G-d’s Acquisitions: Pirke Avot Chapter 6

Rav Yonatan Udren

In truth, Pirke Avot is only five chapters long; the last chapter is a collection of braitot, or sayings of the sages, who were contemporaries of the sages of the original text. These teachings were taught in a different study hall and are usually worded in a less concise fashion, and were added in order that once chapter a week could be learned for the six Shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot. Leafing through the final chapter one can find many familiar themes, however the teachings focus on the exalted quality of the Torah, as opposed to specific spiritual lessons dealing with the nature of the person.

 

“Hashem acquired five acquisitions in His world, and they are: the Torah, one acquisition; the Heavens and Earth, one acquisition; Avraham, one acquisition; the Nation of Israel, one acquisition; the Temple, one acquisition” (Pirke Avot Chapter 6, Mishna 10).

Here are a few questions to open the discussion: first off, why are only these five items listed as acquisitions of Hashem? Doesn’t the whole world belong to Hashem, as it’s written in Psalms that the world and all that fills it all belongs to Hashem?

A second implicit question has to do with the ordering of the teaching. Were not the heavens and the earth created first? And Avraham also came before the Torah, did he not? The time line expressed in the braita seems to be out of order.

The Maharal of Prague in a few words he explains the nature of the Torah and the role of the Jewish people:

“That it is written that the Torah is one acquisition, that the Torah is one complete entity alone, and therefore it is an acquisition of Hashem….therefore the Ten Commandments opened up with an Aleph, and the world was created with a Bet, to teach that there is nothing more unified that the Torah” (Derech Chaim).

First, let’s understand what the term acquisition means in the context of the braita. As we noted, the simple meaning does not make sense.

The Maharal answers our first question as follows: the list of five acquisitions denotes entities that are absolute acquisitions. From all perspectives it must be something that is only appropriate for Hashem. And what is that quality? It can only include that which is unique and unified.

In other words, only that which is the absolute spiritual root can be called an acquisition; since Hashem is one, so too the entity must also express oneness. Only then can it be called an absolute acquisition in our context.

What about the non-sequential order of our braita? The Maharal refers us to a Midrash that says the world was created with a Bet, but the Torah begins with an Aleph. Let’s understand this Midrash and see how it answers our question.

The first word in the Torah is Bereishit, usually translated as “In the beginning,” begins with the letter Bet, the second letter of the alphabet. However the first word of the Torah that was revealed to the Nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai was anochi, I, which begins with the letter Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet. Here we run into the same problem: if the letters Aleph and Bet suggest chronology, then they are out of order.

The answer provides a fundamental understanding of our Torah. When we think about Torah, we usually think about the scroll in the ark; but the Torah in its essence is something much broader. The Midrash teaches that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world, and that Torah actually preceded the world, and is the blueprint for the world. The Torah in its essence is the unified vision of what the world was, is, and can become. Therefore, the revelation of the Torah was with an Aleph, the first letter, to teach that it preceded creation. Only after the blueprints were drawn could the project of the world begin, which denotes the Bet, the second step.

The Torah, Hashem, and the Jewish people are all one, the Talmud teaches. G-d’s Torah is a reflection of the unity of its Creator, given to the Jewish people so we as a nation could reflect that unity in the world.  We too are listed in the teaching as an acquisition. The Jewish people are one unified entity in our essence. Guided by the Torah, we unite in order to help the world reach the level of completion Hashem had in mind before creation.

 

A World of Ten: Finding Unity within Multiplicity

Rav Yonatan Udren

“With ten utterances the world was created. What does this teach? Couldn’t it have been created in one utterance? Rather, to exact retribution from the wicked, who destroy the world that was created with ten utterances, and to give reward to the righteous, who establish the world that was created with ten utterances” (Pirke Avot Chapter 5, Mishna 1).

Some questions to open up a discussion about the mishna: first, could it actually be that the mishna is teaching that the entire purpose of creating the world would be just in order to punish the wicked?!!

