Pirkei Avot - Introduction to Ethics of our Fathers

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.

By - Elisheva Maline
When the age of the prophets came to a close, Jewish leadership continued with "The Men of the Great Assembly." This was a group of Torah scholars whose rulings were the last word in Torah law as well as on any issues that cropped up post the first temple era. Over the next few hundred years, the men of the great assembly made up a compilation of mussar (ethical) teachings for posterity which were later written up by Yehuda Hanasi (Juda the Prince).These teachings are a paradigm on how to live like a good Jew, therefore they are made easily available by being printed in all prayer books, right after the mincha (afternoon prayer) shabbos service. 
Like every written work, pirkei avot (ethics of our fathers) begins with an introduction. Unlike most classic literature, though, our collection of didactic-teachings-for-Jews has an opening that is neither stuffy nor verbose. The reason for this is because the Written Torah as well as Oral Torah read like shorthand documents. For instance, if a person wants to thoroughly understand a five word sentence, he may need pages of commentary from our Rabbis of blessed memory to clarify a thought.

Our introduction, the first mishnah in pirkei avot, states the history of our mesorah (tradition). Moshe received the Torah from Mt Sinai. Next, Yehoshua received it from Moshe. Then, he passed it down to the elders who in turn  transmitted it to the prophets. Last but not least, our mesorah was handed down to the men of the great assembly. At first glance, the sages' choice of topic here seems more like an acknowledgment to friends for helping write a work than the introduction to a piece of ancient mussar. Question number one: what significance is there in that the introduction to pirkei avot reads like a recording of our lineage?

The mishnah finishes off with a bit of advice from the members of the great assembly, "Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students and make a protective fence for the Torah. Question number two: What is the connection between the beginning and ending of the mishnah

In order to answer both questions, one needs to analyze the wording of the pasuk (sentence). In the first line, we are told that Moshe received the Torah from Sinai. However, it would have made more sense for it to have written 'at Sinai.' The reason for this wording was because Mount Sinai was seen as a personality of humble means represented by it's shortness and since Moshe is known for being the humblest of all men, he was able to receive the Torah (Bible) from Sinai. We see from here that the best way to learn Torah is through lack of ego and and an open heart. Also, the historical outline as means of introduction isn't just a relaying of information. The sages began the pirkei avot in this style to highlight the system by which Torah is meant to be conveyed: word of mouth. We're not just handing down a scroll and a couple of square tablets. There's a written record telling over the sequence of teachings passed down from teacher to student. Moshe passed it down to Yehoshua, Yehoshua to the elders and so on and so forth. In the video clip, a man passes valuable information to a son desperate for guidance (it may not be relevant to Torah but it has the ring of information being passed down from teacher to student).  

Now the three tips offered to us by the greats of yesteryear can be tied into the ideas stated above. They were offering us instructions on 'the making of a sage.' The last Rebbe of Chabad explains this idea as follows: when raising students one must speak with patience and deliberation. A teacher's responsibility is not simply to impart knowledge but to raise his student to a place where he will have a strong base of values and principles. Thus he will have the ability to carry on the banner. 

May we all be blessed to follow in the footsteps of our teachers and mentors. .       

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