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The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice CommentaryIn this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.

There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah.[1] This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot

The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study.[2] While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon,[3] the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition.[4] A different suggestion[5] on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually. 

Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise. 

Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives. 

Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.[6]

It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence. 

Pirkei Avot Cover

Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. 

Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration. 

Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and the forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.


[1] There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

[3] See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”

[4] T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a

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News

How Should We Translate Pirkei Avot? Why Does It Matter?

A decade ago, Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, now the Provost of HUC-JIR, taught me a new term: “gender-accurate translation.”

No, I was not new to ridding our liturgy and sacred texts of gender-based language. However, I had always thought of that process as changing the language of sacred texts, which would be more intrusive than correcting an error of the past.

Rabbi Weiss explained that our new Torah translations – in that case, in the Women’s Torah Commentary – would replace gendered language when the original text doesn’t specifically refer to a person or persons of one particular gender. God, for example, is explicitly without gender in our Jewish tradition; and yet, the inherently gendered Hebrew language refers to God exclusively as “He.”

Gender accuracy, done right, needn’t be noticeable, let alone jarring. None of our current CCAR prayer books refers to God with gendered language, and the English flows seamlessly.

At this season of sfirat ha-omer, counting the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, from liberation to at Sinai, we read Pirkei Avot.

Many of us are familiar with Pirkei Avot, or at least some of its most famous aphorisms. For example: “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone. Who is strong? Those who conquer their impulses. Who is rich? Those who are happy with their lot.”[i] Did you notice that this translation is gender-accurate? Other translations render: “Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men,”[ii] and so forth. Clearly, though, the lesson is valuable for everyone, regardless of gender, there’s no reason to believe that even the ancient rabbis intended their teaching to refer only to men.

In his new book on Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz writes that the title of the book “[l]iterally … means The Chapters of the Fathers[iii] The word avot may indeed mean “fathers.” However, the way a gendered language works, avot can also mean “ancestors.”

Rabbi Yanklowitz writes that we might understand the word even more broadly: “The Hebrew word avah (of which avot is plural) is found in Proverbs 1:30, meaning, ‘to lead through advice.’ Therefore, another way to understand the title of this work is The Chapters of Advice.”[iv] That latter title is descriptive of the book, chock full of Jewish wisdom but without halachah, which characterizes the larger work in which it’s found, the Mishnah.

I have often taught, surely not originally, that every translation is an interpretation. Since other options are available, those who translate the title “Ethics of the Fathers” are choosing to emphasize the gender of its authors. I typically refer to Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Sages.”

Why does it matter?

  1.  Honesty. All of Pirkei Avot is articulated in the names of rabbis – that is, men of a certain class and education. However, Pirkei Avot is likely replete with mansplaining, that is, women’s ideas repeated by and credited to men. No generation is without its wise women and men, but women of the Mishnaic period would not have been credited with their own ideas. Moreover, all the rabbis quoted in Pirkei Avot had mothers, and almost all had wives, who had doubtless imparted significant insight to them. We must shed any doubt that women’s words and ideas are included in Pirkei Avot. Therefore, the suggestion that the book includes only “Ethics of the Fathers” is simply false.
  2. Respect. In a patriarchal society, such as one that gives voice only to men, women are undervalued. While our own culture is blessedly less patriarchal as that of Second Century Palestine, we would be wrong to insist that patriarchal influence has disappeared. When we unnecessarily and inaccurately credit only men’s wisdom in the past, we imply that men are the exclusive source of insight, even today. When we translate, we should open up the possibility that a sage could be a person of any gender. Doing so, we indicate that every person’s wisdom is equally valuable.
  3. Inspiration. Women who are rabbis of my generation often speak of the first time they saw or even just heard about a female rabbi. Previously, they had never internalized the fact that they could become rabbis or religious authorities of any kind, even if they knew that regular ordination of women as rabbis had begun in 1972. While we cannot name women who were sages during the Mishnaic period, by translating Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Fathers,” we close the possibility that a woman could be a sage. Using an accurate English name of the book that isn’t gender-bound, young women and girls may see themselves as they should, fully included in the chain of Jewish tradition that stretches from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Miriam to this very day.

