100 – The Torah Podcast – Think Before You Judge – Humility & Reality – Pirkei Avos – Ethics of the Fathers Chapter 1:1
The Torah Podcast Transcript
100 The Torah Podcast – Think Before You Judge
Pirkei Avos Chapter 1:1
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.
Since we already came to episode 100, I’ve decided to change gears a little bit. I’m going to try something a little bit different. Instead of speaking on the weekly Parsha, I’ve decided to speak on Pirkei Avos.
When I asked Rav Aaron Chadosh of the Mir which mussar sefer I should teach, he told me the most important mussar sefer, book on character development, is Pirkei Avos. It’s learned in all the schools. Everybody knows it, and it’s very popular. So, we’re going to start with Pirkei Avos. But before you learn Pirkei Avos there’s a Mishna that you say. It’s the first Mishna in Chapter 10 of Sanhedrin that goes like this, “All of the Jewish people have a portion in the world to come. like it says, Your people are all righteous. They will inherit the land forever, a sapling in my planting, my handiwork in which to glory.” This is the Mishna that we say before we start to learn Pirkei Avos. Why do we learn this Mishna?
So, the Bartenura explains, “ All the Jews have a portion in the next world. Even those Jews who are supposed to get the death penalty, they still have a portion in the next world. ” And which world to come are we referring to? He says, “The world to come after techiyas hameisim, after the resurrection of the dead, there’s going to be a world to come that’s going to last forever. “In the future, we’re going to rise with our bodies and our souls. We’re going to live forever, like the moon and the stars. “ But in the next world there’s not going to be any eating or drinking. Even though we have a body, there’s not going to be eating and drinking. How are we going to live? The righteous people are going to sit with crowns on their heads. And we’re going to derive sustenance from the presence of God, the light that comes off of God, that’s going to nourish us.” This is unbelievable. But since not every Jew is equal, rather there are great people and there are small people, we have a portion in the next world. How big our portion is going to be, that depends on how we behave ourselves here.
A lot of people don’t know, a lot of secular Jews don’t even know that the Jews believe in the next world. I get that question all the time. Do the Jews believe in the next world? Of course we believe in the next world. The whole Torah is based on the next world. And the other commentators explain the reason why we read this Mishna before we read Pirkei Avos, which is talking about our character traits, is that we shouldn’t be despondent. Even an evil person, he still has a portion in the next world. So of course, if we fix ourselves up, we’re going to have even a greater portion.
So now, the first Mishna in Pirkei Avos reads like this. Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and he handed it over to Yehoshua and Yehoshua handed it over the Torah to the elders and the elders handed it over to the prophets, and the prophets handed it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. And the Men of the Great Assembly said three things. “ Weigh your judgements carefully, establish many students and make a fence for the Torah.”
The Tiferet Yisroel says on these words, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai” what does that mean? “It appears to me that in the beginning when the Jews received the Torah, they might have thought it would have been enough to just keep the Torah. And if they keep the Torah, then they’re going to get the next world. This not true. Why? Because it’s not enough just to do the mitzvos, commandments, but we also have to have good character. Like Chazal says, someone who is involved and lives Torah and he doesn’t behave properly in business, and he’s not nice to people, “Oy lo.” Oy vavoy, he’s going to get punished. So, he says, derech eretz, acting properly, that’s also called Torah. And the way to act was also received from Sinai. We also received how to behave ourselves in this world, that was also given at Har Sinai. Because Chazal tells us that if you don’ t have Torah, you don’t have derech eretz. So, how to behave was also handed to us at Har Sinai.
And the Bartenura continues in the same way and he says, “Also among the nations, they had great people who wrote about character traits, and how a man should behave with his friend. Therefore, the first Tanna in Pirkei Avos says, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai” to teach us that the middos, the character traits and the mussar, the rebuke in this sefer, did not come from the levs, hearts of our Sages. Rather, where did it come from? It came directly from God. This sefer that we’re about to learn is not filled with advice on how to behave based on human reasoning. It came from God. It’s not just the ideas of people of what they think is right and wrong, and how to behave based on customs, or who knows what. No, this was received also from Sinai. The way that a Jew behaves also has to be based on Torah.
And the Tiferet Yisroel explains, “Why does the Mishna start that Moses received the Torah from Sinai? Because Sinai was the lowest of mountains. That’s where we received the Torah. And just like Moshe Rabbeinu had tremendous humility, so he also received the Torah on the smallest of mountains, to teach us what? To teach us the ways of being humble. Why? Because humility is the source of all good character traits.” This is what he says. The most important character trait, according to the Tiferet Yisroel, is anava. If you’re humble, that will lead to good character.
