Perek 1, Mishna 1
Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and handed it down to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; the Prophets handed it down to the Men of the Great Assembly. The latter said three things: Be cautious in judgement, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Law.
I) The Chain of Transmission of the Torah
Avot begins in a way many commentators have found odd, by saying that Mosheh received the Torah "from Sinai, gave it to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it to the Members of the Great Assembly." Maharal asks three questions noted by other commentators as well:
1) Why is the tractate called Avot?
2) Why doesn't the Mishnah say Mosheh received the Torah from God, rather than from Sinai?
3) Why is there a verb for Mosheh receiving, giving to Yehoshua, and then for the Prophets giving it to the Members of the Great Assembly, but no verb for Yehoshua giving the Torah to the Elders or for the Elders giving it to the Prophets?
Maharal also asks why other Torah leaders -- such as Elazar the son of Aharon, David or Shlomo -- are not mentioned, and why the Prophets are mentioned separately from the Elders. Since prophets may not use their prophetic powers to determine Halakhah, their status as prophets should be irrelevant to their place in the chain of tradition.
1) To begin at the beginning, Maharal explains the name "Avot" as referring to fathers' generally educating their children through mussar (moral instruction), telling the child what not to do, ordering them to perform certain actions, disciplining them when they do not live up to reasonable standards, etc. The dicta recorded here are the mussar of "avot ha-olam," the "fathers" of the world, meaning the Sages.
2) The Mishnah refers to Sinai for two reasons. First, saying that Mosheh received the Torah from God would have implied that the two (God and Mosheh) had a relationship (as Moshe giving the Torah to Yehoshua does indeed indicate). In fact, though, a verse in the Torah stresses the lack of a real interaction. When the Torah describes Mosheh's experience of prophecy, it says he heard the Voice "midabber elav," which means speaking to him, but the Torah uses a reflexive form of the verb, instead of the simpler "medabber elav." Rashi cites the traditional interpretation that God did not actually speak to Mosheh, but rather that God spoke, and Moshe was privy to those words, from which he understood God's commands. Hence, the Mishnah refers to Sinai to forestall a misimpression about Mosheh's relationship with God.
Second, Maharal suggests that the mountain itself facilitated Moshe's ability to absorb Torah, based on the Torah's referring to the mountain as "Har haEloqim, the Mountain of God" and Moshe being called "Ish haEloqim, the man of God." Literally, Eloqim is simply a name of God, so the similarity is insignificant. Maharal does not elaborate the point, but I believe he is assuming that the appellations indicate the aspect of God to which both Sinai and Mosheh were best able to relate. In receiving the Torah on Sinai, then, Mosheh was in an environment that was hospitable to his way of understanding God.
An aside: While Judaism believes in a uniquely unitary God, in human parlance we experience that Being in different ways. Reflecting our multiple experience, we attach different names to different moments of encounter with God. For example, the Midrash often assumes that references to God using the four-letter Name (YKVK) refer to the Middat haRahamim (the Divine Attribute of Mercy), while Eloqim refers to Din, the Attribute of Justice. This does not mean that God in fact has separate qualities, but rather that we experience God differently in different circumstances. (At least, that's how Rambam would have it; kabbalists might come closer to ascribing a reality to the various middot of God, but that's not our issue here.) In commenting that Sinai was Har haEloqim and Mosheh was Ish haEloqim, Maharal seems to be pointing out that they related to God in similar fashion. That commonality, Maharal suggests, made the transmission more complete than it might have been elsewhere.
Interestingly, Maharal has just made it clear that a) he does not believe that Mosheh managed to get all of the Torah, and b) that the "personality" of the mountain and of Mosheh interacted in the way the transmission worked. He has also rendered God much more removed from the process than we ordinarily imagine. After that first clause in the Mishnah, then, Maharal has already highlighted the element of relationship that is part of the teacher-student interaction, and has registered his assumption that people learn better if the environment reflects their particular tendencies or proclivities. This would mean, educationally, that matching the environment to the student is crucial not just for the student's happiness, but really for the success of the educational endeavor as a whole.