When I was ordained, half of my classmates were women. However, at that time, only twenty-eight years ago this month, the HUC-JIR faculty did not include even one tenured professor who wasn’t male. This month, new rabbis are being ordained by a long-tenured rabbinic scholar who is the College’s Provost, and she’s a woman. For the next generation of rabbis – and, more broadly, of the Jewish people, increasingly even in some corners of the Orthodox world – the term “sage” may finally include women.

As we count the days from Egypt to Sinai, reading Pirkei Avot this year, let us assure that our language is honest, accurately reflecting the past rather than the way that the past presented itself. Let our words convey respect for every person, regardless of gender, as we continue to dismantle the patriarchy. And let us inspire every Jew, of every gender and of every coming generation, to lead us into a future filled with wisdom.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 


[i] Avot 4.1.
[ii] Ibid., Sefaria translation.
[iii] Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, New York: CCAR Press, 2018, p. xi.
[iv] Ibid.

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Books

Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary Book Review

Pirkei Avot stands out among the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah as a treatise devoted to ethical exhortation and guidance. Some scholars claim it was originally a manual directed at rabbi-judges. However, there is no question that its words have gained widespread popular currency. Traditional rabbinic commentaries testify to the central role this text has occupied for generations. Its aphorisms and insights are quoted in countless contemporary contexts and precincts (not to mention sung in Jewish summer camps!)

The CCAR Press now joins this august list of interpretations and provides novel wisdom on this classical text through the writing of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, in his Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.

Rabbi Yanklowitz, ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is one of the most dynamic and charismatic Jewish social activists of his generation. He has become a powerful voice for social justice in our time and his commentary on Pirkei Avot is distinctive in its focus on this theme. Given the commitment of the Reform Movement to social justice, it is fitting that a commentary on this classical tractate be published under the aegis of the CCAR Press. In addition, the inclusive nature of the Reform Movement and the transdenominational reality of the American Jewish world is reflected in the Press’s decision to publish the thoughts of this open Orthodox rabbi on this unique text.

Rabbi Yanklowitz has drawn on a breathtaking number of sources and persons as well as his own personal experiences in composing his commentary. Commentators ancient and modern, men and women, Jew and gentile, as well as insights and anecdotes drawn from his own life and a variety of academic disciplines are all in conversation with one another in this pathbreaking commentary on this traditional text. Rabbi Yanklowitz describes his own aims here by citing the words of his “teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg,” who states that Pirkei Avot should “serve as an inspiration and a challenge to our generation to follow in the footsteps of the sages—to offer new wisdom, to uncover new revelation, to unite past, present, and future, and to help the Jewish people and all of humanity find their way through the next phase of the covenantal journey toward a perfected world” (pp. x–xi). Pirkei Avot, in the capable hands of Rabbi Yanklowitz, surely does this. Throughout, Rabbi Yanklowitz inspires.

Even more significantly, Rabbi Yanklowitz challenges his readers, as the title of his commentary suggests, to improve the world. He unflinchingly contends that these teachings of the ancient Sages clap “a moral yoke upon the Jewish people” (p. 11).

Rabbi Yanklowitz also does not shy away from dealing with difficult passages that are at odds with a modern sensibility. For example, 1:5, which states, “Anyone who talks excessively with a woman causes evil . . . ,” is surely problematic for anyone who possesses a contemporary notion of gender equality. Here Rabbi Yanklowitz contextualizes the passage historically and then insists, quoting both Judith Plaskow and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that we must move beyond the rigid and restricting gender roles imposed by an ancient social order. Instead, Judaism today “must be adamant about embracing feminism and women’s equality” (p. 19). Elsewhere, he writes that Judaism needs to foster “new models for peace, equity, and justice” (p. 30) and urges Jews and others to emulate “Hillel’s peacemaking and love sharing” (p. 41). On 1:14, “If I am not for myself,” Rabbi Yanklowitz acknowledges that it is challenging to find “the proper balance between religious self-preservation and self-sacrifice” (p. 44). Of course, this means that each of us must “embrace doubt and reflection.” Nevertheless, Rabbi Yanklowitz contends that “doubt and reflection” cannot allow humanity to surrender to “paralysis” (pp. 50ff.) and he points out over and over again throughout the pages of his commentary how the resources of Jewish tradition can provide guidance and direction for modern persons.