So now, the question is, which Torah was given at Sinai? All the meforshim, commentators explain, “Not only was the Torah, the written Torah was given at Sinai, but also the Oral Torah was given at Sinai.” This is what Rabbeinu Yona says. Both of them. Why? Because it’s impossible to understand the Torah Bichtav, the written Torah, without the Oral tradition. Like he says, “It says the word lo tigzav, don’t steal. All the laws of damages are inside don’t steal. There’s tons of particulars. How are we going to know all the particulars, just from the words, “don’t steal?” Like it’s written between blood and blood, between din and din, me nega le nega. If we didn’t have an explanation for what these things mean, how would we know which way to go? And al pi kabbalah we received everything at Sinai, not just the Torah Shebichtav.
And the Rabbeinu Bachye takes it even one step further. He says, “All the books, all the Neviim, all the kesuvim, everything that was written in the Torah was given at Sinai.” The only difference was, it was in an oral form, and there wasn’t given permission to write until the Neviim came into the world, and they were able to write it. And in their generation, they wrote it with ruach hakodesh, heavenly inspiration. It was received at Sinai and later the Neviim wrote it with ruach hakodesh. And the Vayikra Rabba says like this. “Whatever novel Torah insights a diligent student may derive was already transmitted at Sinai.”
So, the Mishna continues and it says that Moshe Rabbeinu handed over the Torah to Yehoshua. So, the Meiri explains, “Which Torah did he give over to Yehoshua? The Torah She Bal Peh.” Why? Moshe wrote 12 sefer Torah, and he handed over to the shevatim, the tribes. What did he give over to Yehoshua? He gave over the Torah She Bal Peh. And the Rabbeinu Bachye says on that, “ And he also influenced him, Just like the light that shines on the moon comes from the sun, so too, Moshe gave the light of the Torah over to Yehoshua.” Like it says, “the light of Moshe’s face was like the sun, and the light of Yehoshua’s face was like the moon. And Rashi asks, Why was the Torah given specifically from Moshe to Yehoshua? It could have been given to Eliezer and Pinchas. And it could have been given to the 70 elders. Why was it given to Yehoshua? The answer Rashi says is, he only wanted to give it to someone who killed himself, from the youth in the tent of wisdom. And he acquired for him a shem tov, good name. And Moshe only wanted to give over the Torah as someone who sat from his youth in the halls of wisdom, and that’s why it was specifically Yehoshua.
And then the Mishna continues and it says, “Yehoshua handed it over the Torah to the elders” So, Rashi says that those same Zekanim, they handed it over In other words, once it was given to the Zekanim, it continued for many, many generations until it reached the level of the Neviim. And then the Neviim gave it over to the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, to the Great Assembly. Rabbeinu Yona says on this, “It was received from wise person to wise person.” And then what happened? They gathered together, all the Chochmei Yisroel, all the wise people, and they got together to produce advice to write down the Torah She Bal Peh. At this point they had to write it down, because it was going to be lost. And they wrote and they sealed the Talmud. At that point after the Torah She Bal Peh was written down, it couldn’t be added to or taken away from. And then after that, it was handed over to the geonim, which is not written in the Mishna. Once the Torah She Bal Peh was written down, it was handed over to the geonim, and it was handed from gaon to gaon, from one Rabbi to the next Rabbi until today. So, the Torah that we have today is the same Torah that was given at Sinai. And it’s been passed down from generation to generation. And the same Torah that our children learn is the Torah that we learn. If you go to a beis medrash you’ll see everybody has a Gemara open. The same Gemara that a 13 year old kid is learning, an 80 year old man is also learning. It’s absolutely amazing.
Now, the Mishna continues and says that they said three things. The Bartenura asks, They said a lot of things. Why these three? Rather, these three things that they said are the things that are needed to establish the Torah. To keep the Torah going through all the generations, these are the three things that we need – to weigh our judgments carefully, to establish many students, and to make a fence for the Torah. So, now we’re going to explain these, one by one.
