We have finished the Maharal’s introduction to his explanation on Pirkei Avoth. What I presented was very close to an orderly translation of his writings (editing for a smooth flow, or to exclude things that don’t lend themselves to a concise written explanation). You may have realized that the parts that were in parenthesis were my “editorial” comments. In this class I will present what is known as the introductory Mishna when reciting Pirkei Avoth. Its source is the opening Mishna of Chapter 11 of Masechet Sanhedrin, and the Maharal spends some time explaining why it opens the weekly recital of Pirkei Avoth. I will again present what is basically a translation of his explanation (with my comments in parenthesis), leaving out the lengthy second half of his explanation.
The Maharal frequently begins his explanations with questions challenging the textual and logical percision of the Mishna. Why did the Rabbis use this example, what is the connection between the elements included together in any specific Misha, did the quoted verse really demonstrate the validity of the idea it was supposed to support. These problems are frequently solved by going below the superficial understanding, and showing the relationship between underlying principles. We will have this frequently. In this Mishna, it stands out in the quoted verse of the Mishna.
Next class, I will begin with the Mishnayot from Chapter 1, and I will present more of a summary of the Maharal’s ideas in a free- flowing form, incorporating my understandings in the body of what I write. I hope this will be valuable for everyone, and those of you who have the time and the ability may want to check my presentation against your own reading of the original text.
“Every member of the nation of Israel has a share in the World to Come, as it is written ‘For your nation has all righteous people; they will inherit the land forever. They are the stick of My saplings, My handiwork to glorify me.'”
There are a number of difficulties in understanding this Mishna. Firstly, how does the verse “Your nation has all righteous people; they will inherit the land forever” (Isaiah 60:21) teach about the World to Come, something which is not mentioned at all in this verse? (If the idea needs textual validation, this text doesn’t seem to “deliver the goods!) Secondly, why is “saplings,” referring to the nation of Israel, written in the plural rather than singular? And why is Israel referred to as a sapling rather than a tree?
The righteousness of the Nation of Israel referred to by the prophet is not due to their deeds, for a) it is impossible for the entire nation to be composed only of righteous people; b) then only the righteous should merit “inheriting the land forever.” Yet the prophet says that the entire nation inherits it. Rather, the righteousness referred to by the prophet is an intrinsic component of the Nation of Israel, and it is this which qualifies every member of the nation for a portion in the World To Come, independent of their good deeds. The Jewish nation was created flawlessly, being compared to the “solet,” fine flour which has no residue. G-d created both the finite present world (Olam Hazeh), as well as an infinite and higher level World To Come (Olam Habah). The most appropriate ones to be the inheritors of this elevated World To Come are the members of the purest and most elevated nation, Israel.
(This perspective of the Maharal on the Jewish people is discussed at length in his work “Netzach Yisrael.” The Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi presents a similar perspective. It is built on an understanding of the covenant made between G-d and Avraham.)
The quoted verse tells us that because the nation is intrinsically righteous, they will inherit “aretz,” land, for eternity. The word “aretz” is used a number of times in scripture in conjunction with the concept of “chaim,” eternal life. Some examples are “G-d, in the land of life” (Isaiah 38:11); “my portion in the land of life” (Psalms 142:6); “exiled from the land of life” (Isaiah 53:8); “and I will give glory to the land of life” (Ezekiel 26:20, referring to the land of Israel).
The reason land is associated with life is that among the four basic elements – -fire, wind, earth, and water – – earth is the one that can be located as the center of the world. (This is true on a physical level, with land perched on top of the 75% of the earth made up of water, while fire and air rise above the land. This is also true on a conceptual level. When the Rabbis speak about something being at the “center” they usually mean that it is the main element, of primary importance. Since man lives on the land, and the world exists for man, the land is considered the element which is in the center.) The power of the center is that it is the point where everything is in balance, not skewed towards an extreme or an edge. The Hebrew word for edge is “keitz” which also means a termination point, implying an end. The center, the point of balance, is where we find life and eternity, for this point is the most distant from any extreme, and it as the extremes that we find termination and death.
(This idea appears in a number of places in the works of the Maharal. See Gvuros HaShem Ch. 46. The practical implications of this idea are enormous, and we will come back to them a number of times during Pirkei Avoth. In a “sound-bite”, it is a treatise for a life of balance and harmony, eschewing extremes and extremism in every area.)
