Ethics – Now & Then 52 – Avot 3:23

Avot 3:23  Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma said: The laws about
                 the sacrifices of birds and the beginnings of a woman’s
                 ritually unclean period are essential ordinances; astronomy
                and geometry are the seasonings, or ” side dishes” of wisdom.

OGOL_med-01

Rabbi ben Chisma was renowned as a mathematician and for his knowledge of physics and astronomy. [1] However, he describes these sciences as parp’ra’ot – minor dishes of a meal, such as appetizers, desserts or salads. These add interest and complement the menu but are not the main dish or focus of the meal. The primary element around which the rest of the “meal” of one’s learning should be based, he advocates, is the Torah, the Word of God.

The Hebrew word, parp’ra’ot, apparently is derived from the Greek and can be connected with the English word ‘periphery’ – the outer rim of a circle, an area furthest from the center.[2] What is of primary importance in one’s learning and development is the nourishing, life-giving Word of God. When the sciences can implement the application of the knowledge and ways of God, such as the use of technology in expanding honest business or the understanding of astronomy in computing the Hebrew months and annual Festival calendar, then they enhance the central and important focal point of life – God and His will.

Interestingly, in an article following the recent elections in Israel and the subsequent scrambling to build a coalition government, David M. Weinberg points out the importance of the “side dishes” in the presentation of a healthy, balanced meal. Addressing the fact that the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) party, who have gained iron-fisted control over certain key social and government departments, are scornfully intolerant of any who are less “religious” than they are, including the Modern-Orthodox, pro-Zionist party, he writes: “Rolling back haredi influence on matters of religion and state is critical to the health and unity of this country. It’s time, once again, for the face of Torah and Jewish religion in public life to be one that is not ambivalent toward the Zionist enterprise, that does not scorn the rule of law and democratic institutions, that does not evince utter rejection of modernity, and that does not disparage and denigrate the secular public.”[3] It seems there is a danger that a focus on the letter of God’s Word, to the exclusion of all else, can lead to a narrowing of vision and a hardening of heart against one’s brothers. God forbid.

In this verse of Pirkei Avot, Elazar Ben Chisma mentions two categories of Halacha (the normative laws for daily life based on the Torah). They are an interesting choice – the sacrifices of birds, kinin, and the subject of niddah, concerning the ritual purity and times of impurity of women. Why mention these from all the subjects found in the Torah? We may surmise that it is due to the fact that sacrifices and niddah are complex issues that require careful calculation. We see a clear illustration of a combination of the two in the gospels, when, after Yeshua’s birth, Mary ends her time of ritual impurity by taking the associated sacrifice of two birds to the Temple as a sacrifice offering. “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they [Mary and Joseph] brought him [Yeshua] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Torah of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”[4]

In Jewish life, the issue of family purity is seen as a vital, God-given way of infusing sanctity, as well as mystery and romance, into a marriage relationship. The timing of a married woman’s menstrual period is of great importance and needs to be carefully monitored. Whereas the sciences are practical and objective and the ideal is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the goals of Divine law are entirely subjective and entwined with daily life on every level. Science cannot answer the deepest questions of the heart, such as, “Who am I in relation to the universe?” and ” What is my purpose in life?” It is God’s Word that is His gift to us; one that offers understanding and meaning and lights our way along the often perplexing and troubling, and yet wondrous, journey of life.

Star of David ENT

Conclusion of Chapter 3

Rabbi Chanan’yah Ben Akashai says: “The Holy One, blessed is He, wished to confer merit upon Israel, therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance, as it is said, ‘The Lord desired, for the sake of His righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious'” (Isaiah 42:21).

Star of David ENT

We have reached the midway point of Pirkei Avot. We may agree that the tractate is comprised of a collection of teachings that share common aims to improve human relationships, to increase a person’s sense of responsibility to society, and to reveal each individual’s true purpose and God-given function in the world. Chazak, chazak – may we enjoy much strength and perseverance as we press forward into the final three chapters.

Footnotes:

1. Talmud Bavli, Horayoth 10a
2. Rabbi Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai; 347
3. Israel HaYom, 5 Feb., 2013
4. Luke 2:22-24)

Ethics – Now & Then 51 – Avot 3:22

Avot 3:22  He used to say: Any man whose wisdom exceeds his deeds,
                  to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are many
                  but whose roots are few, and the wind comes and plucks it up
                  and overturns it on its face – as it is said: ” And he shall be
                  like a juniper tree in the desert, and he shall not see good
                  come; but he shall dwell in the parched places in the wilderness,
                  a salt and uninhabited land.” [1] But anyone whose deeds
                  exceed his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree whose
                 branches are few but whose roots are many, so that even if all
                 the winds in the world come and blow on it, they cannot budge
                 it from its place – as it is said: “And he shall be as a tree that
                 is planted by water and by the streams it spreads out its roots;
                 then it shall not perceive any heat when it comes, and its foliage
                 shall be verdant; nor shall it be troubled in the year of drought,
                 nor cease from bearing fruit.” [2]

He used to say: Any man whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few, and the wind comes and plucks it up and overturns it on its face – as it is said: ” And he shall be like a juniper tree in the desert, and he shall not see good come; but he shall dwell in the parched places in the wilderness, a salt and uninhabited land”…

Instances can be found in Scripture where comparison are made between men and trees. Rabbi Ben Dosa uses the analogy to underscore the same thought he expressed earlier in 3:12. Here, he compares a man’s wisdom to the branches and foliage of a tree and his deeds to the roots. Botanical science tells us that a tree draws nourishment primarily through its roots. Through a spreading network of underground pipes, as it were, the necessary water and minerals are drawn from the soil to feed the tree. Similarly, in a spiritual sense, we may consider the source of man nourishment. What supplies the necessary “water and minerals” that are needed to keep his soul fed and growing?

Ben Dosa offers that these primarily are absorbed through the deeds he performs rather than the knowledge he accumulates. Rabbi Irving Bunim comments in agreement, “Academic study alone, theoretical contemplation alone, exercise of the reason alone, cannot basically affect the all-important functioning, acting part of the character.” [3] Rather, when one’s understanding and good intent are employed to perform an action that reflects the will and character of God – whether it be a simple gesture or a great deed of kindness – the action will nourish the person’s soul and have an enduring and positive effect on his character.

Regarding wisdom and the increase of knowledge as an end in itself, something whereby to measure esteem, and not as a basis and goal for one’s actions, causes one to become “top heavy”, like a tree with large branches and thick foliage but with a weak, underdeveloped root system. When challenges arise, perhaps in the form of strong winds of temptation, greed, pride, or undue ambition, they will uproot the tree and cause it to topple. Likewise, should a tornado or hurricane of persecution, hardship or extremely difficult circumstances strike, one’s faith will be severely tested and could falter and fail. The result may negatively interfere with a person’s communication and meaningful interaction with others. This hinders one in forming strong, true, warm relationships and, even when not outwardly evident, one will suffer a gradual isolation and dryness of soul.

If one finds oneself in such a parched and spiritually dry place, however, the constant encouragement provided by the Word of God is that He always meets His people in the wilderness – to guide one through, and to give provision and strength. [4] As Yeshua also promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” [5]

But anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many, so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow on it, they cannot budge it from its place – as it is said: “And he shall be as a tree that is planted by water and by the streams it spreads out its roots; then it shall not perceive any heat when it comes, and its foliage shall be verdant; nor shall it be troubled in the year of drought, nor cease from bearing fruit.”

Winds carry clouds of much needed rain and they can be gentle, balmy and refreshing. On the other hand, they can cause much damage. Small embers can be fanned into a blazing forest fire. Calm waters can become raging waves, as we see happen with the Sea of Galilee in the gospels. [6] Desert sand can become a blinding sandstorm. We all know that in times of extreme stress our reactions are tested to the limit, and very often we may fail and become angry, inconsiderate, even cruel in our acts and responses toward others. The “heat” of a situation can cause us to boil over!

When our wisdom is more than head-knowledge, however, and our actions have become a steady stream in accord with the “Living Water” of the Word of God, even should we fail we will be quick to repent, make the necessary amends, learn in the process and grow ever stronger in character. The more rooted we become in the Word, the more Messiah-like our attitudes and actions will become and the stronger the “root system” of our faith will become. Then we will never fail to bear fruit for our Creator’s glory. [7]

America’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), endorsed this view of Rabbi Ben Dosa when, on May 1, 1926, he addressed the Boy Scouts National Council in Washington, D.C., and said: “Development and character…can be secured only through action. The strengthening of the physical body, the sharpening of the senses, the quickening of the intellect… is invaluable in the growth and training of youth… represented by the Boy Scout movement… Members must promise to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent… the boy may not be merely passive in his alliance to righteousness. …We need a greater faith in the strength of right living. We need a greater faith in the power of righteousness. These are the realities which do not pass away.” [8]
Footnotes:

1. Jeremiah 17:6
2. Ibid. 8
3. Rabbi Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, 345
4. Deut. 31:6; 1 Chr. 28:20
5. Heb. 13:5
6. Matthew 14:24; Luke 8:24
7. Psalm 92:1
8. “American Presidency Project”; Calvin Coolidge

Ethics – Now & Then 50 – Avot 3:21

Avot 3:21  Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: “If there is no Torah,
                  there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly
                  occupation, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom,
                  there is no fear of God; if there is no fear of God, there
                  is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge, there is
                 no understanding; if there is no understanding, there
                 is no knowledge. If there is no flour, there is no Torah;
                 if there is no Torah, there is no flour.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says:

Rabbi Eleazer ben Azariah lived in the 1st-2nd centuries. He was born into a wealthy family that was related to Ezra the Scribe. He became a noted scholar at a young age and was a disciple of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos. He used his fortune, gained from wine, oil and cattle, for the welfare of the Jewish people during the Roman persecution.His primary approach to Scripture was pshat – the simple, face-value meaning. He said, “The Torah expressed itself in human language.” [1] He believed the Torah should be taught on a level that could be understood by all people, of all ages, and that it should be lived out in loving-kindness and honesty.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah.

