Shiur #06: Chapter Six

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers


By Rav Moshe Taragin

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Dedicated in honor of Rabbi Ronnie and Yael Ziegler by Michael Merdinger and Eliana Megerman

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Shiur #06: Chapter Six

The sixth perek of Pirkei Avot is not an organic part of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi's original redaction. The sixth chapter contains a series of statements celebrating the study of Torah, its salutary impact upon Man and the type of effort which must be harnessed to acquire Torah. It originated as a 'beraita' (non-canonized Tanaittic passage) containing multiple authors. Customarily, the five original sections of Pirkei Avot were, and are, recited during the intervening weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. As there are typically six weeks, the final Shabbat of this period - immediately prior to Shavuot - did not enjoy a 'natural' perek of the original five chapters. To rectify this imbalance, Rabbi Meir's beraita was 'grafted' onto the original five chapters, creating a six-chapter series. Its veneration of Torah study made it the perfect complement to pre-Shavuot planning.

Characteristically, the Maharal viewed the numerical enumeration of chapters as connotive. The first five chapters parallel the five books of Torah she'bikhtav, while the final chapter, corresponding to Torah she'ba'alpeh, begins by praising the Sages and reinforcing their authority: "The Rabbis asserted... Blessed is God who selected them and chose their teachings."

I. Rebbi Meir's list of Torah attributes:

The perek commences with a very famous list of moral and personal traits which Torah study is meant to induce. "Whoever studies Torah lishma [for its own sake] merits many features and, in addition, his study warrants the maintenance of our universe. He is referred to as a friend, an adored personality, a lover of God, etc." This comprehensive list of approximately twenty-nine virtues is probably unique in its scope, as it more or less covers the entire gamut of positive character traits. This all-encompassing virtue of Torah learning raises - and, historically, raised - an interesting dilemma pertaining to the allocation of study time. The early part of the 18th century witnessed the evolution of the Mussar movement. I refer to it as an evolution, rather than a revolution, because its founders saw themselves as reviving a neglected art, rather than introducing a novel one. Founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, it encouraged the diversion of resources from 'pure' Torah study to texts and practices which would more directly improve moral character and personal piety. This approach dramatically challenged the conventional model of prioritizing Torah study above all other pursuits. Much of the 'Mussar activity' indeed included studying morally and religiously 'compelling' sections of Torah, but it also incorporated many other exercises which might reroute potential study time. At first, the movement met with lukewarm resistance, and at certain points, it even evoked hostile opposition. Much of the dissent was based upon the premise of Rabbi Meir's statement. Indeed, religious development must incorporate improved devotion and heightened personal ethics. However, these developments stem directly from Torah study itself. Immersion in Torah study brings a person nearer to Hashem, and that very dynamic both cleanses and ennobles the religious personality. Doesn't Rebbi Meir already promise the personal, inspiring effects of Torah study? Couldn't and shouldn't the lofty personal aims of 'Mussar' be drawn more directly from the wellspring of Torah?? Redirecting potential Torah resources to 'frontal' development of piety would forfeit the very instrument best suited for the maturation of that piety. Mussar was seen, at best, as superfluous, and, at worst, as a waste of time.

The Mussar movement's response stemmed from the very language of Rabbi Meir's preamble. Indeed, Torah study can and should prompt the delineated values. But it will effect this development only if studied properly - LISHMA (see below) - and not if studied improperly or for ulterior motives. Previous generations, it was argued, did not require the outright study or practice of Mussar, for their Torah study was both wholesome and unwavering. The entire moral package described by Rabbi Meir was delivered solely through immersion in the field of Torah - both 'morally sensitive' sections as well as purely technically or legal ones. However, subsequent spiritual decline had diminished or eliminated the power of abstract Torah study to morally edify or personally inspire. The famed student of the Ari Ha-kadosh - Rav Chayim Vital - already lamented the dearth of properly motivated Torah study in his generation. He cited the absence of Rabbi Meir's moral package as evidence that unadulterated Torah study had, already in his day, become rare. Sensing the continuing deterioration, the ba'alei ha-Mussar introduced a new horizon of religious activity to more assuredly inspire this development.

Historically, Mussar became mainstreamed and has, to varying degrees, deeply impacted the Torah world. One doesn't have to look further than the great Slobodka yeshiva, and its spiritual steward - Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (a third generation Mussar proponent) - to appreciate its impact. Still, the degree of investment in non-Torah moral instruction, and in non-Torah spiritual experience, remains a question which preoccupies and should preoccupy any religious conscience.

