Pirke Avot Chapter Two: The Strength of the Community

Rav Yonatan Udren, Orayta Alumni Director

Says Hillel: Don’t remove yourself from the community, and don’t believe in yourself until the day you die, and don’t judge your friend until you’ve dealt with his situation, and don’t say “that could never happen,” because in the end, it could happen, and don’t say that when I have free time, I will learn Torah, lest you never find free time (Pirke Avot Ch. 2, Mishna 5).

The Maharal of Prague in his work on Pirke Avot titled Derech Chaim explains this mishna as follows: “The communal is fundamentally sound, as opposed to the individual, because the individual is in a state of constant change. But the community stands, since it is not subject to constant change.”

The theme that the Maharal sees in the teaching of Hillel is the juxtaposition of the individual in relation to the communal. As is true throughout Derech Chaim, each lesson is viewed as a complete teaching, meaning that each lesson deals with the totality of the human spiritual structure. Here Hillel reveals all aspects of the changing spiritual nature of the human, and how the greater unit of the community does not suffer the same consequences.

The first aspect of change is taught in the statement don’t believe in yourself until the day you die, and relates to the physical nature of the person. The very nature of the human being, which is a composite of the spiritual and the physical, is destined to change. This is because the physical in its essence is always changing. We can see this throughout nature, as well as in our own psyche. There are times when we feel strong internally and able to fight any battle, and there are times when we feel weak and vulnerable. Since we are in a constant state of emotional/spiritual instability, Hillel teaches not to disregard the nature of physicality, a component of our makeup which is always in a state of flux.

The second aspect of change is taught in the statement don’t judge your friend until you’ve dealt with his situation and relates to changing circumstances. Because of the constant state of change inherit within the human condition one should not think that he would have acted differently than his friend. No, says the Mishna, we all are products of change, and because of that, we also could have fallen prey to such actions if they had been thrust upon us in the same way. Don’t think that you would have acted differently than your friend because you are also a victim of circumstance and might have stumbled as well.

The third aspect of change is taught in the statement don’t say “that could never happen,” because in the end, it could happen, and relates to the element of time. Here the Maharal gives an example of a very wealthy person who never takes business advice from those around him because he relies on his wealth as a constant that will not change. If you told him that he will lose his wealth if he does not heed the advice, he would laugh and ignore the comment since he is so secure in his financial success. Don’t put too much stock in the status quo, says Hillel, because tomorrow everything can turn upside down. And when you hear something that sounds implausible, don’t say “impossible.” Times change, and what yesterday seemed impossible can today be painfully true.

The fourth aspect, taught in the statement don’t say that when I have free time, I will learn Torah, lest you never find free time relates to unpredictability. The normal, small constant changes and unforeseen issues that come up every day are a part of the changing nature of the physical world. One should never feel confident that in an hour or two he will be free, since inevitably something unpredictable will arise. If he waits for a moment in the future free from unforeseen issues, he will never find time for Torah learning. With all the factors in flux around him– the human being, the physical world, and time itself– unpredictability must be anticipated and accounted for. Nothing that we experience in this world is static, and tomorrow new changes are always waiting.

Yet as the “headline” to the mishna teaches, don’t remove yourself from the community. The community is a structure that is immune to in inherent unrest in the world around us. When a person removes himself from the community, he loses the steadfast element, and becomes subject to the constant changes that are inherent in the spiritual makeup of the world.

Judaism does not preach that a person should embrace the community to the extent that he loses his individuality. The individual plays a very important role in a Jewish lifestyle. However, here we are seeing the importance of being connected to the greater community; it keeps us from falling prey to our constantly changing nature and circumstances that are out of our control, and strengthens us towards achieving our spiritual goals.

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