Rabbi Chananya ben (son of) Akashya said: The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to give Israel merit; therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvos (commandments) in abundance, as it is written: ‘G-d wanted, for its [Israel’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and mighty’ (Isaiah 42:21).
This week we are studying a mishna which is not a part of Pirkei Avos at all. It is the final mishna of Tractate Makkos, a section of the Mishna which deals with a number of topics of civil law. There is, however, a universal practice to recite this mishna at the conclusion of any Torah study session held in a synagogue. The reason is that it is common to recite the “Rabbi’s Kaddish” at the conclusion of a study session, and this Kaddish may only be recited after the study of Scriptural verses or of Midrash. Since many areas of study do not involve such topics, it became customary to recite this mishna at the conclusion of any study session. Although Pirkei Avos itself is a Midrashic work, this custom is maintained here as well. (See commentary to ArtScroll Siddur, p. 549.) (Most printed editions of Pirkei Avos conclude with this mishna.) In addition, the topic of this mishna is well suited to the subject of Pirkei Avos, as we shall soon see.
This mishna states that G-d gave Israel many mitzvos (commandments) in order to bestow upon them merit. The meaning is that the many mitzvos of the Torah were given to us primarily as an act of kindness. Although to be sure they entail their share of difficulty, G-d did not command us in them to make our lives difficult. Rather, it was to give us the opportunity to serve G-d and develop a relationship with Him. In Proverbs King Solomon wrote: “Its [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (3:17). G-d gave us the Torah in order to make our lives more pleasant. Our lives might be more ordered and disciplined — and perhaps not as unbridled as we’d sometimes like, but ultimately the Torah makes our lives far more meaningful, rewarding and enjoyable. And above all, they allow us the ultimate pleasure: building a relationship with G-d in the World to Come.
The commentator Rashi adds an additional dimension to this message. Many of the commandments of the Torah involve actions (or inactions) we would perform regardless. The Torah forbids such acts as consuming blood, insects and carrion. It likewise commands us to perform many deeds which are sensible and clearly within our interests: marriage and procreation, honoring our parents, respecting other people’s privacy and belongings. Many of these actions we would perform regardless of G-d’s insistence. Yet now that we have been commanded in them, such actions become divine. They become not only a means of “healthy” living, but a means of devoting ourselves to G-d. So long as we perform these actions because G-d has willed it — because G-d said so rather than because it makes sense to us — we transform such ordinary, “rational” actions into something godly. Jews are not just what we’d call Good Samaritans. We are told to transform good and upright behavior into the sacrosanct — into acts of the Divine.
In a different sense, I feel this is an appropriate note upon which to conclude our study of Pirkei Avos. Last week — in the final mishna of Pirkei Avos (actually of Chapter Six, in itself an add-on) — we grappled once last with the many unanswerable questions of life, the many whys we all live with and accept but never truly come to grips with. Our conclusion — and the closing words of Pirkei Avos — were simply to wait: “The L-rd shall reign forever and ever” (Exodus 15:18). There is only so much we can answer on this earth. Beyond that, we must wait patiently until G-d’s reign is established for all time, when the answers to all the painful, gnawing whys of all the generations will be forthcoming. Until then, we must simply remain silent.
Here the Sages return us to a more positive tone — one which is in fact the true theme of Pirkei Avos. It is the message of quiet accomplishment and satisfaction with life. There are many mitzvos to observe and much Torah to study. G-d has provided us with so many opportunities for personal growth — and it was purely an act of love. Our job on earth is not to fathom G-d or to contemplate the unanswerable. It is to worry about ourselves, to worry about mankind, and to live the lives of good, decent human beings. We were not placed on this earth to solve G-d’s problems or to figure out how He is going to bring about salvation. That is His problem. We are rather here to worry about the here and now, to live the simple, humble lives of goodness and G-dliness. There are more than enough opportunities to serve G-d. Anyone who looks around with open and sincere eyes will see there is much he can accomplish and much good he is capable of. We need only worry about our own very small part of the Big Picture. G-d will graciously and happily take care of the rest.
There is a story told of a man who lived a long and productive life. When asked by a great-grandchild about the secret to his longevity, he responded as follows: “When I was young I was plagued by all sorts of questions, all sorts of life issues which I could not make sense of. Then one night my grandfather in Heaven came to me in a dream saying: ‘You want answers? We have all the answers up here!’ Upon hearing that I put all my questions aside and have lived blissfully ever since.”
Well, I certainly cannot vouch for the story’s authenticity. But as all good stories, it contains an important message. It is in fact the message of Pirkei Avos. As we have seen over the years, Pirkei Avos most often dealt with the practical: what does G-d want from us, how should we act towards our fellow man, and what should our priorities be in life. It often waxed philosophical, but that was never the primary thrust of Pirkei Avos — nor of our own study of it. It was never a work to get us to think about or to contemplate G-d. It was one which told us to think about ourselves: who we are, what we are all about, and what does G-d want from us.
I have heard that R. Samson Raphael Hirsch once made an absolutely incisive observation about Judaism. He is purported to have said as follows: “Whereas Christianity is a religion invented by man to understand G-d, Judaism is a religion invented by G-d to understand man.” Other religions came about primarily to satisfy man’s need to contemplate the Divine. Who is G-d? What is He? Why is He? Where is He? And they have grappled interminably with such issues, usually (in our view) to less-than-satisfactory if not outright heretical conclusions.
Judaism, however, for the most part does not allow itself to get bogged down with such issues. G-d exists, He is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowledgeable. He created man for a purpose, everyone will be judged according to his or her deeds, and perhaps most important, G-d is personally interested in how each of us fulfills his or her mission. But beyond that, G-d is basically unknowable to us — to the finite beings of the physical world. And Judaism does not really ask us to figure Him out either. G-d’s existence and His ways are far beyond us. If we attempt to understand Him we will be left with nothing but frustration and yet more questions.
But Judaism does ask one thing of us, something much simpler, yet in a way so much more profound: to understand ourselves.
And this in fact is G-d’s message to Israel and to mankind, as echoed by the Sages in Pirkei Avos: “Do not worry about Me or attempt to contemplate My intricate and inscrutable ways. I am here for you to know, to love and to fear, but not to truly comprehend. Rather, follow My commandments, fulfill your destinies, and earn your share of eternity. You may not — and may never — understand the plans I have for humanity and the suffering and travail which must be endured along the way. But that is not your problem. Leave all your worries, your burdens and your unanswered questions aside and cleave to Me. And when all is said and done, you will have to worry no more.”
With this, and with G-d’s help, we have concluded our study of Pirkei Avos.
I would just like to take a moment to extend my personal thank you to all of my readers who have stuck with this class so long and who have hopefully gained in the process. I have found this a very rewarding experience myself, and have greatly appreciated hearing from some of my many readers over the years (though it’s not always easy to respond to every one in timely fashion — as many of you can attest).
Last, on a more practical note, this course will repeat beginning next week, G-d willing. Anyone who would like to continue receiving this class need only stay subscribed.
With my warmest wishes for health, happiness and true fulfillment.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.