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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: First Mishna

By Rabbi Sender Haber


Our forefathers were close to perfect. There is very little that we can say that they didn’t say and there is very little that we can do that they didn’t do better. Still, each of the personalities in the Torah was noted for his or her unique strengths. Adam and Chava were the parents of all mankind, Noach saved the world, Avraham rediscovered G-d, Sarah dealt with infertility and a disappointing stepson, Yitzchak was willing to die for G-d, Rivkah believed in Yaacov and supported him unilaterally, Yaacov was faithful to the Torah even as he dealt with the dredges of society. Yosef remained holy and faithful despite all odds, Yocheved raised Moshe who persevered to take us out of Egypt, Bisya negotiated with her father to save Moshe’s life, Aharon was our spiritual leader, Miriam never gave up. And the list goes on. Every week the Rabbi gets up in shul and focuses on another biblical hero and his or her story.

In a similar vein, Pirkei Avos is a work of many men. Although they were all close to perfect, it is understood that no one person could excel in everything. And so, dozens of rabbis came together to write our Life’s Little Instruction Book, recognizing that each one had something unique and special to teach their generation and ours.

These are the Pirkei Avos. The teaching of our forefathers as transmitted to us by the rabbis of the Mishna.

What then is the meaning of the first Mishna? Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and gave it to Yehoshua?! Did Moshe alone have the monopoly on ethics? Wasn’t this a group effort? Aren’t ethics something that we can each excel in personally and teach our own personal message?

Here we need to take a moment to appreciate the Uniqueness of Moshe and His Torah. Somehow, G-d was able to take all of the lessons of biblical times and transmit them to Moshe in His Torah. It’s all there. Moshe was able to transmit those lessons to Yehoshua, who was able to grasp them as well. But that is where it stopped. Never again (and never before) was one person able to hold the entire Torah. It is almost as if history took a time out to regroup. All of our history and our legacy and our canon was consolidated into one book and taught to one man. That one man taught it to another.

At Sinai, ethics stopped being an intuitive way of life and became a wisdom, something to be studied, learned and and mastered. Where Abraham and Sarah relied on their own intuition, we rely on truisms, aphorisms and the experience of others.

The Mesilas Yesharim speaks of a garden maze with a large platform in the center. While everyone else has to blunder their way through the twists and the turns, the person who has completed the maze and stands in the center is able to look down and see all of the traps and dead ends in front of him. He can call out directions to those who are lost, or he could stay quiet and let them enjoy the maze.

When Adam was asked why he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he blamed his wife: “the woman that you gave me made me eat it.” G-d was not happy with this answer. Our sages tell us “כאן כפר בטובה”, it was at this moment that Adam stopped appreciating his wife. Worse, it was at that moment that he stopped appreciating the G-d who gave him his wife. Perhaps, this is why his son was a murderer and his grandson worshipped idols. Perhaps the world would be a little more perfect today if Adam hadn’t jumped to blame Chava for his shortcomings.

We all know not to complain about our wives. Some of us know because we have been told; others know from experience. Admittedly, those of us who know from experience know the lesson more intimately, but perhaps we would have been better off if we had received the advice earlier, if we had been given the ability to learn from their mistake rather than our own.

Life is a maze. We will never have all of the answers given to us on a silver platter. The challenge of life and the joy of living is about navigating our way through the maze of life and learning from our mistakes. Still, it is nice to have a head start. This was the Torah, and this was the wisdom imparted to Moshe. Moshe got it all from Sinai, and in this way he had a leg up on Adam and Chava, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchok, Rivka, Yaccov, Rachel and Leah.

Moshe managed to impart that wisdom to Yehoshua, but it would go no further. The next generation was led by the elders, a group of people who were contemporaries who had judged alongside Moshe and Yehoshua. As a collective they contained the wisdom of the Torah, but as individuals would never come close to Moshe or even Yehoshua.


How was it that Moshe and Yehoshua merited a knowledge that encompassed all that had preceded them? The Torah tells us that Moshe was the humblest of men. Yehoshua was his aide. He would stay behind after all of the opther students left to organize the chairs for the next day.  Rav Chaim Volozhin points out that a cup with thick wall has less room to hold water. The humility of Moshe allowed him to be a true vessel to capture the word of G-d. Yehoshua was the moon to Moshe’s sun. He saw himself as merely reflecting the greatness of his teacher. He didn’t consider himself special in his own right. The humility of Yehoshua allowed him to truly accept all that Moshe taught him.

This idea is hinted at in the Mishna. “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai”. Moshe did not receive the Torah from Sinai, but from G-d. The Mishna is worded strangely to remind us why Sinai was chosen. She wasn’t the tallest or the most beautiful mountain. She was the smallest mountain with no flora or vista. G-d, who first appeared in a burning bush – and not a cedar – chose to give the Toarah on a hill and not a mountain. It is all about humility.