The Hebrew words, derekh aretz, here translated ‘worldly occupation’ often are rendered ‘proper worldly conduct,’ or literally ‘the way of the land, or the world.’ Basically, it refers to a combination of courteous behavior, respect of others and a general skill when interacting with people. Morals are an important factor in this “right way.” In relation to God’s Word, William Berkson points out, “…the deep moral commitment engendered by Torah strongly supports good social skills and considerate, courteous conduct.” [2] When applied in a person’s life, the commandments given by God in expression of His will, encourage and enable one to develop an attitude of respect and loving-kindness toward one’s fellow human being, as well as toward all living creatures in general.

Often, in dealings with people, the dilemma arises of expressing the truth and yet not causing embarrassment or hurt to another person. The Talmud presents a pertinent anecdote: “What is sung as one dances before the bride? The school of Shammai says: …the bride as she is. The School of Hillel says: …one sings, “Oh beautiful and graceful bride!” [3] Whether she is or not. The decision was for the school of Hillel.

If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God; if there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom.

The classic proof-text for the above is Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Reverence of God must be the basis and ‘beginning’ of true wisdom. We see an illustration of the connection between wisdom and relating to people in the communication between God and King Solomon, who was regarded as the wisest man on earth. God had promised to give him whatever he asked for and when he asked for wisdom, God replied, “…because you have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may govern my people over whom I have made you king wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.” [4]

In the third chapter of Proverbs, Solomon himself beautifully describes wisdom which is found in the way of God: “She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” [5]

Without the deep motivation of love and reverence of the Author of the Word, God himself, the deep motivation for gaining this enduring wisdom will be lacking. In an effort to be successful in a business or profession, for example, a person is able to cultivate a polished and charming manner but the root motivation is selfish and not “for the sake of

Heaven.” This exterior usually will not hold up in the event of failure or trial. On the other hand, one may have a deep and loving relationship with God and a kind and tender heart, and yet have a brusque way of speaking and a seemingly impolite manner. The empathy within, however, will shine through when it truly matters.

If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge.

The comparison being made here between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ highlights the fact to gain knowledge when studying any subject there must be necessary accumulation of facts, whereas ‘understanding’ occurs when one is able to gain a conceptual grasp of the facts. Berkson explains, “Without understanding,…knowledge is just a useless bundle of facts.” [6] The challenge, particularly in study of the Bible, is to gain knowledge of the facts together with a deeper spiritual understanding of them. He continues, “With knowledge and understanding joined, our learning becomes applicable to life; a powerful guide and tool.” [7]

If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour.

This saying underscores the general teaching of the Sages that a person must do one’s utmost to work and earn a living as well as devoting oneself to the study of God’s Word. Like a horse and carriage the two work together to bring one successfully along the road of life!
Footnotes:

1. T. Bavli, Kiddushin 17b
2. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 128
3. T.B. Ketubah 16b
4. 2 Chr. 1:11-12
5. Prov. 3:15-18
6. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; ; 129
7. Ibid., 129

Ethics – Now & Then 49 – Avot 3:20

Avot 3:20  He used to say: Everything is given on collateral and a net is
                  spread over all the living. The shop is open; the Merchant
                  extends credit; the ledger is open; the hand writes; and
                  whoever wishes to borrow, let him come and borrow. The
                  collectors make their rounds consistently every day, and
                  collect payment from the person, whether he realizes it or not.
                  They have proof to rely upon; the judgment is a truthful
                  judgment; and everything is prepared for the [final festival]
                 banquet.

He used to say: Everything is given on collateral and a net is spread over all the living.

Rabbi Akiva’s use of metaphor here reflects general business principles and practices. For example, when one takes out a loan it is done with a pledge of repayment, usually based on collateral – some tangible security that the loan will be repaid. In purchasing a home, one signs an agreement to make the required mortgage payments in order that it remains yours to live in. Similarly, everything in this world we live in is “mortgaged” to the Owner; the Creator and Ruler of all. Our very life is given by Him and, although He has given us freedom of will to choose how we live, it essentially belongs to Him. In due time, just as a fisherman draws in his net, everything will be drawn into the Presence of the Owner – God Himself.

The shop is open; the Merchant extends credit; the ledger is open; the hand writes; and whoever wishes to borrow, let him come and borrow. The collectors make their rounds consistently every day, and collect payment from the person, whether he realizes it or not.

The renowned medieval commentator and vintner, Rashi,[1] owned a wine shop. He, correspondingly, makes the comparison that the world is a store and the storekeeper is God. [2] The ledger of debts is a record of our deeds and misdeeds. The debt collectors are the agents and “acts of Heaven” – God’s interaction in our lives. As He is the owner of all, and all we have is on loan, as it were, we are accountable for our lives and all we possess.

In the Father-Owner’s eyes, the most precious “possession” is the life and soul He has given each of His children. The temporary, external possessions they own, be it wealth, houses, cars, beautiful art, jewelry, etc., are of little concern in comparison with the exceedingly precious value of their inner and eternal being. Our values, attitudes, and actions toward one another, then, are what Heaven’s debt-collectors record; whether we are aware of it or not. Nothing is beyond His notice. We do well, therefore, to do a daily ‘accounting’ of our actions, in order to sincerely repent of any bad choices made or offenses committed against the Owner of our house. As a result, we will keep a short account in Heaven’s ledger.

They have proof to rely upon; the judgment is a truthful judgment; and everything is prepared for the [final festival] banquet.

Rashi also comments that “…all is prepared for the Day of Judgment.” [3] Scripture reveals that all of history will culminate on the Day of Judgment. On that final Day all will stand before the Almighty. We are told that all of nature will rejoice on that day: “Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.” [4] As do the peoples:

“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for You judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah.” [5]

Our assurance rests in the truth and “proof” that God is a true and merciful Judge. He has afforded the honoring of our pledge and the cancellation of our loan through His Son, Who made the ultimate payment on our behalf. We need only to realize it and receive it in humble awe and gratitude. In Him, Emmanuel, Yeshua, we find forgiveness of sin, a ledger wiped clean, healing of the past, hope for the future, and an appointed place at the glorious Wedding Banquet!

We may consider that everything in this world is a preparation for the “banquet” in the world to come. The Sages refer to eternity as, “…a Day that is all Shabbat.” The Talmud records, “The one who has toiled on the day before the Sabbath, will eat on the Sabbath.”[6] Our time on this earth is a prelude to the eternity that follows our death. When we sincerely do all we can to keep a straight course in accord with our Father’s will and purposes, no matter the trials and tribulations that befall us, we too can persevere and look forward to “…the joy that is set before us.” [7]
Footnotes:

1. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, (1049 – 1105)
2. Reference: L.Kravitz and K. Olitzky, Pirke Avot; 47
3. Ibid,; 47
4. 1 Chr. 16:33
5. Psalm 67:4
6. Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 3a
7. Hebrews 12:2

Ethics – Now & Then 48 – Avot 3:19

Avot 3:19  Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given. The
world is judged with goodness, and everything depends on the
abundance of good deeds.

Everything is foreseen [on high], yet the freedom of choice is given.

In this opening section of the verse, Rabbi Akiva places added emphasis on the facts that nothing is hidden from the eyes of God and, also, that He has given man freedom to choose and to make his own decisions. God is omniscient. He sees and knows all and yet, in His great love, He gives His children the right to choose to see and know Him and to love Him in return, or not. Man is not forced, nor automatically programmed in robot fashion, to learn His ways and to obey His will. He will pursue each one in His chesed – His lovingkindness and grace – and offer constant revelation of the reality of His Presence. The final choice, however, is always left to the heart of each individual.

In the context of God’s omniscience, the weighty question of predestination often is raised. God is outside of the limits of time and, if He knows all things, it means that He must know the entire past, the present, and also the future. Does that mean that He already knows, from the very beginning, those who will love Him and enter a relationship with Him, and those who will choose not to? Does this concept conflict with man’s freedom of choice? If God knows that a particular person will reject Him and remain a sinner, does that person really have a choice or are his actions predestined?

