Here are the sayings from Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of Our Fathers, that resonate with me:
The first one concerns what wisdom looks like, in its proper form. It advises never to interrupt someone who is speaking, whether you agree with what they are saying or not. Even if you have an opinion, and agree or disagree, let them finish, let them say what they will.
A wise person understands that even though you may be able to predict what they’re going to say, you want to give them a full expression. That will also give you a little bit of time to contemplate. Especially when you’re listening to someone who’s wisdom is greater than your own, don’t pipe up every few seconds. If you have a question, then ask it. But first, hear what they have to say, and give them respect.
Also, don’t reply instantly. Take a minute and think about what they are saying. I think we can identify many issues in our personal lives, historical lives and Biblical stories which came about because people replied too hastily and don’t think about the consequences of their words.
When a wise person doesn’t know something they say, “I don’t know,” or, “I have not heard.” They need to get used to saying those things when necessary, because it is another way of the wise.
A person should have the humility to admit the truth. If you messed up and said something wrong, something bad have the decency to admit it. Be connected to truth, not ego. That’s the first thing I want to share.
The second thing I want to share is just a few words, but it conveys a very powerful message about giving, and there are givers, takers and people in the middle.
The giver is a person who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” That means, I’m interested in giving, so if I have something, I want to share it with you. But if you have something, you don’t need to share it with me. I don’t need your gifts. I want you to keep it.
The taker, on the other opposite side, is probably someone who is very selfish. That person says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.” It’s sort of like the Mafia… “I got my own thing, and what you’ve got, I’m going to take that, too.” So, obviously that is not the good way.
The person in the middle says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” That can be ok, or it can be corrupt, because rather than trying to be a giver and focusing on others, the person is essentially saying, “You do your thing, I’ll do my thing and it will be ok as long as you don’t hurt each other.” This is not really the best philosophy in the world. We have a better one, which is to give, and to help other people have what they are missing.
My next saying is this – A person who is hard to anger and easy to pacify is called a Hasid, or Chasid. This person is calm because he does things beyond the letter of the law, beyond what’s expected of him. Although they are justified in feeling anger when they or their loved ones have been hurt unjustly, nevertheless, because they love G-d and want to live beyond the letter of the law, the world and the people of the world, they are always going to look for an empowering factor in their interaction with another person instead of getting angry.
Even when a Chasid gets angry, for whatever reason, they are easy to pacify, because their natural place is to be a Chasid, a person who is a giver.
The next saying is this – Love that is dependent on some external factor has a catch, which is that when that external factor goes away, the love goes away. The love that is not dependent on anything will last forever. It will make it through thick and thin. This is a huge lesson, because it’s very hard to love people altruistically. People normally love because there are benefits involved. It may be good for them, or they might just love to love, the feeling of it, the attention of it. But to really love in that way does not depend on the way that person acts towards you. That love will conquer all, and it will last forever.
A similar, but somewhat different statement our Sages make is this – an argument that is not for G-d’s sake will not stand the test of time. The two sides will both dissipate.
But an argument in which both sides are doing it for G-d, and even if one side is ruled to be pertinent in a certain time and place, and the other side is not, both sides are called by our Sages, “the words of the living G-d,” and they will have pertinence always, in all ways. That’s an important truth about an altruistic, non-dependent way of seeing both sides of the picture.
Here’s the next one – A person who is a meritor of the multitudes, in other words, what they do with their life is in order to lift up many, many people, and it’s not just a personal, selfish intention, that person is going to be protected from sin and from failure in their lifetime. It’s sort of measure-for-measure, because they are helping a lot of people so they should be helped as well.
G-d is saying to that person, so to speak, “You’re doing it for my kid? Then I will do it for you, and I will keep you from stumbling also.” Let’s say that person does fall into sin, and they would have to go into purgatory or some other horrible post-life situation, but one of their students or a person they’ve helped in this world has made it to the Garden of Eden… how does that look? The teacher is downstairs and the student is upstairs. That situation might provide a ticket for the teacher to get out, meaning he would be protected.
Here’s the next one – One of our Sages, a righteous convert named Ben Bagbag, said, “Turn it around and turn it around because everything is in it,” referring to Torah. This means that when you go deep, deep inside of Torah you find that G-d looked at Torah and created the world. Which means everything in the world is contained in Torah, but you have to know how to fish it out and how to identify all of reality, including its source inside of Torah.
To do that, you have to turn it around and turn it around. Probably the reason a convert picked up on that truth more than someone who was not a convert is because they’ve been there. They have been on the other side and they’ve seen what reality is all about. When they came into Torah they started to feel, “wow, this is a book which is basically a guide to all of reality.” That’s the kind of person who can make a statement like this one, and keep it as a mantra for his life.