Of course Mt. Sinai did ultimately give forth flowers, and Moshe and Yehoshua had personalities, experiences, and even failings of their own. Still the humility that defined them made them uniquely able to accept the entire Torah and transmit it to future generations.


The choice of Prophets as transmitters of the Torah is a controversial one. Why not the kings? Surely such wise and natural leaders as Kind David and King Solomon would have been ideally positioned to pass the legacy of Torah to the next generations? Abarbanel – who spent much of his life advising kings – writes that kings are not trustworthy. It was not safe to leave our tradition in the hands of kings. Too many of our monarchs were swayed by their wealth and their power to make some very bad decisions. The people were more unified in the Book of Judges than they were in the Book of Kings. Kings are good. But the Torah was transmitted via the prophets.

Rav Moshe Feinstein points out further that the role of a Jewish king is not to legislate. Where even an American president can issue a pardon, the Jewish king has no ability at all to override the rules. Moshe wanted to be a king, but G-d said “no. you are lawmaker”. The king facilitates the law but he is subject to it as well. It would never do to for the monarchs to be the custodians of our future.


The prophets were not immune to personal feelings. We are taught that no two prophets will ever see an identical prophecy. In the days leading up to the destruction of the first temple the monarchs preferred Chulda the prophetess over YIrmiyahu the prophet. Both preached the word of G-d, yet somehow Chulda was more merciful in her prophecies. She was not allowed to mince words but the visions she described were different than the ones described by Yirmiyahu.

In describing G-d, Moshe (our greatest prophet) used the words א-ל, גדול, גבור, ונורא – Powerful, Great, Strong, and Feared. Jeremiah described G-d as Powerful, Great, and Strong, because he did not see G-d as feared. Yirmiyahu spent his lifetime warning people to repent but they did not listen. After the destruction, Daniel described G-d as Powerful and Great. G-d didn’t appear strong or feared with his sanctuary destroyed and His children in exile. Yirmiyahu and Daniel knew about the Awe and the Strength of G-d, but they articulated G-d as he was perceived in their generation.

The Men of the Great Assembly were a group of Rabbis who led the Jewish people after our return from exile to build the second Temple. They led for over a century and included in their ranks some of the last prophets that the Jewish people had. They instituted much of Judaism as we know it with a standardized prayer book, Torah Reading three times a week, and synagogues in every town. They were called the “Men of the Great Assembly” because when they wrote their Siddur they described G-d as Moshe had: א-ל, גדול, גבור, ונורא – Powerful, Great, Strong, and feared.

Did the Men of the Great Assembly restore the words “Strong and Feared” because G-d seemed stronger and more feared in their times? Probably not. History tells us that these were very trying times for the Jews. Intermarriage was at record highs, assimilation was rampant and the Men of The Great assembly had their hands full trying to preserve Judaism.

It seems that the change here was not one in our recognition of G-d’s strength, but rather in strategy. The Men of the Great Assembly realized that if we sit around and wait until G-d’s Awe and Strength become obvious, we will have to wait a long time. And if we continue along the path of Yirmiyahu and Daniel we will need to remove the other adjectives as well. Was G-d’s power evident? What about his greatness?

Rather than allowing the prayer book to reflect our perception of G-d, the Men of the Great Assmebly, wrote the prayer book and asked the Jewish people to try to perceive G-d as Moshe had described Him and – indeed – as he was. For G-d never stopped being א-ל, גדול, גבור, ונורא – Powerful, Great, Strong, and feared.

In essence, the Men of the Great Assembly gave power to the people. No longer were we relying on intuition like our forefathers, no longer did we have a Moshe or a Yehoshua who could encompass the entire cannon of Jewish Wisdom. Not even a group of Rabbis could faithfully transmit it all. The Men of the Great Assembly asked the people to step up to the plate. This is what made them truly Great. In the words of our sages “They returned the crown to where it had been before”.


The Anshei Knesses Hagedola left us with three major teachings: Be patient in Judgment, Build up many disciples, and Create Safeguards for the Torah.

All three of the traits can be found in our forefather Avraham. When G-d set out to destroy the city of Sedom, he consulted first with Avraham. G-d said “How can I hide my intention form Avraham who is teaching the world about kindness and will raise a nation of kindness!?’ In a way G-d was training Avraham for the very difficult task of compassionate judgment. G-d presented Avraham with an open and shut case: The people of Sedom were evil. They represented everything that Avraham opposed. Avraham opened his home to guests while the Sodomites putlawed hospitality. Still, Avraham begged and pleaded with G-d to find a way to spare the people of Sedom. Because G-d said, “Avraham will teach his children to perform both kindness and justice”.

