Pirkei Avot: Pursuing Peace
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
This video introduces the study of Pirkei Avot and the challenge any of us face when trying to live our lives by the recommendation of these Mishnayot.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. Welcome to this mini course. Let me just jump in and ask you this question: are there any basic principles by which you try and live your life? And I don't mean that you're trying to be a good person. Yes, we are all trying to be a good person. I don't mean that you're trying to be nice and some sort of general way. We're all trying to be nice. I don't even mean if you are a religious person, if you are trying to observe the Mitzvah.I mean, are there any sort of fundamental principles, fundamental values that you feel you are trying to express in your life. And even more than just expressing any particular fundamental value, do you ever find that the values that are most important to you compete with one another? And then how do you balance them?
So, maybe just take a second. If I could be so bold as to invite you to do this. Just, kind of, close your eyes and ask yourself: the kinds of values that are really important to me; could I make a list? One, two, three, four, five six. You know, a few values that stand out - are any of them, apparently, in competition with each other? And how do I try to balance them?
I think that life can be seen that way; it can be seen as a struggle between our deepest held values and beliefs that compete for our attention and compete for how they command our actions - whether any given value or another will be dominant in commanding our actions. And I think that the complexion of life we live, to a great extent, filters down from these values and from these battles. That these values weigh just one another by how it is that we balance these, how we put them in order in our lives. And I want to suggest to you that the Mishnah actually offers us some guidance in this regard.
There's a tractate of Mishnah - Mishnah is a rabbinic code of law, generally it's a legal code. There's a tractate which is often studied; which is devoted to ethics, not devoted to legalities. It's called Pirkei Avot. This tractate is made up of aphorisms – sayings, which the Great Sages of the Mishnah had, one after another after another. It always bothered me looking at the whole tractate, like - how much guidance can you really get from sayings? You know, you have a saying here, and a saying there - the old quote assigned, I think, erroneously to Benjamin Franklin, "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for dinner. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." I don't think Benjamin Franklin ever said it, but it's a good quote anyway. It's a good quote, it's a nice idea; but if you strung together a bunch of different quotes, could you really live your life by those?
I want to argue that, ethics of the Fathers - this tractate - isn't an immensely deep work of text. And that the depth comes not just in each individual aphorism, but how these aphorisms actually connect to each other. There's an unfolding structure here. And I want to, kind of, show that to you, and I want to use that structure to animate some of the deepest principals that I think is suggesting that we live our lives by. I believe that Pirkei Avot is giving us advice about this - advice about sox basic principles that should animate our lives and about the kinds of balances which we should seek to strike to bring these 6 principals in balance in our lives.
It's a pretty heavy kind of topic, but it's not an abstract kind of topic. It's stuff that actually matters in our daily lives, and I think these principles that Pirkei Avot is suggesting to us can be very, very powerful forces in our lives - if we can strike the balance that Pirkei Avot is suggesting that we ought.
I want to jump in and explore this with you. Maybe what I’ll do is give you access to the text of the first Chapter of Pirkei Avot. We'll set it up here as a file that you can look at, you can download on your own, both in Hebrew and in English. And when you scan the beginning and the end, it was fascinating as you find that at the very beginning of Pirkei Avot - just the beginning - there's a Mishnah that seems to set out three basic principles by which we should live our lives. And then, there's a Mishnah at the very end which also sets out three basic principles on which we should live our lives, but they are different principles. This is the beginning of the balance, I believe.
I want to come back and kind of explore these principles, set those six principles out on the table with you. You can peak ahead if you like and get a sense of what they are, but our challenges will be: what is Pirkei Avot really telling us about these? What kind of balance is it suggesting that we strike? We're going to try to attack that by looking at the structure of this chapter - how it is set up? The structure that I believe will hold keys to how these principles are meant to relate to one another. What kind of inter-relationship they are meant to have in a person's life?
We are going to begin to start exploring that when we come back in the next video.