Akiva offers, in harmony with Jewish thought in general, that both truths are valid and not necessarily contradictory. God is all-knowing, yet He says clearly in His Word: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; choose life!” [1] According to His character, He would not capriciously present a choice knowing it was not viable. The outstanding Jewish leader and teacher of Medieval times, Maimonides, points out that some confusion may arise “…because in talking of the Almighty’s ‘knowledge’ we use our own knowledge and experience as models and bases of what we mean. In reality, however, His ‘knowledge’ is identical with His essence [character, being], and is thus beyond human comprehension, for it differs not only quantitively but qualitatively from our own. Not only does the Almighty know infinitely more than we; His way of knowing, His kind of knowing, is in another dimension entirely outside our ken.” [2]

We may consider that in the sight of the Almighty, somehow, all time and reality are compressed into an eternal now. Rabbi Bunim expresses that if God knows the future, “…He knows it not because He fixes certain controlling forces which later determine the choice, but because before Him the future event of a person’s choosing is taking place now, so to speak.” [3] Through the Scriptures we find that God allows His prophets to see something of this future that He knows. Around 90% of biblical prophecy has already been totally fulfilled and we wait with anticipation for the culmination of history. In his book of Revelation, John records his vision of Jesus, Yeshua, who says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Aleph and the Tav, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” [4] He was the Word breathed at Creation by the Father and, as John describes, he is returning to the Holy city of Jerusalem to establish God’s Kingdom in all the earth. While our present knowledge is limited, then we all will know as we are known through the eyes of His Love and Truth. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

The world is judged with goodness…

On the great subject of judgment, the gospel of John records an interesting comment made by Yeshua: “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” [5] He came to bring Salvation to all, and yet, as Scripture foretells, at the end of time a Day of Judgment will come. Before this final great reckoning, however, Yeshua will be enthroned as King of kings in a millennial reign from Mount Zion and, as Isaiah describes: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” [6]

Until that time, our hearts can rejoice in gratitude that in His great goodness and mercy God gives His children the great gift of teshuvah – repentance. The Sages concur that even if a person is wicked all his life, he will receive forgiveness if he sincerely repents and turns to God. Forgiveness is conditional, however, upon the sincerity of the repentance and carries a proviso that it does not involve the “profanation of His Name” – the desecration of the holiness of His character. In His goodness and the power of His love, our merciful Father is eager to extend forgiveness. Although man’s iniquity separates him from God, Isaiah again encourages: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or His ear dull, that it cannot hear.” [7] His hand is always outstretched and He hears the most broken cry of repentance.

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the Day of Judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world.” [8]

…and everything depends on the abundance of good deeds.

The Sages, as stated here by Akiva, in general reach the conclusion that deeds outweigh belief; that we will be judged in accordance with what we do and how we do it rather than by what we believe. The Psalmist beautifully describes: “For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.” [9] In this regard, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah is recorded as saying, “The righteous of all nations will have a portion in the world to come.” [10] A legend in the Talmud describes God as lamenting, “If only they forgot Me and obeyed My commandments!” [11] This poses a question: Is it more pleasing to God when people behave in accord with His will and the purposes for which He created them than when they proclaim who He is and know much about Him?

Akiva’s focus, however, never wavered from the importance of studying Torah; of gaining knowledge of the Word of God in order to better know Him and understand His will. In a debate among his Sages is view is recorded, “The question was raised: Is study greater, or deeds? Rabbi Tarfon answered: Deeds are greater. Rabbi Akiva answered: Study is greater. Then they all answered and said: Study is greater, for it leads to deeds.” [12] In the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, the renowned sage and teacher Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai charges his star pupils to discover the good way in life to which a person should cling. [13] A key answer of the pious Rabbi Yossi is, “Apply yourself to study Torah, for it is not yours by inheritance; and let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.” One does not automatically acquire knowledge of God and His Word; it only is gained by devoted study and application. And, as Rabbi Yossi so wisely encourages, it will enrich and fulfill one’s life if every action one takes is for the sake of honoring and pleasing God.

This Hebraic perspective, in maintaining a healthy balance between knowledge and deeds, avoids the dangers of Gnosticism – a movement that denies the inherent goodness of Creation and, in particular, the human body. Gnosticism emerged in the Church in the first two centuries of the Christian era, likely due to the influence of Greek philosophy. Gnosis is the Greek word meaning knowledge. Many consider that modern Western culture leans toward Gnosticism in its devotion to science and technology and the belief that this knowledge will liberate mankind from all its suffering. In this view, the order God established in Creation and His guidance for life are rejected in favor of humanistic knowledge, which then ascends the throne and becomes the judge of all things.

The bottom line appears to be that both knowledge of God and the doing of good deeds are important and connected. In a marriage ceremony the relationship of the couple is central and the wedding dress distinguishes the bride. As a mark of the special day, the dress is important and chosen with loving care. In the description of the glorious Wedding Feast of the Lamb of God at the end of time, we are told: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”– for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” [14]

 

Footnotes:

1. Deut. 30:19
2. Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed, III, 20-21; quoted by Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai; 327
3. Ibid.; 327
4. Rev. 22:13
5. John 12:47
6. Isaiah 2:4
7. Isaiah 59:1
8. 1 John 4:17
9. Psalm 11:7
10. Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13:2
11. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 127
12. Talmud, Kiddushin 40b
13. Pirkei Avot 2:13
14. Revelation 19:7-8

Ethics – Now & Then 47 – Avot 3:18

Avot 3:18  He used to say, “Beloved is man, for he was created in God’s
                  image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made
                  known to him that he was created in God’s image, as it is
                  said, ‘For in the image of God He made man.’
                 Beloved are the people Israel, for they are described as the
                 children of the Omnipresent; it is indicative of a greater love
                 that it was made known to them that they are described as
                 the children of the Omnipresent. as it is said: ‘You are
                 children to the Lord your God.’
                 Beloved are the people Israel for it was made known to them
                that they were given a cherished utensil, as it is said: ‘For I
                have given you a good teaching; do not forsake My Torah.’

This is one of the most well-loved verses in the tractate of Pirkei Avot. It reveals the heart of the relationship between God and man, which is His unfathomable love. It also describes the unique creation of humankind in general, as well as the particularity of the people Israel and the precious gift bestowed upon them of the revelation and the knowledge of God and His Word. In three sentences, the basic truth of humanity’s identity and connection with our Creator is expressed. In addition, it clearly negates any theory that Israel’s relationship with God is based simply on some ancient, socio-religious cult. Israel continues to be central to His plan of Redemption until Messiah returns to Jerusalem to establish the Kingdom of God on the earth.

[Rabbi Akiva] used to say, “Beloved is man, for he was created in God’s image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in God’s image, as it is said, ‘For in the image of God He made man’ (Genesis 9:6).

The Genesis narrative records that God spoke Creation into being. He created with the power of His breath, neshama, and His Word, devar. He said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. Only Adam, the first man, did He “make” and shape from the earth with His hands. He also “built” the first woman, Eve, from a piece removed from the side of Adam. Into their forms He breathed life and something of Himself, a neshama – a spirit – that set man apart from the animals as a holy being. In His likeness, too, they were given the ability to speak and to understand. Rabbi Irving Bunim comments: “This element of Divinity in man is the basis for all the love, consideration and respect which the Torah commands us to extend to our fellow, to every human being. It is the common Fatherhood of our God which establishes irrevocably the brotherhood of man.” [1]

Akiva points out that it is only through God’s great love that this fact was made known to man. It is revealed to us because it cannot be proven through logic or external data. This knowing must be an expression of love. A deeper aspect of this expression is that His love is not kept hidden, He makes it known to His beloved children, His people. A true love is fulfilled and grows when it is reciprocal – spoken, stored, treasured and enjoyed with the other.

Beloved are the people Israel, for they are described as the children of the Omnipresent; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to them that they are described as the children of the Omnipresent. as it is said: ‘You are children to the Lord your God’ (Deut. 14:1).

We see that all mankind is uniquely created in the image of God and with the potential of Imitateo Deo – to become like God; to learn and to grow spiritually, as a child imitates his or her father and mother and becomes more like them. The key factor involved, however, is that of choice. Unlike the animals, God gave human beings the ability to choose for themselves to respond to His love and to follow His Word or to reject it and to go their own way. To those who respond and hear His voice, as Abraham and Sarah did, He is a loving Father who dialogues with His children and interacts with them on a deeply personal level. In their response of faith to leave their idolatrous culture and to follow Him to a Land He would show them and give to them as an inheritance, Abraham and Sarah became the first parents of the unique family and nation that God was to establish as His Covenant witnesses in the earth.

Scripture and history record the long, often torturous, often wondrous and miraculous, journey of this people of God until the present day. Scripture also records the words of God through His prophets, with a small number of prophecies remaining yet to be fulfilled, which promise a glorious culmination for His people and an eternity lived in the fully restored light of His Presence.

Recent generations have witnessed the mighty restoration of Israel, the land and the people, after the two thousand year exile when they were shaken as pebbles amongst all the nations (Amos 9:9). The good news of His Kingdom and the Gate that was opened for all peoples through the gift of His Son and Messiah, Yeshua, indeed went to the four corners of the earth. Then, God promised: “In that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that the remnant of mankind and all the nations who are called by My Name may seek the Lord.” “I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the Lord your God (Amos 9:12;15).

Beloved are the people Israel for it was made known to them that they were given a cherished utensil (kli), as it is said: ‘For I have given you a good teaching (lekach); do not forsake My Torah.’

The Hebrew word, kli, usually translated ‘utensil’ or ‘instrument,’ is interesting in relation to the Torah. It highlights that the teachings of God are intrinsically practical, to be used for good purpose. Even if a person uses the Word of God only as a guide to living a just and moral life it brings great reward, physically and spiritually. In His love, however, God also makes known its greater value as a precious gift to be cherished. Here it also is described as lekach – teaching or doctrine, as found in Proverbs 4:1-2, “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching (lekach).” We also find it in Deuteronomy 32:2, “May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like gentle rain upon the tender grass, and like showers upon the herb.”

While it can be gentle in delivery, the Word has infinite power. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch comments: “The laws of the Torah are those laws by which all the creatures, phenomena, and developments of all the rest of creation continue and endure, transposed into a smaller scale to be a law for the shaping of the lives of individuals and nations. At the same time the Torah is the instrument for the fulfillment of that goal for which the Lord created the whole world to begin with…the “tov – good” which it is man’s task to achieve and which can be attained only through this…teaching through which the good can be won.” [2] The teachings and commands (mitzvot) of Torah guide us to the goal of bringing His healing and redemption to the world.

Understanding Yeshua as the Torah of God enfleshed, we hear an echo of these concepts in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “May you be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,…[who is] the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. …And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” [3] Eternally precious, gentle and of infinite power.

