There is a widespread custom 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.
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 2
Mishna 2: Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, says: Torah study is good with “derech eretz” [lit. way of the world – often understood here as working for a living], for the weariness of both causes sin to be forgotten. And any Torah that is not accompanied by work, in the end it is neglected and causes sin.
Does working full time make it difficult to study Torah? Of course! But Rabban Gamliel argues that the combination, wherever possible, can produce results that are even more valuable and lasting than Torah study alone. After all, it’s hard to learn without food on the table and a roof over one’s head.
It is definitely a challenge to do it all – which is why we’re happy to provide flexible scheduling. Our tutors are dedicated to helping each student use his or her precious time to the fullest.
Mishna 4: …and don’t say “when I am available, I will study – lest you will not become available.
We’re all busy, but like Hillel cautioned in last week’s chapter – “if not now, when?” Sometimes, just taking the plunge and deciding to establish a schedule for learning – together will someone else – can help reveal pockets of time we didn’t realize we had.
Though the time factor is a repeated theme, the Sages also address other common obstacles to learning:
Mishna 5: One who is embarrassed cannot learn, and one who is impatient cannot teach…
It is natural to avoid situations for which we feel unprepared. Someone who hasn’t learned Torah texts before, or hasn’t for a long time, might feel intimidated by the prospect of delving into it at all and might feel embarrassed to do so in front of someone with more experience. But that embarrassment never helped anyone. Even in a group setting, there are likely others with similar questions or holes in their previous knowledge – and in an individualized session, there is certainly nothing to be embarrassed about.
TorahTutors is proud of our patient, dedicated tutors who are eager to answer any questions and help make Torah texts accessible to each of our students, at their (ever-rising) level.
Returning to the challenge of finding time:
Mishna 5 continues: not all who increase business become wise.
Likely, part of the point in this line is a caution to look for the right balance between those two essential ingredients, Torah study and earning a living, rather than letting the latter take over one’s focus. We can certainly get behind that message, but also want to call attention to the word “all”: Not all who increase their business become wise; however, even among those whose work life demands a particularly large portion of their time, it is still possible to increase in wisdom in whatever pockets of time can be carved out.
Of course, it can’t be denied that:
Mishna 7: One who increases sitting, increases wisdom.
Did we mention we offer a discount when learning takes place more than once a week? That’s because, while we believe a little Torah study is better than none, we also believe more Torah study is better than a little. We want to make wisdom as accessible as possible, to as many people as possible.
(Shout-out to our current student with the highest frequency, learning with us for five hours each week! We are humbled by your drive, and honored to be a part of your learning.)
Mishna 8: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five students, and these are they… He used to recount their praise…
Ignoring, for the moment, the details of what Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai admires about each of his students (though we’d be happy to explore that further in a TorahTutors session), we’d like to call attention to the simple fact that every one of them is different. Individualized learning celebrates such differences between different students and their unique strengths, as well as guiding each individual towards growth in those areas where they need it most.
This is true, of course, for adult students like those of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and also for children who are just beginning to discover their own strengths and weaknesses.
Mishnayot 15-16: Rabbi Tarfon says, The day is short and the work is a lot…and the reward is great… He used to say, It is not upon you to complete the work, but you are not free to neglect it. If you have learned a lot of Torah, they give you a lot of reward. And your “Employer” is faithful to pay you the reward of your efforts. And know that the reward of the righteous is in the distant future.
The vastness of potential in Torah study does not have to overwhelm or paralyze us. Rabbi Tarfon, like the other Sages, understands well the challenges that face would-be learners. And yet, he asserts that each of us bears a personal responsibility to do what we can – and reminds us that while we might not see the return on our investment immediately, it is real and certainly forthcoming.
TorahTutors wishes all our students, teachers, and friends a wonderful Shabbos and a fulfilling week enriched by increased Torah questions and wisdom.