Second, the mishna uses an interesting phrase: “What does this teach?” Therefore, the statement, “The world was created in ten sayings,” must be teaching us a profound innovation. What is that innovation?

The Maharal of Prauge, in his work on Pirke Avot Derech Chaim, addresses these questions: “This (that the world was created with ten utterances) teaches about the unified structure of the world to the extent that the world is truly one. And since it is a unified entity, when one establishes the order of one matter, he establishes the whole matter” (Netivot Olam Aleph, Netiv HaTorah Perek Aleph).

Ten, the Maharal explains, teaches the concept of unity within multiplicity, and he uses a mathematical principle to illustrate his point. In the decimal number system that we are all accustomed to, (where the ten numerals 0-9 are used to represent all numbers) ten is the base, and includes within it all the possible numerical formulations in the system. As the base, ten acts as the unit through which all the other numbers are connected.

There is another way we can see the number ten representing unity. In the Hebrew alphabet, each letters has a numerical value according to its order.  The letter yud, which signifies ten, is a simple dot. A point is something that is already in its most basic form; it cannot be broken down into a smaller unit. Therefore the number ten, as illustrated by a small dot, also symbolizes simplicity and unification.

Here is the novel teaching of the Mishna: The world was created in ten utterances in order to teach us that our world is one unified element. True, it is filled with a diverse multitude of creations; but at the core of all creation a unified entity remains.

In the delicate balance of the ecosystem, every plant and animal acts as an essential link in the massive food chain. If one species, even the smallest or seemingly most insignificant, is disrupted, the entire system is irrevocably damaged. So, too, with our world in its spiritual form; when one disrupts even the smallest aspect, it affects the entire balance of the system.

What about the number one? If the world would have been created in one utterance, it would be a fractured world, a world of individuals with no connection to each other. Take a car factory, for example. In the model of a world built on ten, each worker has a specific task in building the car. One would build the engine; one would put in the windshield; etc. In a world built on one, each person would be in charge of his own factory and would build each component of the car. It would represent a world free from relationships.

In other words, a world built on ten is requires that our individual journey and purpose be played out in the context of the community. All humanity is intrinsically bound together. But a world of one would be a world in which each person would be completely self-sufficient and self-focused.

Now let’s go back to the mishna and analyze the second section. The righteous person, the one who help to propagate Hashem’s desire for a unified world receives great reward, since he is he is advancing the very intention of creation. And the wicked person, by destroying one small aspect of the unified structure, breaks down the very nature of existence.

Who is the righteous, and who is the wicked? We see in this very chapter of Pirke Avot, in mishna ten, “that the person who says, ‘What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is yours,’ this is a pious person. The one who says, ‘What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine,’ this is a wicked person.”

The person who is selfless and concerned with others is literally holding up the world on his or her shoulders. But the selfish, egocentric person, who is only looking out for his or her own needs, is fracturing its fundamental tenet. Cultivate a world based on concern for others, says the mishna; never forget how connected we all are to one another.

Is Torah Study Always a “Good Thing?” Reflections on the Tisha B’av Experience

by Rabbi David Silverstein

Normative rabbinic Judaism places such a heavy emphasis on Torah study that according to the Gemara[1] one of the three questions that God asks an individual when he comes before the heavenly tribunal is: did you set aside a fixed time for Torah study?  Similarly, the Talmud Yerushalmi[2]  cites the position of Rabbi Yehoshua that the requirement to engage in constant Torah study is so pervasive that it would prevent an individual from engaging in any other intellectual discourse.