While we eagerly anticipate our King-Bridegroom’s arrival we are privileged to witness the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (2:2-3).

 

Footnotes:

1. Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai; 317
2. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers; 55
3. Colossians 1:9-17

Ethics – Now & Then 46 – Avot 3:17b

Avot 3:17  (a) Rabbi Akiva said: Mockery and levity accustom a man to
                  immorality. The oral tradition is a protective fence around the
                  Torah;
                  (b) tithes are a protective fence for wealth; vows are a
                  protective fence for abstinence; a protective fence for wisdom
                 is silence.

[Rabbi Akiva said] …tithes are a protective fence for wealth;

Rabbi Akiva’s premise here is that, in reality, all that we have comes from and belongs to God. We simply are stewards of His possessions and, as such, we are to follow His expressed instructions and desires as to how to deal with them. Understanding this truth and humbly keeping it in focus, with an attitude of humility, provides a protection against the very real dangers of wealth; namely arrogance, greed, a sense of entitlement and a thirst for power. By doing good with one’s money, in tithing one’s income to God’s Kingdom and giving generously, one, as it were, converts one’s earthly means into a wealth that will accompany one beyond the grave.

Rabbi Akiva expands on this verse in Avot 3:20 where he suggests that a heavenly ledger is kept where one’s giving is recorded based on “…reliable information and the judgment is true. And all is arranged for the banquet.” This makes a clear connection between generous deeds of kindness and Divine rewards in the world to come.

In this context, Rabbi Irving Bunim makes an interesting observation. The Psalmist tells us, “The Lord is your shadow on your right hand.” [1] A person’s shadow imitates the actions he makes. When you move, it moves. If your hand is closed, the shadow’s hand is closed. If you open it, so does the shadow. Bunim comments: “This is the reciprocity with which the Almighty acts. If you open your hand in generosity to the poor, the Almighty will open His treasures of blessing and plenty. But if you withhold your charity, He will stop giving too.” [2]

Perhaps the apostle Paul’s words also can be fittingly applied in regard to the receiving and giving of financial means: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” [3] And, thus, we too can freely give.

…vows are a protective fence for abstinence;

Basically, vows (nedarim in Hebrew) are promises to God, to oneself, or to another to do or not to do something. They often are made in connection with abstinence or self-denial. The clearest example in the Torah is that of the Nazarite vows. A tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim in Seder Nashim, is dedicated to vows.

In this verse, Akiva likely is indicating that a vow might help one strengthen one’s resolve to break a bad habit and to control one’s negative passions and impulses. The Rabbis, however, conclude that one should avoid making formal vows, with the understanding that any verbal agreement or promise one makes should be held as a sacred obligation. Yeshua emphasized this in saying, “…do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem for it is the city of the Great King. …But let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no. For whatever is more than this is from the evil one.” [4] His words are fervently echoed in the letter of James: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” [5]

Although in Jewish tradition, and also in some sects of Christianity, there exists a small strand of ascetic belief – a premise that self-denial is holy, the Sages generally warn against denying oneself anything beyond what is prohibited in the Word of God and, in extension, by the Rabbinic rulings. A later sage, Rav, went so far as to say that when a person stands before the Throne of Judgment he will have to answer for every good and permissible thing God gave to enjoy but he did not. [6]

The vows of a Nazir were for a limited time, usually for thirty days. According to the Torah he was required to bring a sin offering (hattath) to be sacrificed on the altar in the Temple when he had completed his time of abstinence. [7] Although his vow was “for the sake of Heaven,” his ‘sin’ lay in the fact that he had denied himself one of God’s gifts, which are given for the pleasure of humankind.

…a protective fence for wisdom is silence.

We all are familiar with the adage, “Silence is golden”; often used together with the unfortunately exaggerated, “Children should be seen and not heard!” The former is supported in the Talmud, which says, “Speech is worth one sela (a coin), but silence is worth two.” [8] In his 19th Century commentary on this verse, Joseph Caro states, “The wise man knows what he speaks, but the fool speaks what he knows.” [9] Rabbi Irving Bunim elaborates that when one is recognized as wise and remains quiet in a discussion, one’s silence “…will be interpreted as profound contemplation, or a sign that the conversation is not worthy of one’s learned participation.” On the other hand, “People who do not pause to consider [before they speak] have a natural tendency to blurt out everything they know. More often than not this is unwise and indiscreet.” [10]

Considered one of the wisest men in the world, King Solomon states, “In a profusion of words, transgression will not be lacking; but he who restrains his lips is wise.” [11] On the other hand, Solomon also reminds us that, “…there is a season for everything… a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” [12] In regular, everyday conversation silence can be golden; however, when it comes to the precepts of the Word of God we are told, “… you shall speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way.” [13] In our study of His Word, interaction and discussion are important for learning and growing spiritually. We should aim always to fill our hearts and minds, and our mouths, with the life-bearing truth of God’s Word.

 

Footnotes:

1. Psalm 121:5
2. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, 312
3. 1 Cor. 2:12
4. Matthew 5:33-37
5. James 5:12
6. Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12; 66d
7. Numbers 6:2
8. Megillah 18a
9. Joseph Chaim Caro (1800-1895), Minchat Shabbat, quoted by Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, 314
10. Ibid, 314
11. Proverbs 10:19
12. Koheleth – Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7
13. Deut. 6:7

Ethics – Now & Then 45 – Avot 3:17a

Avot 3 :17  (a) Rabbi Akiva said: Mockery and levity accustom a man to
                   immorality. The oral tradition is a protective fence around the
                   Torah;
                  (b) tithes are a protective fence for wealth; vows are a
                  protective fence for abstinence; a protective fence for wisdom
                  is silence.

Rabbi Akiva said…

Rabbi Akiva (40 -135 CE/AD) is one of the most famous of the Sages. The Temple was destroyed when he was about thirty years of age. He grew up in a poor and humble family and remained an illiterate shepherd until age forty. Among a wealth of accounts of the Sage’s life – his name is mentioned 567 times in the Talmud – it is said that while shepherding in the stony hills of Jerusalem he noticed how the constant dripping of water over many years had worn a hole in a rock. He was deeply aware of his lack of learning and thought to himself, “If soft water can penetrate hard stone, certainly the iron-strong Torah can leave its imprint on my mind and heart.” [1]

While working in the employ of a wealthy Jerusalemite, named Kalba Savua, Akiva met his daughter Rachel, who was attracted by his graciousness and humility. She came to recognize his great potential and asked, “If I marry you will you dedicate yourself to Torah study?” He agreed and they were secretly wed. [2] Akiva, with the encouragement of his beloved wife, began with learning the Aleph-Bet and continued to study the whole Torah. Eventually, he became the greatest scholar of his time and was head of a large yeshiva – Torah academy – with many thousands of students, among whom would be the outstanding teachers of the next generation.

The Talmud also recounts how, earlier, when Rachel’s father discovered their marriage he disowned her and the couple were left penniless. While studying, Akiva sold firewood as a means of support and on one occasion Rachel cut off her beautiful long hair and sold it to help pay his fees. They were separated for many long years while he completed his studies. A touching story is told of how, on his eventual return as a highly respected Torah scholar, Rabbi Akiva proclaimed to his students that all his learning and knowledge, including all he had taught them, were in truth attributed to Rachel; none would have come into being without her support and self-sacrifice. As a special gift of his love and esteem, he had an exquisite brooch of gold made for her called Yerushalayim shel Zahav – Jerusalem of Gold – for it was designed in the shape of the skyline of their beloved Jerusalem. [3]

Hoping for a Messianic-type victory and freedom from the heavy Roman oppression, Rabbi Akiva supported the revolution against Rome led by Bar Kochba. The revolution failed and the reprisals were harsh, including a decree against the study of Torah. Akiva calmly ignored the ban stating that the Jewish people are like fish. Just as fish cannot survive out of water, so the Jewish people would perish without the Torah. [4] Eventually this led to his arrest and imprisonment. Even in prison, however, and at the age of 95, he secretly taught the students who were able to get to see him; until one early morning, at the time of Shacharit – the Morning Prayer – when the Shema is recited, Akiva was taken outside to be flayed with iron rakes by the soldiers. Students witnessed how he died uttering the Shema and, the word he uttered with his last breath was Echad – One. [5]

Mockery and levity accustom a man to immorality.

This verse is subject to various interpretations, e.g., “Jesting and frivolous light-headedness lead a man on to lewdness.” [6] We are familiar with the adage, “Laughter is good medicine,” and can undoubtedly agree that humor relaxes tension and is an important ingredient in living a more pleasant life. Some of the greatest Sages, and many good Bible teachers, effectively interject a little humor effectively in their teaching. What Akiva is referring to is when people resort to brash humor and constant attitude of joking and “fun.” When this becomes constant and habitual, it becomes a mockery of anything serious. It undermines and eventually destroys any earnest interaction and genuine communication. Cruel “joking” is, in reality, a form of bullying and abuse.

Kohelet, or the writer of Ecclesiastes, widely considered to be King Solomon, describes this frivolous attitude as a “house” of mirth – “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (7:4) and he proclaims in verse 6: “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vain and meaningless.”

In connection with immorality, Rabbi Bunim comments that this mindset “…must lead to cynicism, brazenness and eventually to immorality. … The double entendres and smutty nuances in “funny” material; the unsubtle allusions to filth and obscenity by “comedians” devoid of true humor. All these implant suggestions and evoke ideas in our minds which supplant Torah… and immoral actions are sure to follow.” [7]

Modern culture and the popular media are rife with this ungodly mentality and one does well to follow the wise counsel of Yeshua’s brother Ya’akov, who connects this attitude with a type of arrogance: “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:9-10).