Another convert said something very profound, too. He said, “According to the sorrow or the suffering will be the reward.” In this world, in the next world or wherever. There is a justice system implanted in life, so if a person is hurt, they will be compensated in one way or another. If they suffered trying to make good things happen they will be rewarded. That’s a deep insight also, as to the Divine running the world.
These thoughts are from the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos, Sayings of the Fathers:
The first one is a question. Our Sages ask, “Who is the wise person, the rich person, the honored person and the hero person?”
The wise person is one who is willing to learn from anybody.
The rich person is not the one who has a lot of money, but one who is satisfied with whatever they have.
The honored person is not the one who chases after honor, but one who runs away from honor, and seeks after other people to honor them.
The hero person is the one who doesn’t dominate or control others, but is able to control himself, his yetzer hara.
One of the clear messages here is this – most things in life that you chase after will run away from you. But if you spend your time and energy helping others, those things will chase after you, and they will find you. The things which people are running toward throughout their lives – wisdom, wealth, honor and glory – we are being taught to grant them to others or run away from them entirely.
The next idea is this – a good deed, a mitzvah, perpetuates another good deed. And a sin, an aveirah, or a bad deed, perpetuates another sin. I think the lesson here is that momentum is a reality in our lives. Whatever we plug into the airspace of our lives is going to perpetuate more of the same thing, specifically when it comes to going with or going against G-d’s will.
The next teaching is this – don’t despise anyone, because every person has their time. This is a good lesson because we have to understand that G-d sees into the heart of a person, but we don’t see into that place. And G-d also has a time frame for who gets what, whenever they are supposed to get it. So, even if you see somebody you can’t stand, know that G-d has a plan for that person, and they are going to have their hour, or their minute of glory. Like the old David Bowie song said, “We all can be heros… Everybody has their day to be a hero.” That’s part of it
The next saying is this – when we learn Torah, we should learn in order to teach. Or, even better, we should learn Torah to DO. When we learn Torah, we will be able to do and to teach, and much more also.
Here is a lesson in the power of purpose, of intention. Your learning, or anything else in life, for that matter, is not about gaining something you didn’t have before, but it’s about giving it over to others, or making an impression in the world. It cycles into something beyond yourself, and in doing so it has more power. Same thing with making money, making friends, anything. If you let yourself focus not only on the thing itself, but on the effects it can accomplish, you’ll get the thing itself and its effects as well.
The Sages say, “Be a tail among lions, rather than being a head among foxes.” The idea here is that it’s better to hang out with people who are better than you are, and to learn from them, and not be the center and the focus of attention, rather than hang out with people who are lower than you are. It’s not that you are in danger with those people, but you’re not going to be growing. You’re not going to be stretching yourself beyond your limit, your comfort zone, unless your whole purpose is to help out in places nobody else can serve. That’s the difference.
The next saying is this – our lifetime should be a lifetime of preparation for the world to come. When we understand life as, “this is not the end of the line, but only preparation for a world of truth, eternity and divinity,” then we approach this life in a much different way. We’ll be detached from this life, from this world, and we’ll be able to focus more on what’s most important.
The next one is this – our Sages say it’s better to spend one hour in this world improving ourselves, doing teshuva and good deeds, than to spend the entire creation in the next world. On the other hand, it’s better to spend one hour of spiritual bliss in the next world, than the entire direction of this world.
This idea is clear… this world is designed to be the place of self-improvement, of growth. We have a soul, which is completely the opposite of our body, and it has to live with all the obstructions of the body. When we do good things here in this world, the value of it in eternal currency is much more than when we don’t have a body in the future world.
Whereas, the truth and the bliss of the future world is beyond us here and we can’t compare life in this world with it at all, with its different currency.
The next saying is, as I would call it in big, red letters – TACT. It says, don’t try to pacify someone when they are angry, and don’t try to comfort someone when their judgment lies in front of them. When a person is in their moment of humiliation, don’t look at them. Simply look away. All these things are teaching us tact, to really put ourselves in the other person’s place and to leave them alone, to just be silent and wait. There will be a time, later, when we can pacify and comfort them, and raise them up. But not right in the moment. Silence is a very wise thing to give in this kind of situation.
The next thing is this – that wisdom which we learn in our youth is compared to brand, new ink on brand, new paper. Whereas the wisdom learned later in life is like very faded ink on very faded paper. This idea is teaching us that a person has a clean slate when they are new, when they are young. And what they learn goes straight in and stays there for a lifetime.
The Sages say, “Exile yourselves to a place of Torah.” This idea means this – even if you have to exile yourself, even if you’re in a place that’s not so comfortable but there’s a lot better Torah over there, then go there. Once again, if you’re trying to influence people and you’re the only one who can do it, meaning you’re the only one for the job, then that’s a different story.
But, if possible, try to be in a place where there is a lot of Torah being learned, because it will have its influence on you.
And finally, the last one for today is this – “When you respect Torah, people respect you. That’s pretty self-explanatory.
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.