Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz. Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.
This first mishnah does not state directly that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. Instead, it begins with Moses receiving the Torah from “Sinai,” rather than with the story of communal divine revelation. By beginning in this manner, mishnah 1:1 describes the Torah’s primary focus on human relationships.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; and Joshua to the Elders; and the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; develop many students; and make a fence for the Torah.
The entire Torah enterprise requires relationship. To embrace tradition, one does not hide away in the library or the sanctuary, but instead engages in face-to-face encounters.
To take part in such an intellectually rigorous tradition, the Maharal teaches that people must strengthen three components of the human intellect: chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding), and daat (discernment), which he aligns with the three pieces of guidance that end this mishnah. He also aligns these teachings respectively with mishpatim, laws that enable society to function justly; mitzvot, religious mandates of the Torah; and chukim, laws that are less based on common sense and societal order and more on our character development and relationship to God. The Mishnah encourages us to be more careful with din, our judgment. Such lessons pertain to both our dinei mamonot, monetary decisions that affect others’ property, and dinei n’fashot, decisions that affect others’ lives.
To exercise this inherent intellect, every generation is responsible to render safe passage to the tradition. And to do so, each generation must transmit the teachings in such a way that they are stronger than when they were received. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook teaches that to do this is to “expand the palace of the Torah.” Every generation has new insights based upon the changing times, and when we add those contributions to the wealth of the previous transmissions, we strengthen our heritage. We must embrace discomfort at times, challenge dogmas, and question outdated assumptions that no longer further the Torah enterprise nor the whole of the human enterprise.
Today, we see danger to the Torah enterprise from two places. There are those who want to distort the tradition so radically that our ancestors would no longer recognize its essence at all. On the other hand, there are those who seek to freeze the tradition, so that its relevance can scarcely be grasped by our contemporaries. The Sages of Pirkei Avot caution against both destructive approaches and seek new measured understanding. Consider the Talmud’s story that imagines God showing Moses the teachings of Rabbi Akiva in the distant future. In this telling, Moses is at first distressed because those teachings do not resemble what he himself knows; but he is assured by the claim that this, too, is authentic Torah linked through an eternally continuous chain (BT M’nachot 29b). The sacred goal is not merely the survival of the tradition (as that would be quite a low bar). Instead, tradition flourishes because each successive generation has sufficient independence to pursue the transformational interpretations of tradition, within the context of their own time and place.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.