Pirkei Avot Chapter 2: Mishna 5 - An Examination of Hillel and His Statements
Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers
Shiur #20: Poresh Min Ha-tzibbur
By Rav Moshe Taragin
The fifth Mishna of the second perek quotes a lengthy, seemingly unrelated series of statements in the name of Hillel. Some have suggested that this Hillel was the son of Rabban Gamliel and the grandson of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi, based upon an interesting Gemara in Bava Batra (83b) in which Hillel the grandson posed a question to his grandfather regarding land acquisition procedures. This opinion may be supported by our Mishna's placement: the first Mishna of the perek cites Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi's statements, followed by the second Mishna which cites Rabban Gamliel's ideas. Perhaps Rabbi himself, the author of Pirkei Avot, slotted the first mishnayot of the second perek with his own illustrious Torah lineage.
Rashi and the Rambam dispute this minority opinion and claim that these ideas were authored by Hillel Ha-zaken who lived much earlier than Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi. In contrast to the earlier mishnayot, the ENSUING mishnayot of the second perek cite statements of the earlier Hillel and many versions of Avot begin Mishna 6 - clearly Hillel Ha-zaken's statements - with the pronoun "he [also] said," corroborating the position of Rashi and the Rambam. Those who argue and maintain that Mishna 3 records statements by the later Hillel, while mishnayot 6-8 cite statements by the earlier one, are forced to adopt a version of Mishna 6 which begins with "Hillel Ha-zaken said…" clarifying that these mishnayot record the statements of a different Hillel.
I. Do not secede from the community
Hillel's initial statement warns against behavior which deviates from commonly accepted norms. Though the value of conformity has universal application, Chazal drew special attention to two very specific contexts. The Gemara in Ta'anit (11a) outlines appropriate behavior during times of national crisis. It specifically addresses an individual who may not be personally affected by the emergency and whose conduct appears unmindful the public situation. The Gemara describes a scene of two angels who descend, place their hands upon this person and pronounce, "As he did not commiserate with the public agony he will not merit to participate in its redemption." This ominous warning highlights the import of immersing in public crisis – practical participation as well as emotional identification. The aforementioned Gemara derives this ethic from Moshe who placed hard boulders under his outstretched hands during the war with Amalek. Though Moshe, engaged in prayer, was not involved in battle and was not exposed to threat of death, he refused to lay his arms upon a comfortable base. His story highlights the value of emotional identification: even though he was participating in, and directly contributing to, the war effort, he still labored to maintain emotional identification with public suffering.
In his comments to the Mishna, Rashi alludes to a different Gemara and a more abstract form of commiseration with national crisis. A well-known Gemara in Ta'anit (31b) announces that whoever does not mourn the destruction of Jerusalem will not behold its deliverance. Hillel not only recommended empathy with immediate public suffering, but also demanded broader historical identification.
A second specific scenario which Chazal highlighted is the public experience of tefilla. Tefilla with a minyan, though it provides opportunity for the recital of special passages, does not constitute a concretely different prayer experience. As the actual liturgy of prayer is similar - whether recited in public or private - some may question the 'superiority' of public prayer. The Gemara in Berakhot (8a) quotes Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who identified the experience of communal prayer as 'eit ratzon.' Rabbeinu Bachaye cites a different Gemara in Ta'anit (8a) which indicates that prayer offered in public is embraced by Hakadosh Barukh Hu even if it lacks the same fervor or focus that private tefilla may contain. The Gemara effectively refutes a possible decision to choose private prayer over minyan because it may be more focused or attentive. Ultimately, public prayer provides the greatest chance of acceptance. This sentiment is emphatically asserted by the Rambam in Hilkhot Tefilla (8;1) when he claims that public prayer is never rebuffed by Hakadosh Barukh Hu even if the group contains sinners. Even at a metaphysical level, public prayer is fundamentally different from private experience and carries a greater chance of being accepted.
One has to wonder whether Hillel's statement – even if applied to davening, conveys the metaphysical connotation of this form of tefilla. Tefilla be-tzibbur can be encouraged for many different reasons ranging from social - contributing to communal needs - to liturgical - enabling the recital of 'tzibbur-exclusive' passages - to existential - expanding tefilla to address public needs and thereby purifying it of its potentially selfish nature. Even if Hillel intended public prayer as the application of his statement not to secede from the community, it is questionable whether he intended the metaphysical consequences of this form of tefilla.
Though the commentaries to Avot associated Hillel's statement with two very specific areas, it is unquestionable that this phrase resonates with broader meaning. Undoubtedly, religious experience demands personal conviction and the courage to defy public pressure which may undermine either our faith or our obedience. Yet, just as important and perhaps more important is the ability to conform to public norms - obviously those which reflect and buttress our value system. A healthy degree of conformity is valuable at both a moral and practical level. Morally, it helps inhibit hubris or arrogance which, ironically, are often bred by religious ambition. Ambition, by nature, seduces us by whispering our own differences and unique qualities and potentials. Unrestrained, our 'noble' ambition may sometimes poison and lead us into the realm of egotism. A healthy membership in a community of others tempers our ambition with the recognition of other similarly gifted people who display traits which hopefully, we recognize as absent from our own personalities. Ideally, this serves as a hedge against uncontrolled egotism.
Practically, our membership in a society of co-worshippers assures a safety net of religious inspiration for the moments that our own enthusiasm wavers. At these stages, strong affiliation with community can be counted upon as a source for reinforcement of religious values and practices as well as an inspiration to continue participating in something which is larger than ourselves.
Consequently, given the value of balanced conformity to a community of healthy values, we should express this ethic in areas far beyond prayer and commiseration with crisis. It informs our manner of behavior, social interaction, religious posture, and so many other areas of public interaction. As a seminal value, it should and does factor in halakhic predicaments. Certain behavior may be sanctioned because it supports the ethic of conformity, even if it may encroach upon other lesser-valued ideals.