The oral tradition [masoret] is a protective fence around the Torah;

Rabbi Akiva here refers to the fence mentioned at the start in Avot 1:1. Namely, one that was put in place to preserve the written Torah. A fence serves a dual purpose, to protect what is within from possibly dangerous elements outside and to prevent what is within from wandering away from or spilling over its bounds. Similarly, there are two basic dimensions to this fence for the Torah. One physically is found in elements of the written Masoretic text itself, namely the “…traditions concerning the accurate writing, vowel points, and chanting of the Torah text.” As a result, “…Historical discoveries have confirmed the high degree of accuracy in transmission of the Torah text over time.” [8] This accuracy largely has been due to the strict standards set in place for the scribes. Akiva believed that every Hebrew letter and its place in the Torah, and even the decorative crowns of the letter and the space around it, have meaning and significance.

The second aspect is the oral interpretation of the text. The transmission of this began with Moses and Joshua and has been faithfully and carefully passed from generation to generation. This has required constant study, memorization and review, as well as in-depth analysis, discussion and application of major biblical principles to the relative circumstances.

The Sages understood that any interpretation and application necessarily must be made without compromising the timeless truths of the Torah and by safeguarding these against corruption from within, due to assimilation of pagan influences, and from outside factors such as subtle social pressures and even blatant physical force. When one purposes to live one’s life in accord with the will and purposes of God, as expressed in His Torah and as demonstrated in the life and teachings of this same Word enfleshed, His Son and Messiah Yeshua, one can appreciate the inestimable value of the faithful diligence of the Sages and Torah scholars over the centuries in keeping and protecting its every word and principle.

Yeshua said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word [the Word he became] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the Word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” [9]

The truth of God’s Word stands forever and shapes the heart with His love and life; the converse being lies, hatred and murder. Yeshua also said, regarding the enemy of our souls, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. …He who is of God hears God’s words.” [10] Only He knows the heart and the litmus test appears to be the truth of the Father’s Word, expressed in love, or the lies of His and our enemy, expressed in hatred. What better aspiration can we live for than to do as Yeshua exhorted: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” [11]

 

Footnotes:

1. Artscroll Mesorah series, The Pirkei Avot Treasury; 175 – quoting Avot dʼRabbi Natan
2. Ibid.; 175
3. Ibid.; 175
4. Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 61b
5. Ibid.;  Talmud Yerushalmi IX, 5
6. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai; 307
7. Ibid.; 307
8. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 122
9. John 15:17
10. John 8:43-47
11. John 15:17

Ethics – Now & Then 44 – Avot 3:16

Avot 3:16  Rabbi Ishmael said, “Be amenable to a superior, pleasant to
                  the young, and receive every person cheerfully.”

Rabbi Ishmael said…

The Hebrew name Yishma’el translates as: ‘I will hear Elohim/God.’ Rabbi Ishmael lived at the turn of the 2nd Century. He was born into a wealthy family of cohenim/priests. It is likely that his father served in the Temple before its destruction and that his grandfather was the High Priest of the same name. [1] As a young boy he was taken captive by the Romans but was rescued by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah for a high ransom. Rabbi Yehoshua noted the boy’s advanced knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and his potential to become a future teacher and he mentored Rabbi Ishmael until he became a prominent scholar and one of the outstanding members of the Sanhedrin. He developed “the thirteen principles or rules for interpreting the Written Torah” and he laid the foundation for what have become classic books of commentary and midrash that illustrate his interpretive approach. For example, the Mechilta, the halachic midrash on the book of Exodus, and Sifre, the midrash on the book of Numbers. [2]

Rabbi Ishmael had a gentle and friendly nature and constantly urged good will and peace between people. His focus was on helping the needy; particularly in giving aid to poor women whose husbands had left for war and in providing for young, impoverished girls who wished to marry. He warned against hatred, teaching that it lead to slander and violence. Despite his high position, and in accord with his ancestor Aaron the first High Priest who “loved peace and pursued peace,” [3] he always was ready to show respect and warmth to others.

Be amenable to a superior, pleasant to the young…

The word ‘superior’ is a translation of the Hebrew rosh – head; which denotes a person who holds a position of leadership in an organization or any group endeavor. Rosh yeshivot, the heads or leaders of Torah seminaries or academies always have been held in very high esteem. Kal, translated ‘amenable’, also carries meanings of light, easy or yielding. Rabbi Hirsch comments that in relation to leaders one should not be fractious or rebellious but be “easily led.” [4] One should make every effort to be amenable and have a submissive attitude to those in leadership, who generally would be older and/or more experienced. This attitude does not indicate weakness but rather a willingness to co-operate towards achieving positive results in the endeavor. In addition, therefore, this would include having a pleasant and helpful attitude to those who are younger and/or less experienced in one’s particular group.

Abraham Twerski, rabbi and psychologist, observes that this verse is so cryptic that it has rendered many interpretations and meanings, and even “…the words themselves have been translated in more ways than any other mishnah [verse] in Ethics of the Fathers.” [5] As well as the interpretation above, he refers to R’ Moshe Alashkar who considers Rosh as meaning God, who is the Head of all, and the word tishchoret, translated ‘young,’ to refer to those who study and share His Word. The verse would thus read: “Be yielding in your service to God, and be pleasant to Torah scholars.” [6] Rabbeinu Yonah offers: “Humble yourself before the ruler, and be submissive to other [or lesser] authorities.” According to the renowned Meiri, tishchoret means immature people and, together with Hirsch who advises caution, he says that while one should be submissive to the wishes of superiors, one should exercise diplomacy and be careful to reject the unwise opinions of those younger and more immature. Rashbam literally takes rosh to mean head and tishchoret as a reed, and offers the creative interpretation of, “Unburden your head and be flexible as a reed.” [7] The Talmud underscores that even when there may be varying interpretations, some even polar opposites, all opinions are valid [8] and, particularly when from a respected source, deserve consideration for any aspect of truth they may bear.

…and receive every person cheerfully.

Although it would seem an automatic assumption, Twerski makes the interesting observation that, while connecting the first two parts of the verse, “…very few commentaries associate the latter part of the mishnah, to ‘receive every person cheerfully,’ to the first part.” [9] We may consider that the first is applicable to those one interacts with on a regular basis and the last widens to include every person with whom one makes contact, from the president to the doorman to the government agency clerk.

This last phrase presents a great challenge. One may be raised and taught to greet and interact with others politely, but cheerfulness is more related to feelings. The wise Shammai, in Avot chapter 1:15, agrees that we should greet everyone we meet with a pleasant countenance. This is no effort with people we like. Would we be hypocritical, however, to happily greet a person we dislike and would rather avoid or a rude person whom we are not likely ever to see again?

A similar verse in the Talmud states, “A person is required to praise God even for unpleasant happenings.” [10] And the apostle Paul exhorts, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…”. [11]

Praise always is an expression of gratitude and joy – simcha; as we see in Psalm 100, the only psalm to be given the precise inscription, A Psalm of Praise:

“Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His Presence with singing.
…Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His Name.”

The powerful British preacher and author, Charles H. Spurgeon (1832-1894), comments on verse 2 of the Psalm: Serve the Lord with gladness. “Glad homage pay with awful mirth. He is our Lord, and therefore he is to be served; he is our gracious Lord, and therefore to be served with joy. The invitation to worship here given is not a melancholy one, as though adoration were a funeral solemnity, but a cheery gladsome exhortation, as though we were bidden to a marriage feast.” [12]

In this capacity, when we remember that every person indeed is created in the image of God and, as it were, carries His Name, we can see past any earthly grievances and truly receive each one cheerfully with an intention to convey blessing.

 

Footnotes:

1. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai; 357
2. Ibid.; 357
3. Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, In the Paths of our Fathers; 89
4. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers; 52
5. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 172
6. Ibid.; 172
7. Ibid.; 172
8. Eruvin 13b
9. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 173
10. Berachot 54a
11. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
12. The Blue Letter Bible Blog

Ethics – Now & Then 43 – Avot 3:15

Avot 3:15

Rabbi Elazar of Modin said, “One who desecrates sacred things, who treats the Festivals with scorn, who humiliates his fellow in public, who nullifies the covenant of our forefather
Abraham, and who interprets the Torah in a manner contradictory to halacha,
though he may have Torah and good deeds he has
 no share in the World to Come.”

OGOL_med-01

 

Rabbi Elazar of Modin said…

Rabbi Elazar (or Eliezer) was a young disciple of the renowned Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. He lived a few miles west of Jerusalem in the Hasmonean town of Modi’in, home of the Maccabees. He was very highly regarded as a Sage, particularly in the area of aggadah – homiletic interpretation, parables, allegories and lessons that convey morals and encouragement. He had a great trust in the faithful provision of God and, no doubt with reference to God’s miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness at the Exodus, he would say: “The One who creates the day creates its sustenance. He who has food for the day and worries over what he may find to eat the next day, is of those who have little faith.” [1] Rather a challenging concept for those of us who enjoy the plenty of Western society!

Rabbi Elazar was an uncle of Bar Kochba, who many hailed as the Messiah who would deliver Israel from Roman oppression and who eventually led a revolt against the Roman army in 132 CE/AD. After many battles, the Romans eventually besieged Bar Kochba in the fortress of Bethar. Rabbi Elazar fasted and prayed that his nephew would prevail but it is said that a “treacherous Cushite” caused Bar Kochba to suspect him of treason and in a fit of rage he killed the Sage. Soon after, Bethar fell. [2]

One who desecrates sacred things…

The Hebrew word translated as ‘sacred things’ is kedoshim, from the root word kadosh – holy. Another related word is kedushah – holiness or sanctity. While the Holy Temple was standing in Jerusalem, the term kedoshim (sacred or holy things) usually referred to the physical things connected with the Temple, such as the buildings and the ground itself, the furniture in the Holy Place and the Ark in the Holy of Holies, and also the items used in the rituals of worship.