Such insights, buttressed by a wide variety of voices, fill the pages of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and make it well worth study and reflection. For all of us who will have the privilege to read his commentary, we can only thank Rabbi Yanklowitz for the inspiration and uplift his book brings. The CCAR Press is to be applauded for providing this work to the public. It should become a staple text in synagogue and home, in classrooms and in community.

This is an excerpt of a book review for Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary that appeared in the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2019.  Rabbi David Ellenson is chancellor emeritus and former president of HUC-JIR. He is also former director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and professor Emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University.

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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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Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 5:15: On Wisdom

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.  

What is the purpose of learning? Is the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next a deep philosophical exercise? Is it a bureaucratic activity meant to reinforce a top-down understanding of history? Learning is many things at once: personal improvement, developing discipline, and learning to discern reality from fiction. There are many opinions about what constitutes the model student, but learning requires analytical skill and training the memory. Learning requires that students and teachers see life anew, with openness, but that we also return to restudy what’s familiar to strengthen our values.

There are four types of learners: (a) One who grasps quickly and forgets quickly, their gain is offset by their loss; (b) one who grasps slowly and forgets slowly, their loss is offset by their gain; (c) one who grasps quickly and forgets slowly, is wise; (d) one who grasps slowly and forgets quickly, this is a bad portion.

Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in The Social Contract, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” He says that l’homme sauvage—natural humanity, the species in its freest and least inhibited state—was replaced by l’homme civilise—enlightened and civilized humanity, which is concerned with ethics and morality. Over time, as humanity became more self-aware and controlled, we also became alienated from our natural selves and became stuck in a web of complex social conventions and conformist behavioral patterns. This has harmed human-human and human-Divine relationships. In addition, societal demands and distractions have become so great that it has become more difficult to do the work that we are here in the world to do—to actualize our unique gifts to bring light into the world wherever possible. We need to question the best allocation of our time. Should we spend an hour on social media or volunteer at a food bank? Do we take in a movie with friends or advocate for the rights of the vulnerable? While our obligations don’t have to be zero sum in nature, we should always be aware that we aren’t meant to be idle, especially in times of societal tumult. We have to act and be active. That is our obligation during troubled times.

But if our society is guided by comfortable, conflict-averse decision- making, how can we engage in the hard work to improve society? How can we even discover our own personal cause? We can view this process on both the physical and spiritual planes. Physically, we have unique talents and passions. Spiritually, we have unique callings toward our actualization.

Modernity led to the caging of the soul and some part of human potential. We cannot go back in time, but we must still find avenues to deepen insight, discovery, and freedom. To assist us properly on our path, we must seek the greatest wisdom in the world, which means that we should find teachers who understand and guide us. By finding the right balance of righteousness and wisdom, we grow intellectually into ourselves and develop love of learning and humanity, equally.

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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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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Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 3:19: On Freedom

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.  

One of the oldest existential questions that have vexed the minds of rational beings is the dialectic between free will and fate. Is humanity bound by a supernal force that dictates every action, or is the consciousness of the human mind the ultimate captain of moral decisions? It is a query that philosophers and theologians dedicate their lives to unraveling. The ancient Jewish Sages, too, pondered this.

Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with goodness, and everything depends on the majority of one’s actions.

In a turn toward age-old theological questions, this mishnah touches two divine characteristics: omniscience, the supposed all-knowing force, and benevolence, the force of pure and inherent good. One characteristic might contradict the other or counter a normative interpretation of the Divine.

So, two distinct problems are addressed in this passage. First, if God is all-knowing, how are humans truly free? The mishnah says that though God knows what humans will choose, humans are nevertheless free to make individual decisions. Jewish tradition is adamant about this spiritual paradox: humans are absolutely free, and God knows in advance what we will choose.