The Tiferes Yisroel explains that these three things don’t only apply to Torah scholars, they apply to everybody. When a person has to make a decision, he has to judge carefully before he makes a decision. He has to look at the person he’s dealing with and decide whether that person is a righteous person or not a righteous person. Do I want to do business or not with him? And he shouldn’t always think that he’s right, and that his kids are always right. And just like he’s going to educate his own kids and care about his own kids, he has to care about other people’s kids. That’s what it means, to have many talmidim, to help society. What does it mean, to make a fence for the Torah? He has to make sure he protects himself from sin, to not go to places where there’s going to be trouble. So, these rules don’t only apply to establishing the Torah for dayanim, for judges and rabbis, but every human being has to establish the Torah in his own way, in the way that he can.
Rashi explains, what does it mean to weigh your judgments carefully? He says, Loshen mamtinim, to wait. You shouldn’t be quick to judge people. You have to go deep in your mind to see if you’re really looking at the situation in the right way. And the Rambam says a similar thing. He says, “You shouldn’t be quick to judge.” Why? Because it’s possible if you wait, you will reveal things that you didn’t see before. In other words, don’t be quick. Slow down. You want to make a decision, you have to slow down because the more you slow down, the more you’re going to see things that you didn’t see before. This is what the Rambam says. And the Bartenura says the same thing, and so does Rabbeinu Yonah. Listen to what Rabbeinu Yonah says. “One who is hasty in his rulings is called negligent. If you judge too fast, you’re negligent. Even if you’re sincere and you’re going to judge correctly, it’s considered karov lemaizid, close to intentional. He should have reminded himself that a hasty decision is likely to be inaccurate, that all human error is too common. As it’s said, “We allow judgement deferment because through deliberation and waiting, reasoning is added to reasoning, and analysis to analysis, until finally you can arrive at an accurate ruling. Thinking things through a second time,” he says, “Uncovers new ideas and insights. So, this is the first thing that the Sages said in order to mekayim, in order to establish the Torah. Don’t be hasty to make decisions. Wait. The longer you wait, the more you think, the clearer the decision is going to be.
Now the second thing is, to establish many students. Rashi says, “Even when you are old, because you don’t know which of your students are going to come out good. That’s why learning and teaching Torah is a great job, because you could do it even till you’re old. Even when you’re old, you should continue to teach.” That’s what Rashi says. And Rabbeinu Bachye says that by increasing students, you also increase Torah. You widen the Torah. And not only that, but the teacher becomes wiser like it says, “Much did I learn from my Rabbonim, but I learned the most from my talmidim.” So, the more students you have, the wiser you’re going to be. And the Tosefos Yom Tov explains, “Why does it say, “Stand up a lot of talmidim.” He wants to explain in other words, stand them up on their feet, that they should understand and have a grasp of the Torah. That’s what it means, to stand. Why, they have truth. Sheker doesn’t have legs. Lies have no legs to stand on. Stand them up in truth. Make a lot of talmidim. Spread the Torah. Make them know the truth. And the Bartenura wants to explain, this is coming against Rav Gamliel who said, Any student who his inside and his outside are not equal, don’t let him into the beis medrash. The Bartenura wants to say against that. He’s saying, “Even if the guy is not 100 percent, let him into the beis medrash, like shitas Beis Hillel, not like shitas Beis Shammai. Let him into the beis medrash. Get talmidim. Teach Torah to everyone, because that’s the thing that’s going to heal them. That’s the thing that’s going to make them straight.
The last thing that the Mishna said was to make a fence for the Torah. What does that mean? So, Rashi explains it means . You have to make a fence not to come close to a real issur Torah. You have to protect yourself, to keep away so you shouldn’t do a real sin. The Rabbeinu Bachye gives an example ,like we know on Erev Pesach it’s forbidden from the Torah to eat Erev Pesach, bread after the sixth hour. What do the Chachamim come along and do? They said, “No, you have to stop eating by the fourth hour.” That’s an example of making a fence for the Torah. Since the Torah forbids it from the sixth hour, came along the Rabbis and said, “No, you can’t eat from the fourth hour, because maybe somebody’s going to make a mistake in the time, and they’re going to wind up eating, and they’re going to be over a sin from the Torah.” That’s what it means, to make a fence. And by making fences, that’s also an aspect of establishing the Torah. But Rabbeinu Yonah says even one step further. He says, this is unbelievable. “One who acts in accordance with these enactments shows a greater love of God.” The person who keeps the fences of the Torah shows even a greater love for God.” The Rabbinic fences are designed to keep us at a safe distance from any possibility of sin. Taking special care to observe them indicates a greater degree of reverence and fear of God. And observing the mitzvah itself, the deRabanans, the things that the Rabbis established is even greater than the mitzvos themselves, because it shows your fear of God, and it shows the love that you have for God, that you really don’t want to even come close to a sin. “The words of the Sages are the root and tree of the fear of heaven, which is the main purpose in the universe,” he says, “And the foundation of all good attributes. Fear of God is man’s purpose in the world. And it’s the foundation of good attributes is connected with anava, with humility.” If you fear God, you’re a humble person. This is the thing that’s going to give you good character. Like the Midrash says, “Your beloved are better than wine, and the words of the Sages are more precious than the wine of the Torah.”
