Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.
Last week we discussed the first few lines of our mishna, which outline the history of the Torah’s transmission from Moses until the period of the Mishna. The introduction appears to authenticate the Mishna, as if to say that although it was not put to writing until nearly 1500 years after the Revelation at Sinai, it is as authentic as the Torah of Moses itself.
To this we posed the question of the commentator R. Ovadiah of Bartenura: Why was such an introduction placed at the start of Pirkei Avos and not at the start of the entire work of the Mishna?
R. Ovadiah answered that Jews had little doubt as to the authenticity of most of the Mishna. Virtually the entire Mishna describes technical details of observance — how does one refrain from labor on the Sabbath, slaughter an animal, tithe his crops (or salary), etc. And no one imagined such laws were just invented by domineering or power-hungry rabbis. They were clearly part of our oral tradition passed down from Sinai — elucidating the mitzvos (commandments) of Scripture itself. Such a large and intricate body of law hardly evolved out of thin air, nor did it gain universal acceptance spontaneously. When our forefathers transmitted them, asserting that they were handed down to us from Sinai, there was little reason to doubt them. The Sages would have had little to gain inventing such an intricate set of laws just for the heck of it; from where else would it have come?
Pirkei Avos, however, is perhaps different. It is the only section of the Mishna wholly dedicated to ethics and character development. It provides advice: how to interact with others, what qualities to develop within ourselves, and really how to live meaningful and fulfilling lives — all of which in honesty could be all but missed observing the technical mitzvos of Judaism alone. Such “laws” one might think are nothing more than good advice — hardly different from the many hundreds of self-help books which have been authored since (some perhaps more up-to-date and relevant to our generation). What makes the wise words and sayings of the Sages any more authentic — any more “sacred” — than those of Ben Franklin or Dale Carnegie?
To this, our mishna begins: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai…” The messages, aphorisms and advice of our Sages, collected in Pirkei Avos, are the word of G-d. This is not the good advice of wise old men who lived 2000 years ago. It is as much a part of our eternal Torah as the most technical and intricate of laws. They are all a part of G-d’s infinite Torah; Pirkei Avos stems from a tradition every bit as ancient.
There is a deeper issue here, however. When giving advice, the Rabbis often speak in generalities. Just looking at a few of the upcoming mishnas, we are told: “serve G-d not for the sake of reward” (1:3), “cleave to the Rabbis” (1:4, paraphrased), “acquire for yourself a friend” (1:6), “love work” (1:10). The Sages actually offer us very little by way of detail regarding how we should act or go about following their advice. We are given general directives and attitudes alone; the details almost seem left to us.
Even beyond this, how much does the Written Torah really tell us about how to behave — not which animals we may consume but truly what kind of people we should be? Well, we have a handful of nice “Bible stories” — how our forefathers interacted with their neighbors or reacted in times of crisis. Some of these incidents are inspiring, others are more critical. Beyond that, the Torah offers us only the most general of directives: “…be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2); “Love your fellow as yourself” (ibid., v. 18); “…seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15). These verses are perhaps “nice”, but the Torah really does not tell us very much about character development and interpersonal relationships. Isn’t that at least as important an aspect of religion — if not more so — than the technical commandments? Is Judaism in fact more a religion of form than spirit, of law and ritual than one which cultivates a true “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), and “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6)?
And this too returns us to the issue we began with. The “advice” of the Sages seems more informal and less authentic simply because it is not very precise. The Torah *seems* to tell us: “Observe all sorts of rigorous and detailed laws and rituals, but beyond that be nice guys, and we’ll leave that up to you.” Did the Torah really just for the most part ignore the areas of character development and personal growth? Did G-d really say so little about this that it had to be relegated to the “self-help” good advice of the Sages?
We now come to one of the true fundamentals of Judaism. (Over the years, you will find I call a lot of very different things “one of the great fundamentals of Judaism.” Well, perhaps they all are…) How to behave is really not something the Torah can dictate or spell out for us. No two people are alike. We all possess different personalities, inclinations, weaknesses, drives, and ambitions. And the Torah will apply differently to each one of us; it carries a different message for each and every Jew.
The Torah — in particular Scripture — is a book of absolute truths. It makes statements which are correct in an absolute sense. Sabbath observance is true and relevant to every Jew; so is eating matzah on Passover and refraining from eating on Yom Kippur (leaving aside life-threatening situations — which the Torah itself excludes).
Character development, however, departs the realm of the absolute and enters the realm of the relative. How does each of us realize his or her potential, becoming the person he or she truly could be? How precisely do we “cleave” to G-d (Deuteronomy 10:20) and become godlike individuals? Such the Torah could never spell out for us. We are all different. No two people are alike and how each of us best achieves fulfillment depends on our own inner natures. One person may have a temper. The Torah’s message to him might be to use his energy and excitable nature for worthy causes. Another may be a natural follower and people pleaser, and the Torah’s advice to him is to not be ashamed to stand up for his convictions when necessary. One person is introspective and will grow most from personal thought and reflection. Another is light and chatty and best serves G-d by bringing warmth and good cheer to others.
When it comes to character development, there is quite simply no one way — and there are really very few ironclad absolutes the Torah can spell out for us. In fact, there is no way a single work of any length could write out how all possible types of individuals should act in all possible types of situations (and of course, we would have to figure out which “type” we are before we begin). Judaism was not intended to create a one-size-fits-all religion. G-d has no interest in having us all conform to a single standard — that we all look, act and behave in exactly the same manner. If He did, He would not have created each of us different. Rather, G-d gave us the guidelines and the priorities, the value system of the Torah. These are the absolutes with which we must begin. But beyond that, the Torah leaves it to us. Only we can truly fathom our inner natures and G-d’s particular message for us.
Thus, when it comes to the really tough issues of life — who should I be, how should I act, how should I develop myself, how should I relate to the many different types I come in contact with — the Torah is frustratingly silent. It can give no more than general directives. It tells us what the Torah’s priorities are — what generally speaking are good qualities and proper behavior patterns. But it really cannot choose for us. We might like to fall back on some holy writings to lead us by the hand — never allowing us the discomfort of having to think for ourselves, but life is just not that simple. How to act in any given situation depends upon who we are and what we feel our mission in life to be. And to direct us in that the Torah and the Sages can give little more than sound advice — helping us set our priorities in life and providing us with the clues for true self-discovery. Certainly we must ask the advice of rabbis and mentors, and we must study carefully what the Sages say about values and character traits — and we will no doubt discover facts about ourselves we could have easily and blissfully lived a lifetime never recognizing. Yet Judaism does not and cannot spell out our lives and our goals for us. Only we can fulfill that most basic and fundamental commandment of all: Know thyself.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.