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 3
In previous weeks, we have explored selected lines in order of the chapter. This week, we’d like to start by highlighting three recurring themes from the chapter.
There’s Sanctity in Numbers
Several sages quoted in this chapter speak to the importance of gathering together – not for pure frivolity, but with shared words of Torah. As Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon states in mishna 2, “two who sit [together], with words of Torah between them – the Shechina (divine Presence) rests between them.” He goes on to stress that even one person, sitting alone and delving into Torah, receives a reward, but it seems there is an extra degree of connection created when two people study together.
Can two people achieve the same effects when learning over the internet, not “sitting” together in the same physical location but united through Torah and the wonders of technology? We’d like to think so. After all, Rabbi Chalafta (mishna 6) asserts that the Shechina is actually present when a group of ten learns, and the same for a group of five, or a group of three or pair of two – or even one. Surely, then, as two people sit at opposite ends of a webconferencing session with their focus on Torah, each is joined by the Shechina and their shared study is elevated that much more.
Another recurring theme in this chapter is the phrase “mitchayev b’nafsho,” referring to various situations in which one is held accountable for having detracted from one’s own religious life. (At least, that’s one broad way to understand the phrase in these contexts. Our tutors would be happy to explore different commentaries’ perspectives!) In mishna 7, Rabbi Shimon applies the phrase (apparently, though there are many different readings) to one who pauses Torah study to comment on a beautiful tree. In mishna 8, those who forget their learning are held accountable – but only if they deliberately erase the Torah thoughts from their minds, because of course, we all know how easy it is to lose track of our learning. To us, this mishna speaks to the importance of ongoing study and review – and that efforts matter more than results. We understand the challenges inherent in Torah study at any level, and are always inspired by our students’ dedication.
Intellectualism vs. Practical Application
With all that emphasis on Torah study, of course, there exists a danger of getting so caught up in the learning that one forgets the doing. In mishna 9, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa warns prioritizing intellectual study over action can actually make it harder to retain the knowledge one felt was so important. In mishna 17, Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaryah expands on the symbiotic relationships between different elements of life and the importance of maintaining (and, presumably, growing in) all: Torah, derech eretz, awe, wisdom, understanding, knowledge, physical sustenance… These are all important and no one quality can exist on its own. He then offers a metaphor to expand more directly on mishna 9, comparing wisdom to the branches of a tree and deeds to its roots. Naturally, if the branches are more extensive than the roots, the tree will topple; so too, one must make sure one’s wisdom is strongly rooted in appropriate behavior, in order to withstand even the strongest “winds.”
While our particular mission at TorahTutors is to support expansion of learning, we are proud that our tutors’s stellar characters provide excellent role models for applying Torah wisdom in all facets of life.
And to conclude with just a brief further line that caught our attention:
Mishna 14: [Rabbi Akiva] would say, A person is beloved, for he was created in the divine image… Israel is beloved, as a precious vessel was given to them. A great affection is made known to them, as they were given a precious vessel with which the world was created, as it is said, “for I have given you a good teaching; do not abandon my Torah” (Proverbs 4:2).
It is an honor and a joy to share the beloved “good teaching” that is the Torah with all of our students – a “precious vessel” through which we connect and share our “divine image” across the world.
TorahTutors wishes all our students, teachers, and friends a wonderful Shabbos and a fulfilling week of learning and doing, together – and of appreciating the gift of it all.