The Three Keys – Teachings from Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) - The Jewish Voice
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The Three Keys – Teachings from Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers)

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By: Chaya Sora Jungreis-Gertzulin

Who hasn’t read, or at least skimmed a self-help book one time or another. From finding inner peace and serenity, to becoming a better friend, working on relationships, improving parenting skills, or succeeding in business – there is an advice book out there.

How ironic. We, the People of the Book, often turn to every how-to book except our own – The Torah.

The Rebbetzin a”h, would often quote a teaching from Ben Bag-Bag, found in Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers (5:26), “Hafoch bah, v’hafoch boh, d’kola bah, Turn the pages (of the Torah) and turn the pages, for everything is in it.”

No need to check out the best-seller list for the latest self-help book. Our spiritual fathers, our wise rabbis, have given us the greatest book of life lessons – Ethics of the Fathers.

Derech Eretz kadmah l’Torah, To be a mentch is first and foremost. (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:3). Torah philosopher and mystic, the Maharal (1520-1609) teaches that Ethics is our “how-to” book of living a “derech eretz filled life”, a life of decency and common courtesy.

We are now in the midst of Sefira (lit. counting), counting the days between Pesach and Shavuos. Our count is more than merely a count of days. It is a count “up”, 1 through 49. Each day bringing with it aspirations to grow as Torah Jews.

It is during this period that we strive to increase our middos, our positive character traits. A time of self-improvement.

Ethics is a small, yet ever so powerful book. It has six chapters, one corresponding to each of the Shabossos between Pesach and Shavuos.

Shavuos. The Holiday of Receiving the Torah. A time to once again declare “Na’aseh v’nishmah, We will do and we will listen”, just as the Generation of the Exodus did, so many years before us.

What better preparation can there be for receiving the Torah than studying the Book of Ethics. A three-fold study of Torah, Avodah (worship), and Gemilas Chassodim (acts of kindness).

Torah, man’s relationship with self; Avodah, man’s relationship with HaShem, and Gemilas Chassodim, man’s relationship with his fellow.

“Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.” (Pirkei Avos/Ethics 1:1)

M’Dor l’dor, from generation to generation. We are all links in a chain, connecting one generation to the next. The strength of our nation. We are not a people that is out with the old, in with the new, but a nation that builds on the past. A people that reveres the wisdom and teachings of those who preceded us. A nation that honors tradition.

The men of the Great Assembly, the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah, spiritual leaders of their generation. They lived through turbulent times, and offered the nation three keys to survival. “…Be deliberate in judgment; develop many students and make a fence for the Torah.” (Pirkei Avos/Ethics 1:1). Advice that we can implement in our own lives today.

  1. Be deliberate in judgment: Don’t be hasty or jump to conclusions. Advice given to both leaders and laymen. Think and rethink. No need to make snap judgments. Consider and reconsider.

Ever had a procedure that required anesthesia? We go home with instructions “not to make any major decisions today, or sign any important papers”. Good advice for all times, not just after a medical procedure. While this can be applied to so many areas in our personal and business lives, how much more so regarding decisions affecting relationships with our fellow man.

Things can wait. Be deliberate in judgment.

  1. Develop many students: At first glance, these words may sound confusing. The Hebrew text reads “ha’amidu talmidim harbeh, to stand many students”. One would think that instead of ha’amidu, to stand, it would be more appropriate to write “lelamed, to teach”. Do we “stand” students?

Here, once again Ethics gives us a key to survival. For a nation to have a long-lasting future, there must be strong leaders. One should not be satisfied to merely teach students, but develop their character. Prepare them to be the leaders of tomorrow. To literally “stand” on their own when their time comes to assume responsibility. To raise the next generation to be imbued with positive Torah values.

As a Torah teacher, my greatest joy and satisfaction is when a student tells me that they shared a learning with someone else, teaching others, spreading words of the Torah in their own way. The mesorah, the links in the chain continue from generation to generation, building the future of our people.

Knowledge is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other. Everyone has something to share. Something to transmit. It doesn’t have to be a doctoral thesis. The human mind craves to absorb more and more, to reach greater heights. Let’s be there for each other.

Find a chavrusa, a study partner. The word chavrusa is related to the word chaver, a friend. By studying together, enduring friendships are created.

This Shabbos, we will bless the new month of Iyar. In the special prayer, we say “Chaveirim kol Yisroel, All of Israel are friends…” May we all become true chaveirim, one to another.

  1. Make a fence for the Torah: I remember attending a Torah class by Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein, a”h. She spoke about making protective boundaries in one’s life, using the Grand Canyon to illustrate her message. The Canyon has a four-thousand foot drop, with most of the ledges not fenced off. Unfortunately, there have been too many fatal accidents in these spots over the years.

While a fence may limit one’s ability to approach the rim, it is there to protect. To guard from injury and even death. Just think of the term guardrail.

Our Rabbis teach that we must establish boundaries in our spiritual lives as well. There is always someone or something out there, that is luring or tempting. Creating boundaries, both within and without, gives one the muscle to resist and overcome.

Three keys to survival. As true today as they were thousands of years ago.


This article was written L’zecher Nishmas / In Memory Of HaRav Meshulem ben HaRav Osher Anshil HaLevi, zt”l and Rebbetzin Esther bas HaRav Avraham HaLevi, zt”l

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