The season of Pirkei Avot

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Translation by Yehoshua Siskin

There is a beautiful custom that commenced yesterday, on the Shabbat following Pesach: study of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). Each Shabbat another chapter of this Talmudic tractate is read. It is a tractate that is not concerned with Torah derived laws and halachot, but rather with ethics and good character traits. We are accustomed to say that "derech eretz (proper conduct) preceded the Torah." That is, personal refinement was a prerequisite for receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Therefore, we also strive to learn proper conduct from Pirkei Avot as we prepare for Shavuot, the annual festival which commemorates that event. Here are a few revolutionary definitions from Pirkei Avot that redefine wisdom, heroism, wealth, and honor:

Who is wise? Whoever learns from every person.

Who is a hero? Whoever subdues his evil inclination. 

Who is wealthy? Whoever is happy with what he has.

Who is honorable? Whoever honors others.

Each of these definitions shatters our customary thinking, gives new meanings to familiar concepts, and demands from us serious work in rearranging our priorities. To be wise is to have the ability to learn from others, to be a hero is to have the ability to exert restraint or self-control, to be truly wealthy is to be happy with what we have, and to be honorable is to give honor to others.

Just one small sample of Pirkei Avot.

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