There is a widespread custom in some communities to study a chapter of Pirkei Avot – a popular and particularly accessible tractate of Mishna – each week between Pesach and Shavuot. Known in English as Ethics of Our Fathers, Pirkei Avot contains many teachings that go beyond the letter of the law, offering guidance on character development that may be seen as a prerequisite to appropriate study and fulfillment of Torah law. At the same time, the tractate is rife with messages about Torah study itself. Both aspects make it particularly appropriate to study in the weeks leading up to Shavuot, when we engage in extra study to commemorate the giving of the Torah.
At TorahTutors, we are of course all about learning Torah! We’d like to share some highlights from this week’s chapter that especially resonate with our mission.
Avot Chapter 1
Mishna 1: Moshe received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Yehoshua. And Yehoshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. They said…
This opening might sound like a history lesson, and it is, but it’s so much more. It’s a bold assertion of the integrity of our tradition, and a celebration of how the Jewish people, generation after generation, have cultivated a shared devotion to Torah study and a devoted mission of sharing it. It’s a text that might resonate with any dedicated teacher and/or student of Torah.
Moving on from this powerful opening, we find a more subtle message about the transmission of Torah, as well: Every teacher has his or her “things,” the ideas or principles or approaches that resonate with them and that they most memorably pass on to their students. Each of the sages cited in the coming passages taught a wealth of Torah, but in the context of Pirkei Avot, we distill the legacy of each to just a few brief but deep pieces of wisdom with which, perhaps, their students would most closely associate them. While the first half of mishna 1 speaks in broad terms about the Torah and its transmitters, the bulk of the chapter emphasizes the individual. Every teacher brings a unique personality and approach to their lessons – an important element of the classroom experience that is perhaps even sharper when it comes to one-on-one learning.
Mishna 6: Yehoshua, the son of Perachia, would say, Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend…
The relationship that can develop between a student and his or her chosen teacher is sometimes akin to that between two friends – at least, the sort of friends who are united by shared goals of learning and growth. Of course, any relationship requires time and effort to develop meaningfully, and Yehoshua ben Perachia reminds us that it is well worth the process: make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend. Commit to developing that relationship even if it is demanding, and see where it takes you.
Mishna 14: [Hillel] used to say, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
This three-part teaching is among the most famous in Pirkei Avot and many different interpretations have been suggested. What context did Hillel have in mind, in which one might be “for” oneself but perhaps not only? What is it that he didn’t want us to procrastinate?
Rather than simply recounting any of those interpretations here, we invite our friends (current, as well as those still to be “acquired” – as per Yehoshua ben Perachia) to delve into the mishna for themselves, perhaps with a tutor. After all, no one else can learn for you. And if you learn by yourself, you may not gain what you could have with a teacher/mentor/friend. It may be wise, therefore, to take the plunge today; after all, when better? (See what we did there?)
Mishna 15: Shammai would say, Make your Torah permanent, say a little but do a lot, and greet everyone pleasantly.
If Hillel’s words motivated us to take initiative and begin a worthwhile endeavor – such as Torah study – Shammai’s teaching helps keep us going. Making a commitment is almost easy compared to the challenge of keeping it up. “Accountability” may be a modern buzzword when it comes to something like physical exercise, but the concept seems glaringly present when we consider Yehoshua ben Perachia’s guidance on the same page as Shammai’s: the shared commitment of a teacher, or colleague, or teacher-colleague, can help motivate regular Torah study. When we schedule a session with someone else, we are less likely to let it slide.
And of course, we expect that all learning partners would greet each other pleasantly! What else could they do, with the pleasure of a Torah learning session ahead?
TorahTutors wishes all our students, teachers, and friends a wonderful Shabbos and a fulfilling week enriched by regular Torah study.