By being located at the center, at the point of balance, which is where a righteous person is, they are situated furthest away from any point of termination, thereby acquiring eternal life. This is the meaning of the verse “…righteous people… will inherit the land forever.”(Smilarly, the Maharal interprets the Mishna (Kiddushin 39b) which teaches that one who does a Mitzva receives “good”, long life, and inherits the land. If the intent was that he inherits the land of Israel, asks the Maharal, then how do we explain all those righteous people who died outside of Israel. Rather, “inheriting the land” refers to eternity, as does our Mishna.)
“They are the stick of My saplings.” A sapling in its primary state is the trunk of the young tree, before it has developed any branches that grow out of the sides. The branches that go in different directions deviate from the center towards the extremes, implying termination. But the nation of righteous people never deviate to extremes, always remaining exclusively in the center, the way a young sapling has only its center, before it develops its side branches.
The plural, “saplings,” is used to represent the many nations that G-d has “planted” in the world (the nations being represented as trees) but each of those is really considered like a branch of the central trunk, which is the Nation of Israel. Branches go off the central trunk, and as something which deviates from the center they terminate, while Israel, the central branch, is eternal.
“…My handiwork to glorify me.” Because the Nation of Israel is the work of G-d’s hands, more so than the rest of the nations, it is imperative that they reside in the eternal World to Come. Would they not be there, it would indicate a deficiency in G-d’s handiwork, something which is inherently impossible. Even though all of G-d’s creations are his handiwork, they are not called “banim,” His children, the way Israel is. Other nations were created to serve Israel, while Israel was created as the primary nation, an end in and of itself. Therefore, they alone are called “banim”, and their absence or deficiency would compromise the glorification of G-d.
Understanding the difficulties we have raised imparts depth and clarity to this Mishna, and shows how the quoted verse validates that every Jew, by virtue of his membership in the holy nation of Israel, has a portion in the World to Come.
This Mishna, which is the opening of Chapter 11 of Sanhedrin (90a) was chosen as an introduction to the weekly recital of Avoth, while the Mishna at the end of Makkos (23b; Ch. 3, Mishna 16) was chosen to close the weekly recitation. This custom requires explanation.
When the Wise Men of the generation foresaw the difficulties and troubles of our long and bitter exile, reciting this Mishna was instituted in order to comfort Israel through the knowledge of their elevated state. If the nations of the world are rejoicing in their wealth and success, Israel should know that they can rejoice in their own destiny and ultimate success. The attainment of their place in the World To Come derives from their fundamental creation as the special handiwork of G-d (giving them confidence in their ultimate well-being).
Beyond that, they also have an elevated state due to their balanced character traits and moral behavior. This develops from their being created as a good and virtuous nation, in contrast to other nations whose foundations are evil, and whose basic character contains promiscuity, murder, and corruption. (This less than “politically correct” perspective requires elaboration which is beyond the scope of this forum. The issue of the special role the Jewish people play in the world, and how we got there, is discussed by many commentaries. In addition to the Maharal and Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi that I quoted above, the Ramchal in “Derech Hashem” as well as the Rambam (in the Yad HaChazaka, in a number of his letters, and in the Moreh Nevuchim) and the Ramban in various places, all present various perspectives on this issue.) Finally, the ultimate grandeur of the Jewish nation is the Torah they have, as described by Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia at the end of Makkos.
The structure of the recitation of Avoth is built on this progression. We open with the Mishna from Sanhedrin that describes the superiority of the Jewish nation attained through their creation. This innate status facilitates their attainment of superior character traits and moral behavior, derech eretz, which is taught to us during our reciation of Avoth. And the attainment of this derech eretz facilitates, and is a prerequisite for, the attainment of Torah (as we will explain in Chapter 3, Mishna 19 “If there is no derech eretz, there can be no Torah”), leading us to conlcude our reciation of Avoth with the Mishna in Makkos teaching the merit of an abundance of Torah and Mitzvos.
This progression also reflects the process of creation. First the world was created, followed by 26 generations of derech eretz without Torah, and only then was Torah given.
So we have three stages of elevation in which the Jewish nation can rejoice despite all the difficulties they experience in their exile: Their initial creation, their attainment of superior character traits, and ultimately their immersion in Torah, all of which leads to their special place in the World to Come.
Shabbos (when Avoth is customarily recited) is a most suitable time for this rejoicing. The special day of rest was given to no other nation, and indicates the special status of the Jews. We recite in the Shabbos prayers: Moshe will rejoice with the gift of his portion (the Shabbos)… And You did not give it to the nations of the lands, nor did You bequeath it to worshippers of idols, and in its rest the uncircumcised will not dwell. But only to…the offspring of Yakov whom you have chosen…