Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 4:27: On the Soul

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.  

Youth without guidance from older generations is a waste of potential. Here, Rabbi Meir is in dialogue with his teacher, Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah. Rabbi Meir, now a wise spiritual leader, was disappointed that his teacher Elisha (Acher) did not return to studying Torah and Jewish philosophy.

Rabbi Meir says: Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine, and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine.

Rabbi Meir experienced inner agony as he tried to convince Acher, with whom he had been so intimate, to return to the ways of a Jewish life. This mishnah is a powerful Jewish literary and spiritual example: Rabbi Meir lamented that Acher would never take another look at his inner world and return to the task for which his soul was sent to earth. In some ways, Acher, or “Other,” is called this precisely because he turned away from his mission.

What do the vessels in this mishnah really symbolize? Why would Rabbi Meir be cryptic, rather than straightforward, with his thoughts? This metaphor is about giving our souls over to our higher purpose. “Submission” is not a celebrated word among spiritual or social progressives, and for good reason. Submission to an external authority is not the way we think to shake up societal order. But, internally, we might consider acts of submission in which we give ourselves over to our Creator, who made us for a unique purpose. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explains:

Submission to God, which is something natural to every creature, to every being in which individuality reveals itself . . . does not entail sorrow and oppression, but rather, pleasure and uprightness, sovereignty, and inner courage crowned with total beauty. . . . [This is achieved] through contraction of the soul before its Creator.

This mishnah also deals with the legacy of the human soul (what is in the vessel). A good portion of Jewish thought on the soul is found in the Kabbalah, but we see some interesting analogues to Jewish thought in gentile culture. Plato said that humans have three souls: the appetitive, spirited, and intellectual. In Judaism, these are nefesh, ruach, and n’shamah. In Platonic thought, as in Judaism, all three matter. How we show up within ourselves determines how we show up outside of ourselves. If we are not fulfilled inside, we won’t be fulfilled on the outside.

Likewise, there is a midrash about the soul’s continuous need to grow and evolve:

“And the soul is not sated” (Ecclesiastes 6:7). This is analogous to a provincial who married a princess. Even though he brings her everything in the world, he does not satisfy her. Why? Because she is a princess. Similarly, even if a person brings his soul all the delicacies of the world, they are nothing to her [i.e. she is not satisfied]. Why? Because she comes from Above.

So then, what is the ethical lesson in this mishnah? When we neglect our purpose, we neglect the reason we have been temporarily placed in this world. It is our obligation to overcome disappointment and pride and to achieve what we can in the limited time we’re allowed. Just as Rabbi Meir taught not to be unfairly judgmental of ourselves (or, at least, our superficial outer selves), so too is he teaching here not to miss opportunities to engage with others’ true selves. If we see others only in a transactional way (what can they give to me?), we miss potential for connection and meaningful relationship. Further, from a social change perspective, someone may be our opposition in one campaign but an ally in another. We should not simply label others as inside or outside our camp, but allow ourselves to see them more deeply.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

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.

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