The Bartenura characterizes patience in judgment as follows: sometimes a case comes before a judge three or four times. He is tempted to draw on his previous rulings and render a speedy judgment. He may not do so. Rather he must examine the merits of each case individually. This is what Avraham did in Sedom. In doing so, Avraham may have saved the world. G-d had been disappointed by the world twice before. It was only Avraham who was able to find merit in the world, to introduce monotheism and to justify our continued existence.

“Having many students” seems like an irrefutable approach, but the Bartenura is quick to point out that this Mishna is in diametric opposition to Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh would not accept a student unless he was completely pure of hypocrisy. Only the best of the best were allowed entry in Rabban Gamliel’s yeshiva at Yavneh. It is fascinating that although Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh is quoted throughout the Oral Law, he is not quoted even once in Pirkei Avos. The Anshei Kenesses Hagedola held strongly that all students must be accepted and taught.

Additionally, the Bartenura quotes a passage from Yevamos. “Even if a person taught students in his youth, he should teach more students in his old age”.

Avraham clearly reflected both parts of this teaching. He welcomed everyone into his tent, even if they were idol worshippers who worshipped the dust on their feet. He began teaching in his youth as the Torah describes “the people who he created in Charan” and he continued through his old age as the Torah reports the “Eishel” that he planted in Be’er Sheva to welcome wayfarers and teach them about the oneness of G-d.

Of course, Avraham’s star disciple was his son Yitzchak. It is interesting to note that Yitzchak is generally associated with a strict approach. It is not unusual to find students that adopt a stricter approach than their teacher.

Finally, Avraham is known for “creating a safeguard for the Torah”. We do not hear about this in his lifetime. But after his death, Hashem tells Yitzchak that he will honor His covenant with Avraham who “preserved his Safeguards”. Apparently, Avraham kept the commandments and even took steps to make sure that he would not come close to transgressing them.

It occurs to me that there are three approaches to education. The first is an approach that accepts all students with patience and grace. The second accepts only the best students with the greatest potential. The third accepts many students in the hope that some of them will succeed. In the words of the Medrash: “one thousand students study Chumash, one hundred go on to study Mishna, ten will study Talmud, and one will be a great leader and scholar.”

Perhaps the Anshei Kenesses Hagedolah began with the premise that we need to accept all students. We need to be willing to look at even a resident of Sedom and judge him based on any merits we can find. They said “be patient in judgment”.

They also recognized that this is not a complete approach. Patience alone will not build a generation; we need to develop students that are educated and well informed. Perhaps we can argue with Rabban Gamliel when it comes to accepting students, but our ultimate goal must be to build a student to become a true scholar and a worthy teacher of Torah. “Build up many students”

Finally, there are the students who do not become great scholars. For them (or us) patience alone is not a long term solution. A comprehensive education will not work either. For those students we say “Make a safeguard for the Torah”. Give them some hard and fast rules so that they will not find themselves transgressing the words of the Torah.

Consider the Mitzvah of keeping Kosher. A Jew with a non-kosher kitchen might decide to buy only Kosher meat. Although he isn’t keeping Kosher perfectly and we would not eat in that home, an approach of “patience in Judgment” will encourage us to look at him or her as an individual and to praise them in their efforts.

Obviously, just patience will not ensure the future of Judaism. Ultimately we will need to “Build up many students”. We can give people a very clear and intelligent idea of what is acceptable and unacceptable in a kosher kitchen. We can teach them the entire Yoreh Deiah with a deep understanding of Bitul, P’gam, B’dieved and L’chatchila. We can teach everyone to be a rabbi.

But that approach will not always work. Not everyone is going to be a rabbi. That is why we “Make a safeguard for the Torah”. We tell people to keep non-kosher food out of their kitchens, to keep meat and dairy completely separate, and to not even come close to a situation that might be less than Kosher.

Avraham himself began by “Creating people in Charan” but just “creating people” with patience and kindness was not enough. We don’t even know what happened to those people. Ultimately, he needed to educate them, to “build them up as students”. In the end, he was remembered as someone who had “created a safeguard for the Torah”.

This was an approach that worked in the times of Avraham and it was an approach that the Anshei Kenesses Hagedolah chose to employ again as the Jewish people entered a new era. It is an approach that can work for us today as well.

The statement of the Talmud that a person should teach students into his old age is a direct reference to Rabi Akiva. He taught many students in his early years, but they all perished. It was only the students of his later years that went on to teach the next generation.

This is the lesson of PIrkei Avos. We need to use the days of Sefira to recognize and respect each and every person, including ourselves. We are the ones who will receive the Torah and we are the ones who will teach it to the next generation.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on the first five Mishnayos of Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita. 

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