The sacrifices and Temple offerings were considered particularly kadosh. Rabbi Bunim points out that they “were regulated by special rigorous laws of sanctity.” For example, when the cohen (priest) offered certain sacrifices, he was allowed to eat an allotted portion, but “for no more than one day and one night, and that only within the confines of the Temple.” [3] How, then, does one desecrate or profane things sacred? Bunim offers, “Man profanes the sacred when he ignores its special character and even considers it something ordinary.”

… [who] treats the Festivals with scorn,

Rabbi Elazar connects the profanation of sacred physical objects with scorning or belittling the Festivals – the appointed times set by God in His Word. The first thing in the Bible that God calls kadosh, holy, is the Sabbath – the seventh day of Creation. Here, in the first chapter of Genesis, ‘holy’ is defined as something specifically set apart unto Him; just as a beloved wife is set apart from other women unto her husband.

The opposite of ‘holy’ is not ‘wicked.’ The six regular days of the week, or all other women in the case of a husband, are not ‘bad’ but are regarded as ‘ordinary’ in contrast to the one that is specifically chosen and set apart for God’s particular pleasure and purposes. The specified biblical Festivals, in like manner, have their times and purposes ordained by God. In addition to their historical context, they are rich in spiritual content and carry blessing upon blessing and depths of meaning, some beyond our understanding. We know that Jesus and his earthly family, as well as Paul and the other disciples, all observed and enjoyed the Festivals that honored and brought pleasure to the Father. It is sad to realize that, even if not blatantly scorned, they are ignored or regarded as irrelevant by many followers of Jesus today.

…[who] humiliates his fellow in public,

This is an interesting segue from scorning the Festivals of God and holy objects to shaming a fellow human being in public. Human beings are created in the image of God, with the potential and power to fulfill His exhortation to “be holy as I am holy.” This can only be done in harmony and relationship with God, and in eager cooperation with His expressed will. He has made His will clear in His Torah, or teachings, through His prophets and through His uniquely begotten and beloved Son, Yeshua, who perfectly lived and demonstrated the will of the Father as it applies to all His children.

Only people can “remember” and “observe” the times and commandments of God and thereby infuse otherwise ordinary things with their spiritual depth of meaning, causing the blessings of God they contain to pour forth. God’s stamp, as it were, of His holiness in the spirit of a human being is what sets him or her apart from the animals. When the sacred things of God are disregarded or scorned this, not surprisingly, can result in the belittling and mocking of other people. This dangerous trait can begin with seemingly innocent “put down” jokes, which then escalate to subtle and often blatant discrimination and bullying.

These negative attitudes can infiltrate a society and culture and we have seen the tragic consequences in the horrors and abuses of slavery and Nazi Germany; also of war in general and the trafficking and subjugation of women and children to this day. Any such action is harmful enough when done privately, but the public humiliation of a human being is very grievous to the heart of God; enough, so the Sages of Israel say, that doing so without repentance causes the perpetrator to have “no share in the World to Come.”

…who nullifies the covenant of our forefather Abraham,

Abraham was called by God as the first Hebrew, Ivri – from the root word meaning ‘to cross over.’ He crossed over from the pagan kingdoms of the world into the Kingdom of God. In so doing, he entered into covenant relationship with God and became the father, together with Isaac and Jacob, of the family of Israel and, in turn, of those children of God in all the earth who would heed the call of Heaven in His Son and Messiah, the Light of the world, and choose to cross over and be adopted as sons and daughters into His household of faith.

The physical sign of this Kingdom covenant with Abraham was the circumcision of male offspring. In Jewish tradition, this is a sacred ritual performed on the eight day after birth, which has been medically proven to be the most appropriate day. The biological event of the birth of a child, whether boy or girl, is a wonder in itself but, robbed of its spiritual context, it can be reduced to an ordinary animal-level event. In recognizing a child as one born into the family of God with the heritage of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and as one who bears the image of God, one can dedicate him or her into the hands of the living God and make the commitment to teach the child of His truth and ways.

…and who interprets the Torah in a manner contradictory to halacha,

The Torah is not simply a history book or a philosophical tome. We need to approach it with deepest respect and value it as the Word of God. It is His revelation of Himself and His gift to mankind. By treating it lightly and and trying to twist its meaning for one’s own ends and thereby distorting or perverting it, is seen as profaning its holiness. Therefore this injunction is included in this list of sins that are, in effect, rebellion against God Himself.

Interestingly enough, Yeshua speaks into this subject when he says to his disciples:

“Do not think that I have come to do away with the Torah or the words of the Prophets;
I have only come to fulfil it, and truly I say to you, until heaven and earth are destroyed, not one ‘yud’ or one ‘tag’ will be lost from the Torah until all is done.
And whoever should relax one of the lightest commandments or teach this to others will not be called to the kingdom of Heaven; but whoever does them or teaches this to others will be called to the kingdom of Heaven.”  (Matthew 5:17-19)

In the verse above, “contradictory to halacha” means in contradiction or opposition to normative means of interpretation as recognized in Jewish law. A framework of interpretation was set by the sages; the most well-known being the thirteen principles set forth in the Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael (found here on Wikipedia). These principles ranged from standard rules of logic (e.g., an argument that denotes an inference from smaller to bigger and vice versa, קל וחומר —  Kal v’Chomer) to more expansive ones, such as Gezerah Shavah, the rule that a passage could be interpreted by reference to another passage in which the same word appears. Hermeneutical flexibility was given as long as it did not pervert the simple, basic meaning of the text or deny its validity in any way.

In traditional Jewish thinking, and in reaction to heretical groups such as the Gnostics and Marcians and Karaites, three peoples who could be classified as ‘One Who Denies Torah’ are:4

  • One who denies that even one verse or one word of the Torah is from God. Including those who say: “Moses made these statements independently”
  • One who denies Torah’s interpretation, the oral law or disputes the authority of its spokesmen, as did Tzadok and Beitus
  • One who says that though the Torah came from God, the Creator has replaced one mitzvah, or commandment, with another one and nullified the original Torah. In later centuries this included antinomian Christianity and Islam.

…though he may have Torah and good deeds, he has no share in the world to come.

A person may have studied much of the Bible and may do many things that are good and in accord with the will of God, such as giving generously to those in need or leading a good family life; however, if he transgresses any of the issues listed here, he proves that the holiness of God and His Word are not part of his true being. It is this true being, the spirit of a person, that endures and exists in the glory of His Presence in the World to Come, when the Kingdom of God is established on earth for all eternity.

The Sages are quick to differentiate between those who deliberately rebel against God and those who err and sin due to weakness of the flesh. Only God Himself knows the true and deepest heart of each person and He is the ultimate Judge. The great gift given to all is that of teshuvah – repentance. As soon as a person’s eyes are opened to any sin of rebellion or error of understanding, the door of repentance and forgiveness is opened and one can fully and joyfully ‘cross over’ from darkness to light and be enfolded in the welcoming embrace of the Father.

OGOL_med-01
Footnotes:

1. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai; 357
2. Ibid; 357
3. Ibid; 290
4. Wikipedia

Ethics – Now & Then 42 – Avot 3:14

Avot 3:14  Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinos said: Late morning sleep,
                  midday wine, children’s chatter, and sitting in the
                  assemblies of the ignorant, remove a man from the world.

The Talmud records that Rabbi Dosa lived to a very old age. [1] Perhaps he was extending this exhortation to the older generation in particular, who may be tempted to sleep away the mornings, as well as to those of any age who spend time on trivial pursuits at night and retire to bed unnecessarily late. Idleness is the central trait alluded to in the four activities described in this verse; wasting precious time that could be invested in more meaningful pursuits.

The issues of “midday wine, childish chatter and sitting in the assemblies of the ignorant” imply a self-indulgent and shallow lifestyle, which eventually leads to dissolution and irresponsibility. These will “remove a man from the world” as it renders him unfit to function positively in society. As a person grows older and physical strength weakens, a person’s mind and mental interests become of even greater importance. Without the intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth experienced in constant study of the Word of God, and the riches of a deepening relationship with Him, an elderly person can only fill his or her time with things of temporal value. The world of physical and material pleasures will have proved elusive and communication sadly will be on the level of superficial “chatter.” On the other hand, those who have invested their time in the Kingdom of God and His Word, and have guided their children and grandchildren to do the same, will be able to relate and share the depths and joys and values thereof with others of like mind. The older generation then are appreciated and not simply tolerated. They are valued and respected for their experience and store of biblical learning and understanding.

Rabbi Twerski makes the interesting observation that ‘morning sleep’ also can be understood as a person’s youth, which, without spiritual understanding, often can be ‘slept away’ in a world of materialistic values where the focus is on physical pleasures. The Talmud records that Rabbi Yehudah haNasi would weep when a person would repent and find redemption when older, after existing almost an entire lifetime without God. He would say, “It is possible for a person to achieve his entire world in one brief moment.” [2] Why would this cause him to weep? Although the redemption of a person is a joyous wonder, the waste of precious years of life is a sadness. This is especially true when one realizes the potential and opportunity for spiritual learning and living that has been has forfeited.