3) A word on the rebbe-talmid (master-disciple) relationship. Shlomo Feder told me of a rebbe who began a new school year with an impassioned speech about the sacredness of the relationship between a rebbe and his talmidim (students). He proclaimed that this relationship was not simply academic, or text-based, but a true bond forged between the two, etc. After delivering the words of encouragement, he went around the room calling the roll. With the third or fourth student, the conversation went like this: "So-and-so!" "Here, Rebbe." "Tell me, where were you for shiur last year?" "Right here, Rebbe."
Qibbel, the verb for "to receive," indicates to Maharal an incomplete transmission -- it was a reception according to Mosheh's abilities, rather than a true transmission. After Mosheh, until Anshei Kenesset haGedolah (Members of the Great Assembly), the reception was perfect (in the case of the first generation, because of the relationship between Mosheh and Yehoshua -- Yehoshua managed to get it all because of his dedication and his close relationship with his teacher). Elazar the son of Aharon got much of the Torah, but he did not make the effort to create a relationship with Mosheh that Yehoshua did. (This explains the Talmudic statement that Mosheh was like the sun and Yehoshua the moon -- Yehoshua subordinated himself so completely to his teacher, that his knowledge of Torah completely reflected his teacher's, with little or no input of his own.)
The stress on the transmission being a result of relationship (between Mosheh and Sinai, Moshe and Yehoshua) also explains the progression from Elders to Prophets to Members of the Great Assembly, since each group was slightly inferior to the group that came before. The Elders, paragons of wisdom, could connect with Yehoshua, the leader of their generation. The Prophets, however, were a step below that, so they could only relate to the Elders.
Maharal deduces the Prophets' inferiority to the Elders from a Talmudic saying that "Hakham adif mi-navi, a sage is better, or more authoritative, than a prophet." In Maharal's reading, that means that a prophet generally has some Torah knowledge, but not as much as an elder. Note that Rambam understood that same Talmudic statement only as a ruling on how to decide disputes where a group of prophets disagree about an issue of Torah with a group of Sages. If the prophet claimed that his prophetic knowledge led to his halakhic conclusion, then we apply the rule that a sage outweighs a prophet.
One of the prerequisites for prophecy, according to Rambam, was a high level of Torah knowledge. (In fact, Rashba, a late 13th century leader of Spanish Jewry, student of Ramban and Rabbenu Yonah, once ruled that a supposed prophet in his time, known as the Prophet of Avila, could not be a true prophet because of his lack of knowledge of, or sophistication in, Torah.)
Maharal has instead taken the comparison of prophets and Sages as a general statement -- that Sages are superior to Prophets in Torah knowledge. Assuming Maharal was right, it suggests that the qualities of a sage differ from those of a prophet, and that the most successful sages are not likely to be prophets. Rambam clearly disagrees, and tradition often assumes that the Prophets were the Torah leaders of their generation.
From the prophets, the Torah went to the Members of the Great Assembly, who were not as great scholars as the Prophets, but were of a high level of holiness (the gemara says that it was in their time that the inclination towards idol worship was destroyed). Each stage, in other words, had some meaning aside from the bare fact of its members leading the endeavor of Torah study in their generation. David and Shlomo -- who were Torah leaders, but not a meaningfully separate group in terms of the transmission of Torah -- were therefore left out.
II) The Sayings of the Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah
After the brief review of the transmission of Torah, the Mishnah mentions that Anshei Kenesset haGedolah "said" three things: a) Be temperate in judgement, b) Ha'amidu (make or establish) many students, and c) Make seyagim, rules that protect people from transgressing the Torah. Maharal asks the obvious question: Why does the Mishnah record these three things? (Presumably, Anshei Kenesset haGedolah said more than three things in their collected lifetimes.) He offers several answers, none of which he favors over the others (which will happen often).
First, he suggests that Anshei Kenesset haGedolah were working to rectify the three main failings of their generation, in din (justice), in Torah (which students help with), and in mitsvot (the seyagim, the protective ordinances, help with that). Or, the three pieces of advice refer to three segments of society, gedolim (those with Torah knowledge), talmidim (students), and regular people. Gedolim, despite their accomplishments, still always need to work on their abilities to think, which Maharal refers to as sevara; by taking time, being "matun," a gadol can improve his ways of thinking, his sevarot. Students need to be helped in their growth in Torah study, so a teacher helps by being "ma'amid" them. Finally, the ordinary people, who are not deeply involved in Torah study, need to work on their mitsvah observance.