According to the Jewish calendar this intense requirement to toil in serious Torah learning is incumbent upon Jews for three hundred and sixty four day annually. The exception to the rule is the holiday of Tisha B’av where Torah study is not only frowned upon, it is actually prohibited. According to the Talmud[3] a Jew is proscribed from studying Torah on Tisha B’av since the enjoyment that he will gain from intensive study is inconsistent with the somber mood that we try and achieve on the day itself.[4] This prohibition is codified by the Shulchan Aruch[5] who rules that one may only study very limited material on Tisha B’av[6] and even this should be done without excessive passion or zeal and within a broader perspective regarding the very nature of the day.[7] In fact, the Shulchan Aruch[8] cites one view that not only is textual Torah study prohibited on Tisha B’av, but even engaging in rigorous “Torah thoughts” would be covered by the Talmudic prohibition. Given the significance of Torah study for the rabbis of the Talmud, one has to wonder whether there was some larger objective in taking one day out of the year and declaring it essentially “Torah free.” More specifically, could it be that the absence of Torah study from the Tisha B’av experience can teach us something about the very nature and purpose of Torah study?

Before addressing these questions directly, I want to focus on an often overlooked component of the Torah study experience. According to the aforementioned Talmudic passage[9] one of the questions that God asks an individual while he stands before the heavenly tribunal is if he fixed (קבעת) time for Torah study. According to some interpreters,[10] the verb קבע connotes a sense of permanence. God essentially asks the individual if he prioritized Torah study and made it a fixed part of his routine. However, a parallel text found in Avot D’rebbe Natan 1:13 uses the same verb קבע with a significantly different application. The Avot D’rebbe Natan text states that the word קבעteaches us that if one studies words of Torah, they should not be fleeting thoughts rather they should become a fixed part of one’s character. However, the text continues and explains that this permanence is not an end in it of itself. Rather the purpose of Torah study is to teach and influence others. The model for this paradigm is the famed Ezra HaSofer who complimented his own personal growth through Torah study with a larger directive of sharing the Torah with others. The same theme that Torah study is vehicle for not only shaping ourselves but also transforming others has been expressed by the Lubavitchter Rebbe who bases his theory on a linguistic difficulty found in the birchat hatorahthat we recite each morning. The Rebbe notes that verb לעסוק (to busy yourself) which is used in the formulation of the blessing seems out of place. Verbs such as ללמד (to study) or לעמל (to toil) would have been more appropriate. However, he argues that word לעסק provides a literary reference to the Hebrew word for business, עסק. According to the Rebbe, just as one who believes he has a great business product would want to go and shares his ideas with others, so too to be עוסק in Torah requires a Jew to think beyond himself and passionately share the wisdom of Torah with Klal Yisrael.

Seeing Torah study primarily as a means to transform society and impact others can help us understand the theological impact of our “Torah break” that accompanies the Tisha B’av experience. The Gemara[11] provides a variety of theories as to why it is uncommon forTalmidei Chachamim to have sons who are similarly outstanding in Torah study. According to the views cited in the names of Mar Zutera and Rav Ashi, the lack of Talmidei Chachamim amongst the offspring of Torah scholars is divine punishment for their condescending behavior toward the public and failure to treat the larger populace with the proper respect. A third view is cited by Ravina who states that this reality is a consequence of the fact that the Torah scholars regularly fail to recite the birchat hatorah prior to their study. This significance of recitingbirchat hatorah is similarly testified too in a subsequent Talmud passage (ibid) which attributes the destruction during the first temple period to the failure of Jews to recite the blessings before Torah study. In fact,  Rav Aharon Kotler[12] cites the Yerushlmi[13] which states that had the Jews during the first temple period only been guilty of idolatry, sexual improprieties and murder,[14] God would have spared the community of destruction. However, since this lack of observance was coupled with a distain (מאסה של תורה) for the Torah, He had no choice but to punish the people.

