Monday, May 11, 2009

Chapter Four

It is customary during the counting of the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot, to study one chapter of Perkei Avot each week. Last week saw my son's birthday and Mother's Day, and it seems I am late to put my thoughts to (virtual) paper.

Nevertheless ...

Chapter four opens with some of the most memorable, and truthful, lines of the Talmud.
BEN ZOMA SAID: WHO IS WISE? HE WHO LEARNS FROM EVERY MAN,...
WHO IS MIGHTY? HE WHO SUBDUES HIS INCLINATIONS (Nature),...
WHO IS RICH? HE WHO IS HAPPY WITH HIS LOT,...
WHO IS HONOURED? HE WHO HONOURS HIS FELLOW-MEN, ...
Who said the Zen has a lock on Koan's? Or that only Buddhists emphasize that attitude is the key to fulfillment ? These seemingly trite and self contradictory statements hold great wisdom. Centuries later they, and similar quotes about personal attitudes, would become the foundations of the Musar movement, which emphasized spiritual practice as a way of improving ones character traits and become a more perfected "Jewish soul" - by which I understand: to become a better human being using Jewish techniques. If you don't have the time or inclination to study Musar, you could still accomplish much by contemplating and taking to heart Ben Zoma's four (seemingly) simple axioms.

The second Mishna of this weeks chapter is also a zinger:
BEN AZZAI SAID: RUN TO PERFORM THE EASY MITZVAH, JUST AS FOR THE DIFFICULT ONE, AND ALWAYS FLEE FROM TRANSGRESSION;
FOR A MITZVAH DRAGS IN ITS WAKE ANOTHER MITZVAH, AND A SIN DRAGS IN ITS WAKE ANOTHER SIN;
AND THE REWARD FOR A MITZVAH IS A MITZVAH, AND THE PUNISHMENT FOR A SIN IS A SIN.

True observations and useful advice in personal life; and even more so in geopolitics. Certainly the Israel/Palestine conflict is the perfect example of the vicious cycle described at the end of the Mishna, while, in my opinion, only by beginning a virtuous cycle, as describe in the top of the verse, is there any hope for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians. Salvation will come not from grand diplomatic formula - though those will be needed at the end - but from good will, trust, and leaps of faith, based on the desire to see justice done and peace prevail. Small acts of justice will bring greater acts of justice. Good deeds by one side will bring similar reciprocation from the other side, and only then, and only thus, can we move towards the grand end to the conflict.

Finally, later in the chapter we have this truly surprising Mishna:
R. NEHORAI SAID: GO AS A VOLUNTARY EXILE TO A PLACE OF TORAH.

Rabbi Nehorah lived at the end of the 2nd Century AD - as the centre of Jewish life was beginning to leave the Land of Israel and move to Babylon. At a time when most of his Mishnaic Rabbi contemporaries where still fighting hard for the primacy of the Land of Israel in Jewish life, he seems to be recommending a different course. What is no less surprising is this gloss on his quote that I found - unattributed - in my Soncino Talmud.
Some say only if there are no scholars in your own place. Other say even if there are scholars in your own locality; the very experience of ‘exile’ — the strange surroundings, the privations it entails ... is conducive to the better study of the Torah.

So, according to the second opinion, is having our own State - being too high and mighty, too secure - bad for learning Torah: for the proper understanding of what the a good Jewish life should be? Is the Diasporic experience essential for the proper understanding of Judaism?

1 Comments:

Anonymous Shmuel said...

The comment in your Soncino is from the Tiferes Yisroel (Rabbi Yisroel Lifschitz - Danzig, 19th cent.) commentary on the Mishnah. I would add to the interesting idea you raise, that perhaps longing for something is more conducive to creativity than actually having it. This ties in with a recent post by Philip Weiss, entitled "have you stopped dreaming of a Jewish state in Palestine?" But maybe it's not just Palestine. Maybe Judaism has stopped dreaming altogether.

1:08 pm  

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