Second, God-as-judge and God-as-protector are in tension here; here, justice and mercy are presented as dual ends of the spectrum, though there is more substance present here on second glance. If God is a judge of truth and justice, how can God also be merciful, compassionate, and all-loving? Here, too, this paradox is true: God is both the God of truth and justice and the God of mercy, compassion, and love. That such paradoxes are unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved may be beside the point. The questions themselves are to drive us to strive toward the impossible peak of unambiguous truth about the ways of God and the universe. Our goal is to acquire as much knowledge, and as much hope, as we can and then to apply the values we discover to our ethical selves. When we speak of all people of the world “serving God,” we may, in a universalistic sense, mean that we’re all striving toward moral goodness, to emulate moral perfection.

We have an ethical imperative not just to realize our freedom but to expand it and actualize it. Abraham was told to depart from “your land, your birthplace, your father’s house” (Genesis 12:1)—that is, to liberate himself from the various pressures to conform. Each of us must be prepared to depart from our upbringing, break from conformity, and depart from the familiar. Warren Bennis, a twentieth-century thinker on leadership, writes, “By the time we reach puberty, the world has reached us and shaped us to greater extent than we realize. Our family, friends, and society in general have told us—by word and example—how to be. But people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be.” Embracing our freedom is an ethical imperative that requires us to regularly rethink all of our commitments.

Our negative emotions constitute another form of enslavement. Holding resentment is like holding on to a hot coal; waiting to throw it at your enemy, you burn yourself. Negative emotions, like hatred or bigotry, can be crippling. Our spiritual work, all the more imperative for activists who are often responding to forces of evil, tyranny, injustice, and oppression, is to transform those negative emotions to positive ends, while harnessing the energy and releasing the negativity.

The knowledge that we are free, while also realizing that God knows what we will choose, should inspire humility. This sense of humility doesn’t have to be paralyzing, nor should it impede us on our spiritual journeys. Rather, this is an empowering humility, which inspires courage. Our freedom is a gift to be actualized. In this mishnah, right after we are reminded that we are free, we are told that God will judge us compassionately. God will be gentle with us because we will strive to do our best with our freedom.

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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Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 2:20: On Time

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 mishnah is remarkable in the Jewish philosophical canon. In the economy of a single sentence, Rabbi Tarfon lays out a Jewish apothegm of a life dedicated to hard work in a hard world.

Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the task is abundant, the laborers are lazy, the wage is great, and the Master of the house is insistent.

A critical Jewish task is to become a person who values the remarkable nature of time. Every day, people rush from urgency to urgency because of feelings of deep responsibility. But it is a spiritual art to be in a state of rush, accomplishing as much as possible as effectively as possible, while also remaining focused and calm. We are divided, consumed by an overabundance of commitments, and yet we are to be present, focused, and attentive. We are to sprint, while remaining aware of every footfall. While we continue to act and lead, we also must reflect deeply about the nature of our leadership and our purpose in the world.

Our days are short. Our lives are busy. We have obligations to meet: work, family, health, recreation, and attending to our spiritual needs. Balancing these disparate aspects of life is difficult. But we must find balance; it is commanded of us. Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, in his eighteenth-century magnum opus on the cultivation of Jewish virtues, The Path of the Just, teaches:

Alacrity consists of two elements: one that relates to the period prior to the commencement of a deed, and the other that relates to the period that follows the commencement of a deed. The former means that prior to the commencement of a mitzvah a person must not delay [its performance]. Rather, when its time arrives, or when the opportunity [for its fulfillment] presents itself, or when it enters his mind, he must react speedily, without delay, to seize the mitzvah and to do it. He must not procrastinate at this time, for no danger is graver than this. Every new moment can bring with it some new hindrance to the fulfillment of the good deed.

Dionne Brand, a Canadian poet and essayist from Trinidad and Tobago, explains:

Revolutions do not happen outside of you, they happen in the vein, they change you and you change yourself, you wake up in the morning changing. You say this is the human being I want to be. You are making yourself for the future, and you do not even know the extent of it when you begin but you have a hint, a taste in your throat of the warm elixir of the possible.

