1.1 Moses received the Torah from God at Sinai.
He transmitted it to Joshua,
Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets
the Prophets to the members of the Great Assembly.
They formulated three precepts:
Be cautious in rendering a decision,
Rear many students,
Build a fence to protect the Torah
Before I begin: A note on the English translation: The Pirkei Avot was originally written in Hebrew and in some parts Aramaic, but obviously, my Hebrew is not terribly strong and my Aramaic is nonexistent. For this I will be using the translations from my siddur (Jewish prayer book), a copy of the penultimate edition of Siddur Sim Shalom. Although on occasion I may comment directly on the Hebrew using my scant knowledge thereof, this will only be on occasion, and on such occasions, I may inadvertently mistranslate, for which I ask now your forgiveness. Hopefully, this endeavor will aid in my acquisition of Hebrew. Probably, it won’t.
I begin: This is going to be harder than I expected.
On the one hand, I feel I’m educated enough in Jewish history to be able to understand, at least in part, the historical context of most of the Pirkei Avot. But on the other hand, my education is limited and I can only take it so far before I start barking up the wrong tree. Yet on another hand, I’ve learned time and time again throughout my own Jewish education and that of my students, that nothing in Judaism is taught only once. Every time something is taught, or in some cases, learned, it is done with a new level of awareness, a new perspective on both life and the material. Even if I should stray from the intended lessons while I read through the Pirkei Avot, this will inevitably only be the first of many times I will study and learn this chapter of the Talmud.
Realising that, I can make two precepts of my own, and perhaps tie them together with those three of the mishneh: First, if I learn nothing, I will have at least read through this entirely, something likely to be done today by the few, not the many. Second, if I learn something, I will have at least delved a little deeper into reaching and understanding something greater than myself. These two facts—for facts they are—are not absolutes. I am certain in places I will go wrong, misread, misunderstand, but in other places I will have my eyes opened and see as clearly as ever before. Which leads to a third statement: That if I follow through with this, I will reach a greater understanding of myself and Judaism and through this personal growth, will become a better, wiser, and stronger person, closer to my faith, and closer to keeping the Sabbath.
So how do my three realizations tie together with those of the mishneh? I presume, historically, and know from my own research on halakha (Jewish law) that these three precepts are applied most consistently to determining law, or in the words of country singer/songwriter Jewel Kilcher: “Don’t think too hard, don’t think too fast. Don’t ever give away what you can’t take back.” That is, when determining law, you have to think about more than just a single instance, but about the ramifications of even the smallest decisions. And when talking about the Torah, play it safe. Don’t do what draws too close to crossing that line of giving away what you can’t take back.
Of course, I’m not determining law. That is obvious and expected. But in a way, personal habit is similar to personal law. It’s a set of rules to follow, all of them chosen by myself (mostly), but a set of laws to be followed nonetheless. And if this is to become a habit, as I intend it to be, I must set forth personal laws to govern myself as I go forth with this endeavor. So it seems only natural then to apply what this mishneh says to my personal journey as a student of the Pirkei Avot.
Let’s look at that first precept: “Be cautious in rendering a decision.” Or, as I’ve already said, “Don’t think too hard, don’t think too fast.” That is, as I read through each of these, I need to put real thought into what they mean. If it’s going to be of any worth, to me and to my readers, I have to put energy and effort into this. I just can’t make something up and be done. I have to think genuinely and honestly. I have to render my decisions on what they each mean cautiously.
The second—“Rear many students”—seems obscure at first and I’m tempted to simply say since I’m not teaching this to anyone, it does not apply, but that would instantly break the aforementioned precept of being cautious in making decisions. Instead, however, I have to realize that this is going to be—or at least may be—read by a lot of people, so even if my intent is not teaching this, inadvertently I will be sharing this with people who may or may not know anything about Judaism—and that means I’ll have to write my words in such a manner that others can learn, too. It may take a little extra care on my part, but if I’ve learned anything with all that I’ve already taught, it’s that to truly learn something, you have to teach it to others first. Not only does this mean I’ll learn more doing this, it also means that everyone who reads this may gain something as well. And this, at least, is a lesson that all internet users can put to use.
The very last precept to talk about, to “Build a fence to protect the Torah,” is already well-known to me, although I know it in a slightly different form: to build a fence around the Torah. It’s the reason why, for much of Jewish history, even asexual homosexual relationships were looked down upon simply because the mere action of two homosexual men, attracted to each other, holding hands could—by way of progressively more extensive actions—lead to the violation of the Torah’s laws prohibiting certain male-to-male sexual acts. Thus a fence was built around the Torah, so that no one could accidentally transgress without intending to. Again, as Jewel would say, “Don’t ever give away what you can’t take back.”
Furthermore, for my purposes here, it’ll serve as a good reminder and will help me to not go too far astray in my thoughts, should I ever step from the beaten path of meaning. It’ll be worthwhile to remember while considering what other parts of the Pirkei Avot may mean, and it’ll always serve as the last lesson of the first part of my journey. That in itself makes it something special.