II. Torah Lishma

As mentioned earlier, Rabbi Meir encouraged 'pure' Torah study - lishma - as the trigger for moral development. This phrase, used very often by Chazal (though, interestingly enough, absent from the Tanakh), has typically received three interpretations. A full description of these translations is provided by Rabbi Norman Lamm, in his work entitled "Torah Lishma," and this shiur merely intends to summarize and comment upon his mapping of the various sources. Lishma is taken by some to refer to the functional purpose of Torah study - to enable mitzva performance and halakhic observance. This meaning is particularly apparent in Rava's statement in Berakhot (17a), recognizing in the pasuk 'Resihit chokhma yirat Hashem seikhel tov le-khol OSEIHEM' ('Fear of God is the root of wisdom, a wise method for those who PERFORM them') a mandate for Torah study aimed at stirring greater observance. Chazal had some particularly harsh comments regarding severing Torah study from intent to adhere to mitzvot. Several texts (Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:2; Sifra, Bechukotai) comment that it would be better if such a 'distorter' had never seen the light of day. Normatively, Torah study cannot excuse the performance of mitzvot. The rule of 'osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva' generally absolves a person dutifully fulfilling a prior mitzva from the performance of a newly presented one. For example, an individual attending to a lost item is excused from delivering tzedaka. Ironically, this exemption clause does not apply to someone studying Torah (see Shabbat 11a and Yerushalmi Berakhot, perek 4), even though Torah study is evaluated as the supreme mitzva. To justify this anomaly, many have commented that if Torah study were employed as an exemption from mitzva performance, it would lose its lishma quality. Absolving mitzva observance because of Torah study would render the latter bereft of 'intent to fulfill' and empty Torah study of its lishma content. Therefore, Torah study cannot come at the expense of mitzva fulfillment.

A second strain of the term lishma refers to the pious motive to serve and glorify Hashem. Torah study, and mitzva observance in general - if performed unselfishly, out of true love of God - is depicted as the highest form of religious consciousness (see shiur #1, pertaining to the mishna of Antigonus Ish Sokho) and designated as 'lishma.'As stated in a previous shiur, the Rambam amplifies the notion of 'service out of love' as the highest religious attainment, superior to service motivated by any other ulterior motive. He elaborates on this theme in several locations (Commentary to the Mishna at end of Makkot, Avot 1:3, and Sanhedrin, chapter 10; Mishna Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva, chapter 10), and actually designates this type of religious behavior as 'lishma.' Meaning, whoever engages in it neither out of fear nor in order to receive reward, but solely due to his love of God, is engaging LISHMA. (It should be noted that Rabbi Lamm draws attention to further mystical definitions of lishma (see pages 214-220), but these views lie beyond the purview of this shiur).

The most dramatic rendering of lishma, of course, was provided by the founding father of modern yeshivot - Rav Chayim Voloziner. In his seminal work "Nefesh Ha-chayim," he confronts the contemporary practice of studying Torah to achieve deveikut (higher clinging to God). He cites several proofs disputing deveikut as the highest religious achievement. Chief among these proofs is the midrash which records David Ha-melekh's request of Hashem that his Tehillim recital would be valued equivalent to his study of Torah legalities. Since the midrash does not record Hashem's answer, Rav Chayim assumes that David's request was denied. Had Torah study been viewed as an instrument to deveikut, Tehillim chanting - presumably a highly 'devotional' experience - should have been equally accredited.

Having spurned this notion, Rav Chayim develops a bold theory: LISHMA connotes the study of Torah for the very sake of Torah study - to acquire more knowledge of God's will. Since Torah is the closest approximation, in human terms, of the Divine essence, its successful study best mediates the relationship between man and Hashem. The purest motive for Torah study, by definition, must be internal - to become more adept in its logic and more knowledgeable of its vastness. As the study of Torah demands undisturbed focus and exhaustive mental energy, any motive or thought other than those which are dedicated to the understanding of Torah become INHIBITIVE to Torah lishma. Expending mental and emotional energy upon the devotional consequences of Torah study disrupts the process of Torah lishma and distances a person from, rather than advancing him toward, Hashem. Precedent for this view can be found in the Rosh's commentary to Nedarim (62a), where he describes Torah lishma as the thought that "I must study Torah for Torah, so that I should understand Torah..."

This view has had profound impact upon the modern Yeshiva movement, and has helped shaped a curriculum which is almost exclusively dominated by Torah study; attempts to diversify the curriculum have met with stiff opposition (see the above discussion about the Mussar movement). The experiences of the past two centuries (since the publication of Nefesh Ha-chayim) have convinced most that the program of Rav Chayim - though idyllic - may not practically be attained. The danger of eschewing broader spiritual activity for the sake of Torah study runs the risk that imperfect study may not allow the delivery and development of the religious package delineated in our mishna and assumed by Rav Chayim. To varying degrees, modern Torah study has witnessed a process of diversification, but one which still assigns Torah study not just as the highest ethic, but also the practice which can, optimally, facilitate a comprehensive religious development.