Note the tiers of society in Maharal's world (he has others, but this is a particularly suggestive one): gedolim, talmidim, and ordinary people, whose lives focus on mitsvah observance. If you recall from the introduction that Maharal had cited the gemara's statement that mitsvot protect us from the evil impulse only while we perform them, but Torah protects even after having studied it, we begin to get a picture of Maharal's priorities.
A third scenario for the Mishnah: all three of Anshei Kenesset haGedolah's statements could refer to fostering wisdom, which has three parts: hokhmah, binah, and da'at (incidentally, the three parts of the acronym HaBad). Temperateness helps insure correct thought, students help with pilpul, which here is used in to mean reaching correct conclusions about how to apply Torah principles to novel situations, and seyagim help protect against pitfalls that loom due to a lack of knowledge. In this version of the Mishnah, the three statements function differently from each other -- while temperate judgement and discussion with students help improve one's sevara and pilpul, the seyag is simply protective, helping people avoid negative consequences of a lack of knowledge.
The two last answers Maharal gives are the ones that bring out themes we'll see again and therefore the most interesting to us. First, Maharal suggests that each of these qualities helps people whose lives are mixed with the physical; temperance, students, and protective ordinances help control our physical side. Until the time of Anshei Kenesset haGedolah, all the groups of people were at a higher plane, so that their intellects were uncontaminated by the physical.
I stress this answer not because I find it more compelling than the others, but because it transforms an innocent Mishnaic statement into a theme we know is close to Maharal's heart -- the need to control the physical in order to succeed spiritually, intellectually, and ethically. Note also that Maharal changed his assumptions in this explanation: before, all of his explanations assumed that the three characteristics were addressed to different problems or different groups of people. In this answer, though, he accepts the three clauses as all helping with one problem.
Maharal's last answer leads him to another significant comment regarding Avot in general. He suggests that each quality recommended by Anshei Kenesset haGedolah referred to a different segment of Torah. For mishpatim, laws whose reason is fairly clear, a little patience should lead to a full understanding of the reason underlying the mitsvah. For mitsvot (by which Maharal apparently means commandments whose reason is not eminently clear, but which can be deduced with a little effort), a deeper insight (pilpul, which students help achieve) will elicit the needed explanation. With huqim, commandments whose reasons are impenetrable, people just need the obedience and protection of seyagim.
Note here that Maharal believes that huqim means the reason for the commandment is completely impenetrable. At the end of his Moreh Nevukhim, Rambam spends over twenty chapters carefully showing that there is a deducible reason for every mitsvah in the Torah. Maharal's classification thus differs from Rambam's.
Maharal adds to this last explanation the note that in this view, the Mishnah is referring to two opposites and a middle option -- huqqim have no reason, mishpatim have a clear one, and mitsvot have a discoverable one. So, too, the advice of the Mishnah is to perform proper din, an obligation, to make a protective fence around the Torah, not at all an obligation, and to create students, which is not an obligation but furthers the cause of Torah. [Note that Maharal's claim that seyagim are not at all obligatory seems to counter the Talmudic derivation from a verse in the Torah that we must "Asu mishmeret le-mishmarti," make a protection for God's treasure, meaning the Sages are obligated to make seyagim.] Maharal often tends to see a group of three as presenting two opposites and a middle option.
Let us review what we have seen. Maharal, in this first Mishnah, outlined his view of the transmission of the Torah. In that discussion, as well, he focused on the relationship between the teacher, student, and the place of study in producing a maximal experience. He also said that Mosheh got as much of the Torah (or Divine knowledge) as he could, with the fact that Sinai's shared his Eloqim focus helping with Mosheh's absorption.
He also offered several explanations of the three pieces of advice of the Anshei Kenesset haGedolah, most viewing the three as addressed to different groups or at least very different problems. The second to last one returned to the theme of controlling the physical for the sake of true intellectual/spiritual success, while the final answer introduced Maharal's view that groups of three indicate two extremes and a middle option. We will see all of these ideas in weeks to come.