Founding Fathers

There is a common Jewish custom, that on Shabbat afternoons, between Passover and Shavuot, one studies a chapter of Ethics of Our Fathers. This Tractate of the Mishna contains succinct, ethical teaches from the most venerable sages. There are six Shabbats between the two holidays, and six chapters in Ethics, so it works out perfectly. Some continue this custom throughout the summer until Rosh Hashana.

In Hebrew, this volume of the Mishna is referred to simply as Avos, fathers. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to refer to this tractate as Ethics? Why is it called “Fathers”?

Numerous answers are given, including:

  1. The Mishna begins by recounting the transmission of the Torah, beginning with Moses;
  2. Avos contains moral teachings which help guide a person on the proper path. Anyone who guides another on the straight path, is considered to have made him; thus, the sages of the Mishna are considered our “fathers,” for they guide us in life;
  3. The ethical teachings in Avos are considered the source of all ethical teachings. Any sound ethical teaching, be it in another Torah text, or a secular one, are all ultimately derived from Avos. (Midrash Shmuel, Rabbi Shmuel d’Ouzida of Venice).

The first Mishna lists the first five steps in the transmission of the Torah from Mt. Sinai, beginning, of course, with Moses. Why is it important – in an ethical work – to list where and how the information got to us?

One may conjecture, that this teaches us that it is important to know your sources. Sometimes, who you heard something from may be as important as what you heard.

Yet, being that the purpose of Avos is to guide us on the proper path in life, I hereby suggest that the list of names is no mere list, but is, in and of itself, a directive in life.

First, the Mishna:

Moses received the Torah from Mt. Sinai, and he passed it on to Joshua; Joshua passed it to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly.

MOSES – Amongst his many great, life accomplishments, Moses is perhaps most famous as, “the most humble man to ever live” (Numbers 12:3). Yet, at the same time, he was considered a King (Deut. 33:5). In order to be able to properly learn and internalize the Torah, one needs to emulate Moses: Recognize that you are a “king,” in the sense that you have great strengths and with hard work can accomplish whatever you need to, yet at the same time, be humble, knowing that as much of the Torah as you understand, there is always more (qualitatively and quantitatively).

JOSHUA – Concerning Joshua, it says, “He never departed the tent” (Leviticus 33:11). This represents the Tent of Torah, for his task was to be completely engaged in Torah study alone. Even someone who does not have the luxury of many hours of daily Torah study, should nevertheless approach it like Joshua: Even if it’s only 10 minutes per day, make it a real ten minutes. Don’t answer your cell phone, remove all distractions, and step into the “tent.” Be completely given over to the Torah you are studying, even if only for a short while. This will guarantee you success in your studies.

ELDERS – The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) teaches that the Hebrew word for Elder, zaken, is actually a compound word, of sorts, standing for “One who has acquired wisdom.” Torah is something to acquire, and this can only be done with great effort. To acquire something means to make it your own. After studying a passage, one should first repeat it over verbally to another (or, as the law of the Four Questions of the Haggadah goes, that if one conducts a Seder alone, one asks oneself the Four Questions!), think it over in one’s mind, and ask oneself, what does it mean to me?

PROPHETS – When one studies Torah, one requires a certain amount of help from Above, to come to the proper conclusions. The Prophets represent that one should pray for help in clear understanding of the text.

MEN OF THE GREAT ASSEMBLY – The task of the Men of the Great Assembly was to make a streamlined plan of action. This was expressed by fixing the liturgy of the prayer and blessings. Thus, this final stage in the transmission of the Torah teaches us that after engaging in Torah study while taking into account the first four “fathers” mentioned above, one needs to ensure that everything comes down into practical action.

Here we have a novel reading of the opening Mishna of Avos. It is no longer just a list of names, but a guide for a life of Torah study. Enjoy!