Various commentators have tried to explain why a group of Jews (and more specifically rabbis) would neglect the recitation of birchat hatorah.[15] However, I think that from this Gemara it becomes clear that their failure to recite these blessings resulted from a broader failure to see Torah study as a means to transform people and communities. These rabbis who acted condescendingly and arrogantly to their flock could not possibly say the words לעסוק בדברי תורה since (as the Lubavitcher Rebbe noted) to be עוסק בתורה requires a Jew to think beyond himself and realize the lasting impact that Torah can have on others. Similarly, God punished the people with the destruction since He could not tolerate a society where Jews failed to take responsibility for their brethren and Torah was perceived as the cause for divisiveness.[16]

A similar message emanates from a close reading of rabbinic texts that deal with the destruction of the second temple. The Talmud[17] states that the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. However, a thematically parallel text[18] provides insight[19]  into exactly the nature of the baseless hatred that was taking place during that time. Thus, the Talmud[20] cites an introductory comment of Rebbi Yochanan to the famous narrative of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza which prefaces the story by citing the verse form Mishlei[21] “אשרי אדם מפחד תמיד ומקשה לבו יפול ברעה”. Rebbe Yochanan’s purpose in citing this verse is to state that the reader should be mindful of the character in the narrative who (in contrast to the directive of the pasuk)[22] remains stubborn and fails to understand the long term consequences of his actions.[23] What becomes evident from story, is that R. Zechariah Ben Avkalus best personifies the character type described by R. Yochachan. After all, it was his uncompromising approach in dealing with the sacrifice blemished by Bar Katmza which ultimately led to the destruction of Jerusalem. However, an even more significant indictment of R. Zechariah is found in a variant of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza account cited in Eichah Rabbah. According to the text in Gittin, Bar Kamtza became enraged at the rabbinic leadership as they sat by idly while he was publicly humiliated.[24] However, according to the Eichah Rabbah version, the genetic term רבנן is replaced with a specific reference to R. Zechariah ben Avkolus![25] Thus, according to the Eichah Rabbah text, R. Zechariah had the opportunity to personally stop the humiliation but chose to remain silent. What becomes evident from this source is that like the Rabbis mentioned in Nedarim 81a, R. Zechariah was not interested in having the Torah that he studied have a lasting impact on those around him. He sat at the party of Bar Kamtza and decided not to intervene in the affair since for him Torah represented something private. It was exactly this type of behavior that causes the baseless hatred that the Talmud[26] made reference too. When Jews who engage in Torah study fail to see the impact that Torah should have on others, people begin to baselessly hate Torah leaders and more tragically despise the Torah itself.

Ironically, on Tisha B’av we are prohibited from studying the majority of the Torah corpus yet nonetheless, we still recite the birchat hatorah. According to the standard text of birchat hatorah, we beseech God to “please sweeten the words of Torah in our mouth and in the mouths of Your people of Israel.”[27] What is most striking about this formulation is that the word  הערב that is used in this context has the same root as the word ערבות or fraternity.[28] Thus the clear implication is that the words of the Torah will only be “sweet” in the eyes of the community when a sense of communal responsibility (ערבות) permeates those who are engaged in Torah study. By emphasizing birchat hatorah while minimizing formal Torah study we establish a firm theological principle that Torah when not studied with the proper motivation and goals can have disastrous consequences. Moreover, by reciting the birchat hatorah on the day that formal study is prohibited we provide a context for future study by recognizing that a proper perspective is a prerequisite for true Torah study.

[1] Shabbat 31a

[2] Cited in the commentary of the Rivmat’’z to Mishnah Peah 1:1.

[3] Taanit 30a

[4] cf. Moed Katan 15a

[5] Orach Chayim 544

[6] The experience of studying the limited material permitted on Tisha B’av does not seem to represent a standard “kiyum of Talmud Torah.” Rather, these passages serve a functionary purpose to set the proper tone or mood for the day.

[7] See Magen Avraham ibid:5

[8] Ibid

[9] Shabbat 30a

[10] see Rashi s.v kavata

[11] Nedarim 81a

[12] Mishnas Rebbi Aharon 28

[13] Chagigah 1:7

[14] Cf. Bavli Yoma 9b

[15] See Igrot Moshe OH 1:20

[16] For a survery of other rabbinic sources that provide alternative reasons for the destruction of the two Temples see, Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky’s article in Jewish Action 64:4.

