First Pirkei Avot Post During Counting of the Omer
What I want to do right now, since we are in the period between Passover and Shavuot, is to follow the tradition of studying one of the six chapters of Pirkei Avot, The Sayings of The Fathers, each week of this period. It’s one of the richest, most universally-accepted treasure troves of wisdom we have. Everybody, no matter what their background, can appreciate The Sayings of The Fathers.
It’s a collection of the sayings of the Sages during a certain period of Jewish history. Each Sage would contribute one, two or three sentences, reflecting their thoughts or their mantra, their perspective on life. They are beautiful sayings, so what I’d like to do now is to share the highlights of each of the chapters traditionally studied each week.
So, let’s begin…
The Sages say, “Acquire for yourselves a friend.” This phrase begs interpretation. In Hebrew, the word used for “acquire” here is usually used to express monetary acquiring, or purchasing. So, it could be translated, “Purchase for yourselves a friend.” That’s one take on the word, which can be explained this way – the value of a good friend is beyond value. A good friend is worth, if you had to do it, payment for their time. Basically, what you can share with a friend, you can share with no other, which makes it priceless.
One of the most outstanding examples in my life is an incredible friendship I had for 14 years, and we had a mastermind partnership together. We would share each other’s dilemmas, and take turns counseling each other. Doing so, we came up with a huge database of tools, which we have both been using, up until today. That’s what came from such a friendship because we went straight to the heart of what a friendship is all about.
Another way to read these words, “Acquire for yourself a friend,” can be derived from the spelling of the Hebrew word for “acquire.” It’s spelled the same as the word for “pen.” So, another way of reading this phrase is, “Make your pen your friend.” Which, of course, means to write stuff down so you won’t forget it.
When you’re walking through life, and invariably amassing life’s wisdom as you go, the lessons and the treasures, you don’t want to lose track of them. There are so many gems, there’s so much good stuff, and you want to acquire as much as possible and keep it. Like a kid in a candy store, you want to grab as much as you can, in your mouth and in your pockets to take with you.
So, “Make your pen your friend” means you want to keep what you learn and what comes to you in writing. And, the more you write, the more you’ll see you need to write. That’s my experience. Becoming an obsessive writer is a wonderful thing.
The next saying I want to comment on is this – “We should judge everybody favorably.” It speaks for itself, but there are deeper meanings, too. In Torah, we have a mitzvah to judge others as being “in the right,” regardless of our opinion. We want to look at people favorably.
We look at people favorably when we receive them favorably with a big smile, and judging them favorably. When they see us accepting them and treating them favorably, then they will be favorable toward us. See them with a good eye and they will be good, which is also good advice for raising children.
The next saying is, “I found nothing better for the body than silence.” Note that this doesn’t say, “better for the soul,” it says “better for the body.” From our Sages in other sources we learn that the way to acquire wisdom is to be a silent person. If a person is talking all the time, they are never going to learn. The greatest Sages learned the art of listening, and they knew that silence was a very pristine, holy place. The more silent you are, the more receptive you’ll be.
That kind of silence is good for the soul; it’s good for wisdom for the soul.
But we have a very loud, annoying, bodily voice inside us. And it’s talking without us even realizing what it’s saying. And it’s telling us to do a bunch of stuff that’s not good for us, not good for our body. But if we choose to be quiet, and to listen to what the body is saying, on both the good side and the bad side, we could probably avoid most doctors and medical care. Our body poised and ready to teach us what tastes good, what is good for us, and whether we are healthy or not. If we need to know how to get well we need to listen to the body.
We also need to listen to the spiritual body, which helps us distinguish between messages that are good for the body but not for the soul. Silence will help us distinguish between the two and take the right path between them.
Another saying… Actually, there are a number of sayings that teach us about not chasing. The general idea is when you don’t chase things, or honor, or money, or fame or glory, those things will chase you instead. If you want to be a person who is honorable, run away from honor. Then honor will chase you. If you want to be a person who is rich, run away from wealth, and the wealth will chase you. If you want to be a person who is popular, run away from popularity, and popularity will chase you.
Our personal experiences bear this out, especially for teenagers who are in the game of people-chasing a lot. But then there are a lot of older people chasing money, too. This is a golden rule, one of the gems of our Sages – When you run away, things and people will chase after you.
Another saying is, “Make yourself a Rav.” In Hebrew, “rav” can be loosely translated as “mentor.” So, this saying means, “Get yourself a mentor.” The root word “rav” in Hebrew means “a lot,” which adds to our understanding. We need to get mentors who have a lot of life experience, not only in a particular area, but it a wide variety of life experiences.
It can also mean, “Make yourself a mentor.” You can be a mentor for yourself, and that includes making every friend you have in the world a mentor for you. You can begin to relate to people as wellsprings of spiritual and intellectual knowledge. When you make everyone a mentor, they will be very happy to guide you.
A famous saying from Pirkei Avot is, “If I’m not for myself, then who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, then who am I?” Let’s take a look at this saying, although the plain meaning is simply profound – If I don’t take care of myself, then I’ll have to depend on other people. But if I connect to myself, then I will profoundly be able to connect to other people. And if I’m only for myself, then, who am I? I am simply a selfish kind of person.
There’s a balance we need to strike in this life, and that’s what our Sages are telling us about. Yes, you need to connect to who you are, but then you need to channel it to others.
And there’s a continuation of the same saying which says, “If not now, then when?” Again, the simple meaning of this saying is profound. It means we should avoid the normal, human tendency to be upset about the past and to worry about the future, which means we are not living here and now. Our Sages are telling us to understand that if we’re only putting attention on the past and the future, we’ll never be in the “now.” We’ll miss it. In actuality, life is all about the “now.” This is a plug for being both mindful and present as well.
Our Sages say, “You should love Shalom, and you should chase after it. This has nothing to do with politics here, it’s about Shalom, which is peace in the G-dly sense, or the ability to make peace with paradox. It’s about making peace with things that normally cannot be made peace with. We should seek to make peace with things we cannot normally bridge ourselves to, which includes making peace at home, between husband and wife, as well as between ourselves and other people.
It’s not enough to just be a person who loves peace. We have to be proactive and chase after it, in order to find peace where it is normally not found.
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