the Psalmist reminds us, “Do not put your trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no help” (Ps.146:2). Rather, we need always turn to the Almighty and to place our trust in the Creator and Ruler of the universe. “Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11).

 

Endnotes:

1. Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge, Carta, Jerusalem, 2006