[17] Yoma 9a

[18] Gittin 55b-56a

[19] cf. Maharsha Gittin 55b s.v v’amar

[20] Ibid

[21] 28:14

[22] cf. Rashi and Tosafot ibid.

[23] For a further exploration of this idea in the context of the Kamtza/Bat Kamtza narrative see the article by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman at http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/devarim/ber.html

[24] אמר: הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה, ש”מ קא ניחא להו

[25] , והיה שם ר’ זכריה בן אבקולס והיתה ספק בידו למחות ולא מיחה מיד נפיק ליה אמר בנפשיה אילין מסביין יתבין בשלוותהון אנא איכול קרצהון…

[26] Yoma 9a

[27] והערב נא ה’ אלקינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפי עמך בית ישראל

[28] I want to thank Rabbi Yona Reiss for sharing this insight with me.

The New Strength of Am Yisrael

by Rav Yair Eisenstock

I was born in Be’ersheva in 1983, and I have been through many special moments of Jewish history . I’ve seen different times in the land: the Gulf War , two intifadas, and even Maccabi tel Aviv’s basketball team win a few championships. I haven’t seen everything, but I have been part of a lot of it.

Growing up, I would often ask myself a simple question: if I could be in any time in the history of Am Yisrael, what period would I choose to be a part of . Obviously whichever place and whatever time we were born is where Hashem wants us to be. But the thought helps us realize our dreams, and what truly inspires us. It helps us know what we really are searching for.

I always felt 1967 would be the period I would most have wanted to be a part of. Not because of the war, not even because of our ability to return to Yerushalim , but because of the atmosphere of our people . In 1948 the soldiers were mostly Holocaust survivors ,and it was a war where the main emotion was one of survival . There weren’t questions of identity, and there wasn’t a feel of spirituality: it was a war simply to live, to have a land, too have a country.  On the other hand, what happened in 1967 is different . People didn’t ask the question, “Where is Israel,” but rather, “Why Israel.” The people in the country  ,were fighting to bring back Yerushalim , not just have the land of Israel . It was a war that made people think of the roots and the connection.

The last two months in Israel have been different, and I think in many ways we returned to those times. We again returned to a period of time that focuses not on the question of external survival, but rather of internal transformation.

Before explaining this connection, I want to try and see how we can understand this idea deeper through the fourth perek of pirkei avot. The opening mishna of the 4th perek is a famous one.

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ד משנה א: בן זומא אומר איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם שנאמר (תהלים קי”ט) מכל מלמדי השכלתי איזהו גבור הכובש את יצרו שנאמר (משלי טו /טז/) טוב ארך אפים מגבור ומושל ברוחו מלוכד עיר איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו שנאמר (תהלים קכ”ח) יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך אשריך בעולם הזה וטוב לך לעולם הבא איזהו מכובד המכבד את הבריות שנאמר (שמואל א’ ב’) כי מכבדי אכבד ובוזי יקלו:

The simple structure of the mishna is: Question. Answer .Proof

בן זומא אומר:

 

Question

Answer

Proof

Intellect

איזהו חכם

הלומד מכל אדם

שנאמר (תהלים קי”ט) מכל מלמדי השכלתי

Strength

איזהו גבור

הכובש את יצרו

שנאמר (משלי טו /טז/) טוב ארך אפים מגבור ומושל ברוחו מלוכד עיר

Wealth

איזהו עשיר

השמח בחלקו

שנאמר (תהלים קכ”ח) יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך אשריך בעולם הזה וטוב לך לעולם הבא

Respect

איזהו מכובד

המכבד את הבריות

שנאמר (שמואל א’ ב’) כי מכבדי אכבד ובוזי יקלו:

Once seeing the mishna this way , there are many ideas that can be learned (Why these four topics, what is the need for each proof , Why does Ben Zoma give the opposite answer then expected etc.) .

