If you’ve never heard of Pirkei Avos before then you’ve probably not been reading this blog much. Because Marc and I’ve been refering to it all the time. But to catch you up, Pirkei Avos (also known as Ethics of the Fathers) is a collection of mishnahs (teachings). But unlike the mishnahs of the Talmud, these teachings are not halacha (Jewish law). As a Rabbi in Jerusalem taught me, they recommendations, nuggets of wisdom. But if you don’t follow them, you’re not breaking any of the mitzvahs necessarily. So I thought I’d take this blog post to explain the first one.
Chapter 1 – 1.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: “Be deliberate in judgement; develop many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.”
The Unbroken Chain
You probably glazed right passed the list of names to the quote. But one of the great things about Judaism is the Torah’s chain of transmission, or mesora, unbroken from Sinai. Judaism has always kept records detailing this transmission from teacher to student over the generations. Here’s an example of one. And the beginning of each mishnah in Pirkei Avos references this mesora.
“Be deliberate in judgement…”
The first part of the quote deals with making sure an individual is actively engaged in their decisions. But what does it take to do that? Intellectual independence. There are three types of independence. Financial — you don’t need anyone to provide for your monetary needs. Emotional — you don’t need anyone to tell you that you are good. Intellectual — you don’t need anyone to investigate if something is true or false. This mishnah is centered around the last one.
“develop many disciples…”
“Develop” isn’t the best translation for העמידו. A more literal translation is “stand up many disciples.” Now why stand up instead of develop or teach many students? Well I’ll let you in on a secret about Pirkei Avos, in a mishnah, all the statements connect with each other, no matter how disparate they may seem. So if we look at this part in connection to intellectual independence, it makes sense. Anything you “stand up” (a camera tripod, a tent, a folding chair) is standing independent of you. This is mishnah is telling you, not to just teach students, but make them intellectually independent. Teach them to teach themselves.
“…and make a fence for the Torah.”
You’ll hear the term “fence” in reference to Rabbinical commandments. These stringencies are in place to ensure you don’t violate Torah commandments. But for this mishnah we’re going to relate it back to intellectual independence once again. Remember that a literal fence is designed to keep good things safe inside and bad things out.
So once you’ve gone though the process of intellectually knowing something is true, as in you’ve verified the evidence, studied pertinent commentaries, all the steps necessary to know (re: previous blog post), it is imperative you keep that knowledge safe. How do you do that? Build a fence.
Keep the good in by reviewing what you know regularly. Keep learning about the topic from wiser people. Teach it. And it is just as important to keep the bad out. Don’t go looking to challenge people with different view points. Doubt is an easy thing to fall victim to and unless you are vigilant about verification, you can lose that clarity. If the knowledge is an intellectual choice you have made but emotionally you still struggle (i.e. I should stop drinking because I am an alcoholic) set fences around going places you might be tempted (the liquor aisle at the supermarket.) It is best to set your “fences” ahead of time, write them down, and commit to them.