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Delving into the Words of Torah Through the Study of Pirkei Avot

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By: Chaya Sora Jungreis-Gertzulin

The sun is shining and the outdoors is calling. Yet, it is precisely at this time, during the longer Shabbos afternoons, that we take time out to study Pirkei Avos, the Book of Ethics.

Six chapters for the six Shabbosos between Pesach and Shavuos. The greatest preparation that we can do for Shavuos isn’t thinking about cheese cake and blintzes (which certainly enhance our Shavuos meals), but delving into the words of our Torah, and the teachings of Ethics.

Derech Eretz kadmah laTorah, to be a mentch—a genuinely honest, ethical, good individual – is a prerequisite to living a Torah life. We prepare for our n’asseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will listen moment through the study of Ethics.

We repeat the cycle again and again throughout the summer, as a preparation for Rosh Hashanah, our Day of Judgment. The Yom Tov when we stand before HaShem, hopefully being able to say that I worked on myself, this year was a year of self-improvement.

There are so many “how to” books out there. Guides to having better relationships with spouses, parents, children, friends, even with one’s self. You name it, someone wrote a book about it.  Unfortunately, we often neglect studying our own Book. My mother a”h would say how tragic it is that the Children of the Book turn to every book but their own.

As Ben Bag-Bag says, “Hafoch bah, v’hafoch bah, d’kolah bah, Turn the pages, turn the pages, for it is all there”. It’s all there. We only have to open it. (Pirkei Avos, 5:26)

Pirkei Avos, Chapters of our Fathers. Who are the fathers of Ethics?

Avos has multiple meanings. When we say avos, fathers, the first thing that comes to mind are our patriarchs. The Bnei Yissocher writes that indeed we are referring to Avrohom, Yitzchak and Yaakov. We learn their story in Bereishis, also known as Sefer HaYashar, the Book of the Upright, the righteous ones. The love and compassion exemplified by our avos is our best guide for leading an ethical life.

We are Bnei Yisroel. Each letter of the word Yisroel, spelled yud, shin, reish, aleph, lamed, is an acronym for our patriarchs and matriarchs. Yud – Yitzchak and Yaakov. Shin – Sarah. Reish – Rivkah and Rochel. Aleph – Avraham. Lamed – Leah. Their teachings are us. We are one with them.

Avos – our teachers, advisors and mentors. Mishlei teaches “Shema b’ni mussar avicha, v’al titosh toras imecha, Listen my child to the words of your father, and do not forsake the teachings of your mother.” Anyone who gives over knowledge, passes down a mesorah, a way of living, becomes a spiritual parent. (Mishlei, 1:8)

A Midrash is told of a neshamah that appeared before the heavenly court. “You have merit for three children”, a voice called out. “But I had ten” the soul protested. “You may have had ten, but some you ignored, and others you were short-tempered with, and yet another you didn’t even want.”

Another soul stood before the heavenly court. “You have merit for two-hundred-and-fifty children” “Two-hundred-and-fifty? But I didn’t have any.” “Yes, but you taught so many. You shared your knowledge. For others, you supported their education. You married some off. You showed kindness to so many. You gave spiritual life.”

Avos, the birth parents and grandparents. Every Friday night following candle lighting, it is customary to say a prayer beseeching HaShem to be granted the privilege of raising children and grandchildren who are wise and understanding, who love and are attached to HaShem, and will light up the world through their Torah and good deeds.

A beautiful prayer. Every parent’s dream. To have children living a Torah life. The life of Pirkei Avos.

Memories. My father, HaRav Meshulem ben HaRav Asher Anshel HaLevi zt’l, was ailing. My mother was in the hospital room with him as we children waited in the hallway. Ima came out crying. “Abba said ‘Raise them well’. I told Abba that we raised them together. Boruch HaShem, they are all married. Abba then said, ‘You are never done’ ”.

Parenting is for life.

Every chapter of Ethics opens with the same introduction. “All of Yisroel has a share in the World to Come.” Why was this passage selected to open each chapter? It imparts to us the importance of goals. To focus one’s life on the ultimate prize – a share in the World to Come. While each of us goes through life pursing various goals, some big, some small, we should strive for the eternal goal, the one that really counts.

As we go through our day, we must ask ourselves, where are my actions taking me, what am I accomplishing, where am I going? In fact, a closer reading of this passage shows that the Hebrew words read l’Olam Habbah – towards the World to Come. The message is clear. One has to earn his portion in the World to Come. There is no “Admit Free” card for anyone. HaShem gives us the opportunities, it’s up to each of us to realize our potential.

Just as every chapter begins with the same introduction, so too, does it close with the same words. “HaShem wished to confer merit upon Bnei Yisroel. Therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvos in abundance…” Opportunities to earn our admission to the World to Come.

In the Talmud it is written “Rav Nachman said, may I be rewarded for observing three meals on Shabbos. Rav Yehudah said, may I be rewarded for my devotion in prayer. Rav Huna said, may I be rewarded for never walking four steps bareheaded. Rav Sheishes said, may I be rewarded for fulfilling the mitzvah of Tefillin.”  (Shabbos 118b) The Maharal learns from this that while we should endeavor to fulfill as many mitzvos as possible, a person should focus on at least one mitzvah to observe scrupulously. Pick one that you will be able to keep meticulously, conscientiously, and stick to it. That one mitzvah will bring you closer to HaShem. That one mitzvah could just be your ticket to Gan Eden, the World to Come.

As Shavuos approaches, let’s keep in mind that HaShem gifted us many mitzvos. Make one your special mitzvah.

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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