From the structure of the mishna I want to point out one idea. None of the answers relate directly to the question. The opening question is about חכם and the answer is about הלומד. The second is about גבורה  but the answer is about הכובש . The third is about עשיר the answer is about השמח. The fourth is about מכובד and the answer is המכבד.

The answers should have been”חכם זהו… ,גיבור זהו …, עשיר זהו …, מכובד זהו…” . If the question is about a goal , the answer should directly relatie to that specific goal rather to a trait or characteristic that might help to reach the goal.

From this structure a fundamental principle of this mishna can be learned . The question is about the end goal “חכם , גבור עשור , מכובד” but the answer is revealing a hidden idea . The end goal begins with the means that bring one to the goal “הלומד , הכובש , השמח , המכבד” In other words, every great accomplishment begins with the decision of how to get to that goal .

Three months ago Rav Binny and Rabbi Aaron organized a shabbaton for Alumnai in camp Ramah Nyack .We were praying Kabbalat Shabbat in a watch tower . From the Orayta roof I’m used to seeing the Beit Hamikdash and knowing where my thoughts should be focused (יבנה המקדש – ושם נשיר). When I’m dancing in the Old City and I see Jewish faces I don’t recognize, I know what to focus on (עם ישראל חי) . Standing on a watchtower in New York, I wasn’t sure what to look at. I started with the trees and tried to connect them to Gan Eden …it didn’t really work . Then I stared at the sunset and all its colors, but didn’t really work either, since I’ve seen better ones .Suddenly my eye caught a picture of something I’d never see in the Old City: a huge bridge. I just looked at this bridge. I didn’t see Beit Hamikdash or Gan Eden , but I saw a message for life . Why does someone build a bridge? They know where they are , and they know where they want to get to , but they don’t know how to BRIDGE the gap.  The bridge is what gives us the ability to simply reach our destination.

Who doesn’t know where they want to get to? How many of us don’t want to be happy? Are there people in the world who don’t want peace? So if we all know the great goal, why are so many broken and so far away? Simply put, it’s because we don’t know how to build the bridge . We spend so much time talking about the great future without realizing that the greatest redemption is what I do with this moment . Is this experience, friendship, job, university, marathon, dinner I’m making for my family a bridge to my image of the future , or are they an escape  and step away from the goal?

Ben Zoma teaches us his life message: so many of us know how to talk , but very few acknowledge the need to walk . So many are great at theory and have no practice.

Yesterday , July 30th the 3 day of Menachem Av , I went out to breakfast with Zviki (my younger brother) , Tanya (my best friend), my mother and father before Zviki had to go back to Gaza . The waiter saw Zvikah’s uniform, and when we asked for the bill, he said, “choose any desert , on the house , and be sure to come back the way you left.” My mother cried and said,  “I love Israel.”  I was choking up inside , crying from the gesture; it was someone thinking about someone else before themselves , the secret of Eretz Yisrael. But the bracha he gave was the opposite of what I’ve been seeing the last two months since Gilad , Naftali and Eyal were kidnapped . No one is sitting, no one is tired  no one is sitting at home just relaxing this summer no one is “staying the same”. Don’t “come back the way you left,” butrather “build something new , use this time to do.”

These last two months, I feel Am Yisrael has returned to 1967 . The war is much more then the shells that are shot . It is a time Am Yisrael has again started to ask, “What is our identity? Do we live in the land , or do we love the land . To we say Am Yisrael Chai , or do we make sure that Am Yisrael is chai . Do we sleep through the days , or do we revive our ways?”

I wanted to thank our chayalim , who aren’t shooting guns , but changing a nation . They are proud to defend , and their parents are saying we are crying but we believe. The nation is heartbroken but not sad.

For 31 years living in the land ive heard many speak about the fruits, but I didn’t feel we were connected to the roots. Since the 14th of Sivan , when the kids were kidnapped , I personally feel we have relearned what Ben Zoma was really teaching: the greatest goals aren’t measured through where you want to go , but how you go about daily routine in order to infuse the mundane with the image of our future dream.