Outline of Topics: Run Time 22
The historical review that introduces Pirkei Avos contains
more than the history of how the Torah was transmitted; it encapsulates all of
Jewish morality. Though secular humanism and moral relativism dominate modern
ethics, Jewish morality is based on acceptance of the Divine origin of Torah.
Using Maimonides' commentary, Rabbi Wein upholds the eternity of our ethical
system which stands against the whims of passing fashions and philosophies.
The second Mishnah of Pirkei Avos, the teaching of the great Shimon Ha
Tzaddik, names the three pillars on which the world stands: Torah study, service
to God, and acts of kindness. First phrased in this form at the dawning of
Ancient Greece, Rabbi Wein presents these principles in contradistinction to the
baseness and cruelty of Greek society. Moreover, he shows how the teachings that
follow Shimon Ha Tzaddik's all give practical advice as to how Jews can
actualize the three pillars in our daily lives.
The three mishnahs covered in this lecture share the common theme of
interpersonal relationships. Whom should a Jew befriend? One mishnah advises us
to accept the guidance of a rabbi and make certain to have friends, while
another tells us to distance ourselves from bad neighbors. And finally, we learn
about proper behavior for judges, relevant even to the layman who must also
judge his fellow fairly.
The conclusion of the first chapter of Pirkei Avos comes full circle as Rabbi
Wein explains how "Torah, service, and acts of kindness" are the means to reach
the goals of "justice, truth, and peace." With the timeless sayings of Hillel,
Shammai, Rabban Gamliel, and others, we see how such sublime goals can become a
The second chapter of Pirkei Avos begins with the teachings of "Rebbe," Rabbi
Yehudah Ha Nassi, redactor of the Mishnayos, and his son Rabban Gamliel.
Focusing on the importance of integrity in the performance of mitzvos and
industriousness in Torah study and labor alike, these two teachings reveal how
proper behavior toward humanity is part and parcel of proper service to God.
In another interweaving of the themes of Pirkei Avos, Rabbi Wein discusses
the parallel teachings of distancing oneself from the government and involving
oneself in the Jewish community. Bringing his own expertise in history into the
fray, we see how these principles so succinctly presented by Chazal carry within
them the key to Jewish continuity.
The next series of Mishnayos begins with Hillel's statement about Divine
retribution, which dovetails perfectly with his description of the results of
every possible pursuit of man, from wealth and wives to Torah and tzedaka.
Followed by characterizations and teachings of his students, the foundational
personalities of Kerem B'Yavneh, this captures the wisdom that is unique to each
Diligence in Torah study, scrupulousness in money matters, meticulous
concentration in prayer - the demands of the final seven mishnayos of the second
chapter of Pirkei Avos might seem exhausting, and in fact, we are told that "the
Master is insistent." But with his inimitable style and wit, Rabbi Wein reminds
us of the reassuring conclusion that as long as we put in our best effort, we
will achieve what God wants from us.
The introductory Mishnah to Chapter 3 teaches us to know "from where we came
and to where we are going." In short, this Mishnah gives us a clear sense of
direction to guide us through our lives. Rabbi Wein analyzes this and the
subsequent mishnayos which deal with the potential for holiness that Jews can
hope to achieve whether acting alongside other Jews or even while alone.
The teachings in this group of mishnayos prioritize the values of fear of
God, wisdom, and good deeds. With examples from history and ordinary people,
Rabbi Wein proves how the most important question to ask about a wise person is
not, "What does he teach?" but "How does he behave?"
The sayings of the great Rabbi Akiva are the topic of this lecture in which
we come to understand such all-embracing concepts as halachic fences and God's
love for the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva then ups the ante with even more
difficult philosophical questions: the apparent contradiction between free will
and God's foreknowledge and the nagging problem of why righteous people
Metaphor seems the favorite venue in the closing mishnayos of Chapter 3 of
Pirkei Avos. Whether comparing life as we know it to a credit economy or a
lavish banquet, or human behavior to various types of trees, Rabbi Wein shows
how the ancient phrasings of Chazal echo with relevance to our world today.
The fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos opens with the timeless questions: "Who is
wise? Who is strong? Who is wealthy? Who is honorable?" Rabbi Wein clarifies the
insightful answers given by Chazal, giving us clear direction as to how we can
attain these virtues by spiritual means.
In an echo of the teaching of Hillel regarding the centrality of community,
the next series of mishnayos addresses the issues of justice and din Torah. When
people fail to put the community first, Chazal warn us, injustice is the
inevitable result. Rabbi Wein analyzes the lessons of these mishnayos,
summarizing the responsibilities of every type of community member: judge and
posek, teacher and scholar, rabbinic leaders and average Jews.
The next set of mishnayos begin by naming the three "crowns" a Jew can wear:
the actual crown of kingship and the symbolic crowns of Torah and a good name.
In his summary of the mishnayos which end the fourth chapter, Rabbi Wein
demonstrates how these lessons show the way all Jews can earn the latter two
Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avos lists all sorts of spiritual concepts organized by
number, and the "magic number" of this group is 10. From the 10 Utterances with
which God created the world to the 10 miracles in the Bais Ha Mikdash, Rabbi
Wein reveals the deep and hidden meanings behind these esoteric teachings,
formulating some of Judaism's most essential teachings about morality.
This mystical mishnah, which lists the ten things created on the eve of the
first Shabbos, teaches us much about the Creation story, which contains the
foundation of Jewish morality. First and foremost, every Jew must understand
that God created the world, that we owe Him our lives, and that He is the Guide
for proper behavior.
The traits which characterize a person of refinement are within our grasp if
only we choose to develop them. By honing our listening skills, striving for
intellectual honesty, and being able to admit that we don't know something, all
of us can achieve this great level. Most important of all is to remember the
common denominator to all these traits: a sense of self-worth. With examples of
tzaddikim and even ordinary people of Rabbi Wein's acquaintance, listeners are
certain to be inspired by stories which show genuine refinement of character.
Unlike the previous chapters of Pirkei Avos, Chapter 6 deals exclusively with
Torah study. While the others address Torah study along with many other
desirable character traits, because Chapter 6 is traditionally read on the
Shabbos preceding the holiday of Shavous, which celebrates God's gift of the
Torah to the Jewish people, its singular focus is thematically appropriate.
Emphasizing the trait of learning "l'shmo," Rabbi Wein tells stories of gedolim
who embodied it, from the great yet humble Chofetz Chaim to the author of the
mishnah, Rabbi Meir himself.
The theme of Torah scholarship continues as the mishnah describes key
qualities that distinguish Torah scholars. Zooming in on the trait of honoring
everybody, even those the world would deem as "lesser," Rabbi Wein depicts the
lives of Torah scholars who embodied this precious trait, delivering an
uplifting message about the inherent value of every human being.
The famous list of 48 ways by which a person acquires Torah knowledge build
on themselves. In this way, a person who acquires Torah knowledge further
develops those 48 virtues. Rabbi Wein discusses each of these traits,
formulating the goals to which we all aspire.
As Pirkei Avos comes to a close, Rabbi Wein addresses the universal issue of
how a Torah Jew should approach money. The story of Yose ben Kisma shows one
man's value of Torah over riches, and from his example, we ourselves learn to
pass the test of wealth.