I am looking for a concise authentic source that communicates the core values of Judaism. I often hear people quote beautiful passages and I always wonder where they get them from. Jewishly speaking, I am not the most learned person, but neither am I totally ignorant. What would you recommend?
Have I got a book for you! Though you likely have heard of Pirke Avot, perhaps you did not realize all it has to offer, or to what degree it is both accessible and reflective of profound Jewish ideas. Widely quoted, Pirke Avot is the only non-legalistic section of the Mishna, the late-first century rabbinic redaction of the Oral Law. This may be the tractate you’ve been looking for!
Though its Hebrew is fairly simple, there are countless translations and commentaries available in English that will enhance your comprehension. It is most certainly a personal favorite and in fact is a text traditionally studied between Pesach and Shavuot.
Here is a rather graceful explanation offered by Rabbi Marcus Lehmann, the 19th-century German Jewish scholar, for why this time of year is well suited to Pirke Avot study: “When nature awakens from its winter sleep, field and meadow reflect the beauty of spring, the stately fruit trees gladden the eyes and the heart with their splendid blossoms, then man, too, feels a stirring of new life and hidden desires. In this season, therefore, as a way of restraining those awakening passions, the Sages enjoin us to read Pirke Avot, a remarkably fine collection of ethical teachings.”
Others explain that the learning of Pirke Avot between Pesach and Shavuot is a way of preparing us spiritually for the yearly journey from Exodus to the Sinaitic Revelation, the receiving of the Torah that we commemorate on Shavuot. Pirke Avot conveniently has six chapters for the six weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. With each week of study, we hope to improve and ready ourselves as we count the days of the Omer, until we finally arrive at the holiday of Shavuot. Pirke Avot provides basic guidance on how to be a mensch. It is always amazing how some of the best “self-help” material is found in our ancient teachings. Here are some samplings of classics, chapter and Mishna number in parentheses for easy locating.
Sound Advice: “Judge all people favorably” (1:6) — There may not be any better advice in life than this! The Mishna urges us not to jump to conclusions, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to cut people some slack. Why ever assume the worst of someone? It rarely results in anything positive and is more likely to bring on needless angst. This is a very healthy attitude to embrace. Another adage along the same lines: “Do not judge your friend till you have been in the same circumstance” (2:5). Unfortunately, many of us are guilty of this; how liberating to let go of this attitude. More sound advice, “Do not be quick to anger” (2:15) is certainly in the syllabus for Menschlechkeit 101.
Lesson in Humility: Let’s start with a bit of a rude awakening: “Be exceedingly humble in spirit, for mortal man’s hope is the worm” (4:4). No explanation needed here — but can you imagine the different world we would be in if folks would ponder this before setting out for their day? Perhaps it is a bit bleak — it may lead to feelings of futility. Fear not. Instead, find balance with this: “Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not yearn for the table of kings; for your table is greater than theirs and your crown is greater then theirs”(6:5). This is a healthy humility, an embrace of a real acknowledgement of who we are and what is expected of us. Speaking of which, what is expected of us?
Basic Manners: Miss Manners, step aside. It’s time for Torah Etiquette. Finding yourself in an awkward social situation? Pirke Avot urges us to “Greet everyone with a pleasant countenance” (1:15) and to “be the first to greet every person” (4:20). Catapulted into a sticky situation? “Do not appease your friend at the time of his anger, nor to comfort him while his departed one lies before him” (4:23). Tempted to act rashly? “One who embarrasses his friend in public has no place in the world to come” (3:15). Meeting someone for the first time? “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it” (4:27).
Jewish World View: Lest you think of Pirke Avot as only a receptacle of single-lined maxims, there are plenty of passages with large issues we must wrestle with as well. Consider this one: “Be not like the servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead, be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward” (1:3). Innocuous though at its first reading, this teaching is perhaps one of the most problematic of Pirke Avot. Its interpretation may have led to a schism in Judaism. The sage offering this advice is encouraging the serving of God for the pure sake of heaven and not for reward. It is indeed noble and an attitude that one should strive to achieve. Yet the Torah often links observance of commandments to reward in this world while rabbinic literature discusses reward in the hereafter. This teaching led some to deny the veracity of the world to come and some to raise serious issues in regard to theodicy, creating a sect of Jews, the Sadducees, who denied the oral tradition. Though this is a grand philosophical tension, in a more everyday practical application, many of us do struggle as parents and teachers with issues of extrinsic versus intrinsic reward.
This all may be a bit daunting however: “You are not required to finish the work — but neither are you free to desist from it altogether!” (2:16).