Now, these three things the Mishna brought are not just ethics, they’re also halachas. Listen to this halacha. The Rambam says, “A judge has to be diligent in din, and he has to work back and forth until it’s clear like the sun. And a person who jumps and gives a law before it’s clear to him, this person is called a fool, a rasha, an evil person, and a gas ruach, an arrogant person. That’s one halacha. Now, there’s another halacha. You have to have talmidim. What does that mean? Every man is obligated to teach his son Torah. That’s also a talmid. And just like a man is obligated to teach his son Torah, he is also obligated to teach his grandchildren Torah. You are also responsible to make sure that your grandchildren know Torah. And not only your children and your grandchildren, but it’s a mitzvah on every wise person from Yisroel to teach many talmidim, even young people who are not his sons. So you see, it’s a halacha. And the last thing is, make a fence for the Torah. A beis din who sees that people are going off, are obliged to make a fence for the Torah to stop the people from going off. Like the sages made, eating chometz from the fourth hour, even though it’s only forbidden dearaisa from the sixth hour. So, these things are actual halachas, they are laws.
Now, Rav Chaim of Volozhin wants to say that these three things apply to three different aspects in man. What does it mean, to be deliberate in judgement? That’s talking about your thoughts. And what does it mean, to spread Torah to many talmidim? That’s going according to your words. And what does it mean, to make a fence for the Torah? That’s according to your actions. These three things correct a man in his thoughts, his words, and his actions. And the Maharal wants to explain that these three things are going according to three different parts of his of his intelligence. He says, “They’re kenegged chochma, bina v’daas.” I’ll explain. The first thing, judgement, has to do with chochma, wisdom, . That has to do with sevara. Are you in reality or not in reality? When you make a decision, is your decision in reality? The second, many students, has to do with bina, and going back and forth, and seeing many different aspects of what you’re about to decide – to see the thing within the thing. And the last one, making a fence around the Torah, is if you’re missing information. If you’re missing information you have to protect yourself. You have to stay away from an avera, because you don’t even know what the law is.
So, at the end of the day, this is what it takes to establish the Torah. But also, the Torah in ourselves. What’s the Torah? The Torah is the will of God. How are we going to do God’s will? So, first we have to weigh our judgments, the way we look at the world. How are we going to live like a righteous person? The only way to do it is to have patience. That’s what all the meforshim said, “When you judge, when you look at the world, when you decide what things mean, be patient.” Be relaxed. If a person’s not relaxed, he’s not in reality. That’s what it has to do with the sevara, it has to do with sevara – being in reality. In order to do God’s will, you have to be in reality, which means forget about your stories and what you think things mean at a first glance. The Avos de Rebbe Nosson says, “.” What does it meant to be deliberate in judgement? Don’t be strict, because anyone who’s strict, he’s not going to see reality. You’re making up a story. If you want to live a good life, then you have to be relaxed. And if you’re relaxed, you’ll see reality. That’s stage number one.
Stage number two, once you see reality, you have to spread reality. You have to spread consciousness. You have to see good in people. How are you going to see good in people? If you see good in people, then you can spread good, which means make a lot of talmidim, be connected with society, and spread the Torah.
And the last thing is to protect yourself from sin. Just because you’re going to spread Torah, but you have to be careful also. There are people out there in the world who are not good. There are people out there in the world who you can’t be connected to, because they don’t want to listen to you. They want nothing to do with the Torah. You try your best, like the psak said, “Many students” against Rav Gamliel who said, “His inside is not like his outside.” But if the people are not interested and they don’t want, you can’t be connected with them. You have to protect yourself from sin. So, through these three things we can come to establish the Torah not only in ourselves, but in the world. And we could spread Torah, which is the will of God.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s podcast. Bezrat Hashem, next week we’ll do the second Mishnah