While not every person is meant to be a revolutionary, taking on the mantle of leadership and creating local change are within reach for those who choose. Embracing this mission while “the day is short” means that we must “taste . . . the warm elixir of the possible.” Social change can happen quickly when a president signs a new law or when a new nation declares independence. Events can spiral in unintended directions at the behest of a small but vocal group. But spiritual and cultural changes take a long time to shift. Slavery was prohibited in America, but more than a century and a half later, we’re still dealing with the racial injustice that the practice of slavery set in motion.

To be sure, the fact that injustice continues to fester shows that the work to improve the world can never cease. We must engage deeply in the issues that affect countless people and propel the world toward justice.

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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Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 1:1: On Relationships

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.

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.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot: Moving Society Forward

One thing is certain. Our Reform congregants understand the concept of tikkun olam. They come to religious school with tzedakah in hand, participate in Mitzvah Day, and many attend local rallies such as the Women’s Marches and our teen-organized March for our Lives.  One thing is less certain. When asked which sacred texts ground their commitment to social justice, many congregants do not have a ready answer.

In his new book Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary from CCAR Press, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz inspires our communities to think more deeply about living ethically as individuals and as a society. While the six chapters of Pirkei Avot are traditionally read on the six Shabbat afternoons between Pesach and Shavuot – the richness of Yanklowitz’ commentary will take far longer than six Shabbat afternoons to ingest and savor.  His expansive work offers powerful teachings on the 129 mishnayot that make up Pirkei Avot — the most accessible tractate of our Mishnah. He offers an essay on each teaching, uncovering its timeless wisdom.

Yanklowitz’s book is scholarly and relevant.  He amplifies the single sentences of our ancient sages, weaving them together with wisdom from varied denominations and faiths and speaking to the countless daily opportunities we face for individual and collective ethical decision making. Yanklowitz relies heavily on mystical and philosophical texts, many of which are offered through his own English translation and most of which inspire action. On the notion of healing our world, he writes:

Tikkun ha-olam, repairing the world, hints at tikkun he-elem, repairing that which is concealed, whether from our thoughts or from our heart. Our job is not just to repair the world, but to make what is hidden visible and repair that, too. This includes the suffering of invisible people—those vulnerable people who go through life without the concern of the broader populace—while also combatting the pernicious and hidden forms of injustice, below-the-surface oppression, and scarcely seen brokenness that silently affect millions.” (p. 9)

Adding depth to the commentary, Yanklowitz uses the words of a broad range of present-day popular teachers and leaders. From weaving in Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg’s description of global human rights’ violations against women to his discussion on chilul HaShem, to sharing the teachings of the popular Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön’s insights on compassion, every chapter is replete with contemporary voices that bolster Pirkei Avot’s ancient and ageless instruction.

Yankowitz is an Orthodox rabbi, scholar, activist and powerful writer. His book makes it plainly clear that social justice is not just a liberal or Reform endeavor but a Jewish action and obligation incumbent on Jews across the denominational spectrum. The moral teachings that make up this profoundly important tractate of the Mishnah are meant to become a profoundly important part of our moral fiber.

This book is a valuable resource for any rabbi – from the Hillel rabbi who wants to share a text of Torah at his community meal, to the congregational rabbi who wants to add meaningful teachings to her Board or social justice committee meetings, to the preaching rabbi seeking ancient and modern gems for his sermon, to the contemplative rabbi who wants a new text for chavruta or daily personal reflection. It is the richest resource on Pirkei Avot I have encountered and a great addition to one’s rabbinic library.

Rabbi Yaklowitz sums the obligation of justice best. “We can address the messy outer work of the world only if we address the messy inner work in our lives.” (p. 420) Studying his commentary on Pirkei Avot, valuable mishnah by valuable mishnah, is a great path for us to take to move ourselves and our society forward.

Rabbi Judy Schindler is co-author, with Judy Seldin-Cohen, of Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America (CCAR Press, 2018).

Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  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.  Please be sure to check back on RavBlog starting this Friday, April 13, 2018.