Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 6:11: On Character

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.  

After six chapters of Jewish ethics, epistemology, anecdotes, homilies, and philosophical inquiry, the mishnah concludes with the reminder that although focus has been placed on interpersonal relations and growth of the inner self, Judaism is ultimately centered around God.

All that the Holy One of Blessing created in this world was created solely for God’s own glory, as it is said: “All that is called by My name, indeed, it is for My glory that I have created it, formed it, and made it” (Isaiah 43:7). And it says: “The Eternal will reign for ever and ever” (Exodus 15:18).

At the end of the mishnah, we reflect on what we have witnessed over the course of Pirkei Avot. Here, collected for the ages, are the words that guided countless people on their spiritual journeys. These words of ethics, philosophy, and love give us strength, hope, and a sense of obligation to our fellow. Because God is completely benevolent, we should emulate God’s divine ways. All that we have read, ruminated on, and reacted to has been about achieving the highest good. With this conclusion, we are reminded to grow and be humble, because we are under God’s loving authority.

Learning the art of compromise is arduous. So much must happen on global, national, and interpersonal fronts. But first we must consider our own egos, not letting our tribal tendencies take hold of our better nature. We must be willing to retreat from absolutes for the sake of peace on earth.

One’s character is measured not solely by one’s ideals, but also by willingness to compromise for the sake of human dignity. There are, of course, values that should not be compromised. But for the sake of peace, we often compromise, even when certain of the truth. Rashi taught that doing “‘the right and the good’ [Deuteronomy 6:18] refers to a compromise, within the letter of the law.” The Talmud teaches that God prays to control the limits of divine power that could destroy the universe with but a single thought:

May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice. (BT B’rachot 7a)

If God is to pray for God’s own kindness to prevail over justice, then certainly we should do the same. In all we do, we must focus on building a world imbued with compassion, healing, and peace rather, than on unswerving truth, strict judgment, and punishment. Being right is not always the same thing as doing right. Pirkei Avot compels us to ask ourselves: How can we take the high road today? How can we take the challenge of pursuing justice beyond the personal and into our civic and business interactions? It is our duty to work toward compromise, no matter the circumstance, so that the world will become more just, equitable, and peaceful. These questions may be difficult, but responding to them is our sacred imperative.

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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