As a psychologist, Twerski points out that this verse lists four examples of adult behavior that, when indulged in on a regular basis, are immature. He cites another inherent danger: “When the adult culture tolerates, condones and even promotes these, it is adopting a lifestyle which young people are likely to mimic.” [3] This juvenile lifestyle might adversely affect them for life and literally “remove them from the world.” Any waste of time, whether through too much sleep, escapism through substance abuse or “killing time” on trivial entertainment, will distract one from reality and from dealing effectively with the opportunities and also the challenges and problems of life that inevitably arise.

We can, however, hold onto the hope that a person will wake up, repentance will come and one’s life can turn around and be redeemed in a moment. In His infinite love, God always is pursuing and patiently waiting, like the Merciful Father in Yeshua’s parable [4], with arms ready to receive and embrace a lost and wandering child who has turned toward home.

 

Footnotes:

1. T. Bavli, Yevamoth 16a; T. Yerushalmi I,6
2. Avodah Zarah 10b
3. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 168
4. Luke 15:11-32

Ethics – Now & Then 41 – Avot 3:13

Avot 3:13  [Rabbi Chaninah be Dosa] used to say: “If the spirit of
one’s fellows is pleased with him, the spirit of the
Omnipresent is pleased with him; but if the spirit of one’s
fellows is not pleased with him, the spirit of the
Omnipresent is not pleased with him.”

At first reading this verse appears simple and straightforward. If a person’s interaction with others is pleasant, and he or she is honest and trustworthy, one’s fellows naturally will feel kindly and affectionate toward that person. This interaction would reflect God’s character and honor His Name and would, as a result, be pleasing to Him. The obverse also would apply. On deeper reflection, a few questions are raised. For example, it could be seen to imply that if someone is popular the Lord must be pleased with him. History has disclosed, however, that prominent personalities who gain the admiration of many often prove to be far from trustworthy and their deeds certainly not in accord with the ways of God.

The noted psychologist Rabbi Abraham Twerski addresses another factor to be considered; that of “people pleasing.” [1] If a child is raised in an abusive or negative environment he or she likely will develop a negative self image. As a result, he can suffer feelings of inferiority, which cause him to think he is not worthy to be liked. He believes that he needs to “earn” friendships and, to be more “acceptable,” will go out of his way to do things for people in order to please them. Rabbi Twerski points out that, sadly, this could include things that are contrary to the Word of God, and the actions might go against the person’s own will and preferences. Any popularity the person may gain will be short-lived and not satisfying as the motivation is based on fear and is driven by the negative precept of pleasing others in order to be accepted.

In using the term ‘spirit,’ Chanina ben Dosa is referring not to the outward personality but rather to a person’s inner being. When in true, loving relationship with God and with others, this inner motivation will cause a person to contribute positively to the peace and well-being of all inlcuding himself, and his actions will not cause conflict and engender strife. This order of relationship is highlighted in Yeshua’s reply to the legal expert who quizzed him as to which commandment was the greatest in the Torah. Yeshua immediately quoted the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:5, and said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [2]

Interestingly, a similar mishnah (verse) in the Jerusalem Talmud reverses the order in Avot 3:13 and reads, “If the will of the Almighty is pleased with man, then the spirit of the people is pleased with him.” [3] This also places the emphasis on the life of a person being in accord with the will of God. When this is so, a person’s life will reflect His Presence and blessing and will encourage the favorable response of others who honor the Almighty. Perhaps Solomon sums up the conundrum wisely in saying: “Do not let loving-kindness and truth forsake you; bind them about your neck, write them on the tablets of your heart; and so find grace and favor in the eyes of God and man.” [4]

 

Footnotes:

1. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 166
2. Matthew 22:37-39
3. Talmud Yersushalmi, Tosefta Kiphʼshuta, IV; quoted in Irving Bunimʼs Ethics from Sinai; 285
4. Proverbs 3:3-4

Ethics – Now & Then 40 – Avot 3:11-12

Avot 3:11  Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa says: “Anyone whose fear of sin takes
                  priority over his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone
                  whose wisdom takes priority over his fear of sin, his wisdom
                  will not endure.”

Avot 3:12  He used to say: “Anyone whose good deeds exceed
                  his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom
                  exceeds his good deeds, his wisdom will not endure.”

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa says…

Chanina ben Dosa lived during the 1st Century. As a young man, before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, he already was recognized as one who God used in exceptional ways. Although a great scholar he chose to remain poor and humble all his life and survived mainly on a diet of carobs. His prayers for the sick resulted in many miraculous healings. Those recorded include the healing of the son of his own esteemed teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (Avot 2:9), and also the son of Rabban Gamaliel II (Avot 2:2). [1] It was the belief of the Sages that upon Chaninah ben Dosa’s death the level of true piety diminished on earth along with the working of miracles. [2]

Anyone whose fear of sin takes priority over his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom takes priority over his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure.

Chanina ben Dosa succinctly summarizes an important tenet of the Scriptures. Wisdom is the product of a person’s mind and thoughts, which inextricably are bound up with one’s will and emotions. The key factors that determines the “fruit” of one’s wisdom, whether it will be of positive and lasting influence or not, are the motivation that guides it and the source from which it draws. At the end of the day, one’s wisdom serves one’s will. When that will, or ‘ego,’ is surrendered to God and imbued with a “fear of sin” – an understanding of what constitutes sin and the effect it has – then one can trust that whatever wisdom one might acquire will be effective and true, and constantly increasing.

A parallel and perhaps preferable term for yirat chet, “fear of sin,” is yirat HaShem, “fear of God.” We find an example in Genesis 20. At a time of famine, Abraham and Sarah went to the land of the Philistines where they pretended she was his sister in order to protect his life. When later confronted by Abimelech the king, Abraham replies: “I thought, there is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me on account of my wife” (Gen. 20:11).Due to her great beauty, he had known that Sarah would be desired by the Philistine men, as she was by the king himself and was taken to his palace. Abraham also understood that although a basic law may have existed in that culture against taking another man’s wife, if there was no fear of God to honor that law, a way could be found to dispose of the husband in order to gain access to his widow. If ‘fear of God’ – a deep love for Him and respect for His Law – is not the strong underlying motivation for moral behavior then, no matter how much knowledge one may accumulate, one’s mind will always rationalize one’s actions that may run contrary to His Kingdom laws.

The Psalmist clearly expresses the truth, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” [3] The great Sage, Hillel, emphasizes, “An ignorant man cannot fear sin”. [4] In connection with Avot 3:11, the commentary Avot de’Rabbi Natan (22) quotes Chanina ben Dosa’s teacher Yochanan ben Zakkai on the subject: “If one is wise and fears sin, what is he like? Lo, a craftsman with the tools of the craft in his hand.” [5] He has the knowledge and the correct tools with which to implement it.

Star of David ENT

Avot 3:12 He used to say: “Anyone whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his wisdom will not endure.”

Verse 12 completes verse 11 by focusing on the “other hand.” It is important, on one hand, to wisely gain knowledge of God’s Word and to avoid sin and also, on the other hand, to do what is good in each instance. For example, it is good to know one must not steal from others and to refrain from doing so and, at the same time, to do good in giving charitably to others as and when able. This concept is illustrated in Yochanan ben Zakkai’s comparison of the wise person and the craftsman. As author William Berkson explains:

“In order for a person’s wisdom to make a difference in the world, he or she needs to have the right motivation and goals. First, when people don’t fear sin and don’t desire to do right, they will lack the motivation and courage to put their ideas into practice. Second, if they act to make a positive difference only sporadically, they will not gain an understanding of how to make their ideas work in practice. In either case their actions will not bear fruit. But with the right motivation, goals and experience, a person will become “a craftsman with the tools of his craft in his hand.” That person will be able to act effectively [in accord with God’s will and leading] and make a positive difference.” [6]

The modern nation of Singapore was founded and led into becoming a prospering and peaceful society by Lee Kuan Yu. A brilliant man himself, he is quoted as saying, “It is amazing how many brilliant people have no impact on the world.” [7] Mr Kuan Yu’s comment is related to visible, material results that impact society for good. While these are to be highly admired and certainly to be aimed for where possible, on the other hand, we also understand that the motivation of living a life of growth and fruitfulness of the spirit, in harmony with God and His Word, often results in quiet and hidden-from-view deeds that have immeasurable impact in the economy of His Kingdom.

When we determine to constantly drink from the living water of the Word of God, not to gain more data, scholarly head-knowledge, but to grow in da’at, intimate knowledge in relationship with Him, this will be reflected in all we do. To love Him is to desire to follow Yeshua and to “walk in His ways” in obedience to our Father’s will. It is, in fact, to be becoming more “holy as He is holy.” In response to the Shemah, to love and to fear the Lord your God [8] with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, the Sages say: “Just as God is gracious, so shall you be gracious; just as God is merciful, so shall you be merciful.” [9] To be gracious and merciful, and loving, forgiving, patient, kind and just, can only be evident in our actions and chiefly in relationship with others. The outward expression of loving Him is to be like Him – to do, for His sake, whatever He asks us to do in a way that will be pleasing to Him.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, present chief Rabbi of England who was knighted for his positive contributions to the good of the country, points out: “When we interact with people, much of what matters has less to do with what we do than how we do it.” In different situations, whether interacting with friends, colleagues, family or in professional settings, Rabbi Sacks observes that, often on a totally subconscious level, we intuitively sense the underlying motives and attitudes of those with whom we are involved. “We notice gestures, postures, body language, tone of voice, mood, attitude. We instinctively know whether the person facing us is listening to us, respects us, is trying to understand who we are and how we see our situation.” [10] We often can forget what people said or did but what remains with us is how they made us feel; whether they cared and tried to empathize with us or not.

