Divre Harav – January, 2017

The Mishnah of Pirke Avot is often translated as “Ethics of our Fathers” which describes the content of the Mishnah, but has nothing to do with its Hebrew title. A Perek is a chapter, and Avot are “fathers,” but the word is used in Rabbinic literature to refer to primary or fundamental categories. Thus, my teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Zahavy, translated the title of this tractate as “Chapters of Principles.” Most of Pirke Avot is a list of rabbis from the period of the Mishnah and Gemarah and a favorite saying of each one, naming a fundamental principle in which they believe.

Chapter two begins with the editor of the Mishnah, Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi]. He says, “What is the upright path which a person should choose for oneself? Whatever brings honor to one’s maker and honor from one’s fellow human beings.” Pirke Avot 2:1

Rabbi Yehudah’s question is the fundamental question we should think about when we get up in the morning and before we engage in any behavior that affects other people. If you are known to be Jewish, a person of faith, then you need to be aware that anything you do, good or bad, will be associated with Judaism and the “Jewish God.“ How am I going to behave today, what am I going to do that which will reflects well on God, what can I do today to increase people’s respect for Jews and Judaism? How will my behavior cause other people to respond to me? Will their respect and admiration for me increase or decrease if I take this action?

For example, before sending an email, or before speaking your mind in public, ask yourself – will this honor God, and how will this make people think of me. We live in a world today in which communication is lightning fast and this creates an expectation of an equally speedy response. This may means that we answer with very little thought, without having thoroughly read or carefully considered the question. Rabbi Yehudah’s question encourages us to slow down and think before answering, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings.

Another example: I deal weekly with a set of people who read my Mlive.com Ethics and Religion Talk column and post comments. Some of them use a real name, some have corresponded with me privately so I know who they are, but most are anonymous. Perhaps this increases their inclination to use insulting or degrading language, or make outlandishly false claims against a position they disagree with. I have noticed that websites which require registration and verified real names tend to have a higher level of discourse than those who permit anonymity. If I don’t know who you are, you are able to cast insults without worrying that your reputation will be damaged. Rabbi Yehudah’s question should encourage each of us to pause before hitting the ‘submit’ button when we post on social media, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings, whether they know our name or not.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mishnah – A second century Rabbinic expansion of the Jewish law and ethics of Torah.
  • Gemarah – a third to sixth century discussion and expansion of the Mishnah.
  • Talmud – The volumes in which Mishnah and Gemarah are published together.
  • Masekhet – One of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah.
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