Beyond our outward deeds and actions, genuine love and concern is transmitted from heart to heart. We are called to obey our Father in what we do and to imitate Him in how we do it. Yeshua himself said: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). This is a shocking statement when we realize our mortal weakness and imperfections. But then Yeshua also tenderly reminds us, “As the Father loved me, I also have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love… I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known to you.” [11] Only in the power of His love is lasting wisdom and anything of eternal value made possible.

 

Footnotes:

1. Talmud Bavli, Berakoth, 34b; Mishnah Berakoth V,5
2. Mishnah, Sotah IX,15
3. Psalm 111:10
4. Avot 2:6
5. William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 114
6. Ibid, 114
7. Ibid, 115
8. Deut. 10:12-20
9. Sifre, Ekev 49
10. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “To Heal a Fractured World”; 243
11. John 15:9-15

Ethics – Now & Then 39 – Avot 3:9-10

Avot 3:9    Rabbi Ya’akov said, “One who walks on the road while
                  reviewing [a Torah lesson] but interrupts his review and
                  exclaims, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this
                  plowed field!’ – Scripture considers as if he bears guilt for his
                  soul.

Avot 3:10  Rabbi Dostai bar Yannai says in the name of Rabbi Meir,
                  “Whoever forgets anything of his Torah learning, Scripture
                  considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul, for it says, ‘But
                  beware and guard your soul exceedingly lest you forget things
                  your eyes have seen,’ (Deut, 4:90). Does this apply even if his
                  studies were too difficult for him? [This is not so, for] Scripture
                  says, ‘And lest they be removed from your heart all the days
                  of your life’ (ibid.). Thus, one does not bear guilt for his soul
                  unless he sits [idly] and removes them from his consciousness.

3:9 Rabbi Ya’akov said, “One who walks on the road while reviewing [a Torah lesson] but interrupts his review and exclaims, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’ – Scripture considers as if he bears guilt for his soul.

At first reading this verse seems very ‘heavy handed’ and even unacceptable. Without repentance, to “bear guilt for one’s soul” is considered as serious as forfeiting one’s life. How can pausing along the road while traveling in order to admire a beautiful tree or a lovely view cause one to incur guilt that warrants paying with one’s life?

We need to take into account that at the time these sages were teaching any travel was hazardous. In this instance, Rabbi Ya’akov most likely is referring to one who is walking through the countryside, maybe en route between towns or villages in Israel. As we know from the life of Yeshua, walking was the chief mode of transport for the average person. Only Roman officials, royalty and the very wealthy rode on horseback or in carriages. Due to the ever present dangers of attack by robbers or wild animals it was advisable to travel in pairs or in a group, which Yeshua and his disciples usually did. They would constantly be occupied with matters of Torah as they traveled. This was possible and easier to do at that time, even if alone, because the Hebrew Scriptures were memorized and studied from childhood and there was no need to carry books or scrolls around for reference.

In a dangerous situation one is keenly aware of the need for Divine protection. In Jewish tradition, it is believed that when one is on the way to perform a mitzvah, a good deed in obedience to God, or is busy studying Torah, the Presence of God and His hand of protection are particularly close to one. Thus, if one’s mind is occupied with learning or reviewing teachings from His Word as one travels, and is not distracted by less important matters, one can proceed more safely.

The argument still remains, however, that to admire the beauty of nature with a heart of appreciation for the Creator is surely not a negative action. We know that our Father intends for us to enjoy life on this earth, which He calls “very good,” and we can observe the beauty and intricate detail and design of His Creation in wonder and awe. Often, however, Nature can be admired for its own sake and not seen in its full context as a reflection of the Creator HImself. There are times to purposefully enjoy the natural world but, Rabbi Ya’akov is emphasizing, not when one is focussing on accomplishing a journey and on Torah study – then it can become a danger and a distraction.

3:10 Rabbi Dostai bar Yannai says in the name of Rabbi Meir, “Whoever forgets anything of his Torah learning, Scripture considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul, for it says, ‘But beware and guard your soul exceedingly lest you forget things your eyes have seen,’ (Deut, 4:9).

This verse also seems to carry a heavy indictment – to forget even one thing of your study of Scripture renders you guilty enough to pay with your life? This reflects a ruling in Judaism that if even one letter of a Torah scroll is missing, either worn away through use or possibly through an error by a scribe, the scroll becomes unfit for use in a synagogue service. The latter cause is less likely because, historically, the craft of a Torah scribe demands perfection. If he should make an error, even with the last letter, he must begin that section of the scroll again. Rabbi Dostai is intimating here that every small detail of the Torah – the Bible, the full teaching of God – is related and important. Nothing should be treated lightly, down to the last letter.

Being human, we forget many things but we usually do not forget things we truly want to remember. When we value the concepts we are learning, they recur again and again in our minds. We are reminded of them as we make connections via other means, books and thoughts that present themselves. We enjoy a constant awareness of the reality and truths of the Word of God. It is alive in our hearts and minds and we see it reflected in all around us. Something that is being lived is not forgotten.

Does this apply even if his studies were too difficult for him? [This is not so, for] Scripture says, ‘And lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life’ (ibid.). Thus, one does not bear guilt for his soul unless he sits [idly] and removes them from his consciousness.

One cannot be held accountable for truth that is not grasped and understood. The real issue is not mental forgetfulness of certain details rather, quoting Deuteronomy 4:9, “…lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life,” Rabbi Dostai emphasizes that one does not incur guilt until he deliberately sets about to remove his knowledge of the ways of God from his heart – his life, his consciousness. When Torah study is deemed unimportant, and if what one has learned is stored away in the back of one’s mind as irrelevant material, it will be forgotten. It soon will be buried or crowded out by the influx of worldly trivia and other matters that one considers more important. This sad occurrence does indeed adversely affect the life of one’s soul.

Ethics – Now & Then 38 – Avot 3:8

Avot 3:8  Rabbi Elazar of Barthotha said, “Give Him from that which is
                His, because you and all that you have are His.” Thus it is said
                by David: “All things come from You and from Your hand do
                we give to You.”

Rabbi Elazar of Barthotha said…

Rabbi Elazar lived in the first half of the 2nd Century in Barthotha, a city in the Galilee. He was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and he challenged Akiva’s decision to champion Bar Kochba’s Messianic revolt. He was known for his kindness and justice to all and for his extreme generosity to those in need.

Give Him from that which is His, because you and all that you have are His.

This is a very clear reflection of Yeshua’s answer when approached by spies sent by the corrupt High Priest to trick him regarding the payment of taxes to Caesar: “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). They were amazed at the implications of his reply and, given the keen emphasis on oral transmission of the Torah and the constant, active discussion on matters of the Hebrew Scriptures at the time, no doubt his answer spread like wildfire. We can safely consider that the wisdom of Yeshua’s teaching in general, which always was in harmony with the Scriptures, was absorbed into the teachings of the Sages. We can see his answer above, linked together with David’s beautiful statement from the Psalms, echoed here in Rabbi Elazar’s exhortation.

There is nothing we can give God that is not already His. All we can offer Him, and all that He truly desires to receive from us, is our love and our heartfelt gratitude in response to Who He is and for all He gives to us. Anything else we give, in accord with His will and purposes which always are for our best and eternal good, cannot therefore be seen as a sacrifice; even when the cost requires much giving of ourselves or our material possessions for His Name’s sake.

Thus it is said by David: “All things come from You and from Your hand do we give to You.”

We read, in 1 Chronicles 29:14, that King David had set aside a great fortune in gold to be used in the building of God’s House, the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem. He did not see this as a “sacrifice,” for his understanding was that he had received his wealth from the hand of God and now he was simply returning part of it to Him.

Tzedakah, from the Hebrew root tzadi, dalet, kuf – tzedek – righteousness, is more commonly translated as ‘charity’. In Judaism, tzedakah is regarded as a fundamental concept and injunction of the Torah. The righteous act of giving as generously as one can to the poor, and to those who need help in any form, is seen as a duty and not merely an option or an opportunity occasionally to do some good. Bottom line, giving is simply the way to gratefully return to the Lord something of what He already has given to you.

An interesting illustration of this concept is given in the command in Exodus: “When you take the census of the people Israel, then they shall give (v’natnu) each man …half a shekel.” [1] Rabbi Irving Bunim points out that the word v’natnu (vav-nun-tav-nun-vav) is a palindrome. It reads the same forwards and backwards. He says: “This suggests that in giving to the Almighty there is movement in both directions, backward and forward. Money is given to you, therefore give some back in return.” [2] God is the great Giver and as we emulate Him we can trust that He will bless in return. David emphasizes this agin in the Psalms: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread. He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing.” [3] In our Father’s economy, in happily responding to the material, physical and emotional needs of the poor, weak and those requiring help, we utilize a spiritual opportunity both to bless and to receive a blessing. This principle applies not only to one’s financial means but to all one’s assets and abilities. All that one has comes from Him, including the strength and energy to do all that He gives one to do.

This truth is highlighted in the gift of the Sabbath day – Shabbat. In the sequence of the Ten Commandments given by God to His people, the first three proclaim that He is the One true God, who alone is worthy of our worship and whose Name must not be used in vain. The next is an injunction to remember to set apart the seventh day as holy to Him. We are given seven days in a week; six days upon which to work and to pursue our business and worldly matters, to be actively involved and to earn our living, then we are asked to return one day to Him. A day that He calls holy, when we can turn our focus from the works of Creation to our mighty Creator and remember to give thanks for His goodness, His gracious mercy and His generous love towards us. A day we can take the opportunity to return blessing to Him and, undisturbed by the regular workday demands, wholeheartedly “give Him from that which is His.”

 

Footnotes:

1. Exodus 30:12
2. Rabbi I.M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol.1; 261
3. Psalm 37:25-26