Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World Mizrachi
Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World MizrachiThe Western Wall Hesder Yeshiva

Rav Reuven Taraginis the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi.This piece is taken from his new book, Essentials of Judaism, can be purchased at rabbireuventaragin.com

Essentials of Judaism: The Hashkafah of Pirkei Avot

“Hashkafah”

In Tanach, the root “shakaf means “to look” (Bereishit 19:28, Shemot 14:24) or “to be seen” (Melachim I 6:4, Shir HaShirim 6:10). Recently, the term “hashkafah has been used to refer to our outlook on life.

As opposed to the term “machshavah,” which refers to philosophical studies (such as metaphysics), hashkafah refers to how we understand our world's workings and how we are meant to live within it.

Hashkafah has become an area of significant interest. Unlike the Rishonim, whose philosophical discussions focused mainly on issues of machshavah, recent generations have concentrated more on understanding the nature and goals of our existence.

The Central Agreed Tenets

Often, people use hashkafah to refer to what distinguishes between different hashkafot (Litvish, Chassidish, Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist, etc.). People are eager to understand and appreciate their unique approach.

That said, most hashkafic issues, including most central ones, are things all Torah Jews agree upon.

Essentials of Judaism

Though how we view our lives is an integral part of our identity, these issues are generally not studied in an organized way. They are addressed often, especially at times of meaningful reflection (sichot, divrei Torah over Shabbat, tisches, etc.), but not with any comprehensive curriculum that presents the full range of these topics with relevant sources.

This is where the idea for the Essentials of Judaism series comes from. The series identifies and addresses Judaism’s hashkafic topics comprehensively, systematically, organized, and source-based.

We begin with the ideas discussed in Pirkei Avot. Though Chazal addressed hashkafic issues in many places, Masechet Avot is the central Tannaitic repository of hashkafic material.

Avot as Ancestors

Masechet Avot’s name seems rooted in the list of the ba’alei mesorah — our ancestors (avos) who transmitted the Torah She’baal Peh from Sinai — with which the masechet opens.

Why does this list appear here — at the end of the third seder of the mishnayot? Why not at the beginning of Shas, as the opening to Masechet Berachot?

The Meiri explains that the list appears in Masechet Avot to emphasize the importance of its topics (Beit Habechirah, Petichah to Masechet Avot). Since Avot focuses (mainly) on issues that are neither halakhic nor derived from pesukim, one might view the content as less important. As the masechet contains neither mitzvot nor aveirot, people might not be diligent about observing its directives. To stress the importance of its content, Masechet Avot begins by linking itself to (those who transmitted the Torah to us from) Sinai.

Avot as Principles

After translating avot as ancestors, the Meiri presents a second explanation that equates the term's meaning here to its meaning in the context of melachot Shabbat (forbidden modes of work) and nezikin (damages). Just as avot melachah and avot nezikin are the categories from which other forms of melachah and nezikin originate, the teachings of Masechet Avot are the root principles for Jewish philosophy, hashkafah (outlook), and conduct. Most of these ideas are rooted in Tanach’s mitzvot and history, but not explicitly stated; Avot fills in the details by formulating the principles.

Masechet Avot’s teachings facilitate living a proper and meaningful life. The middot taught by Masechet Avot are the precondition for Torah itself — “Derech eretz kadma la’Torah.” (Pesachim 118a) Pirkei Avot also addresses matters of faith and hashkafah. It teaches us how to view the world and our role within it. Living a proper Jewish life hinges on knowing and internalizing Judaism’s outlook on the world and human life and behaving accordingly.

These two components — middot and hashkafah — are inextricably linked. We are meant to express our hashkafah in our behavior and root our behavior in our hashkafah. The Gemara teaches that one becomes pious by studying Masechet Avot (Bava Kama 30a). The combination of hashkafic ideas and behavioral guidance develops piety.

Parent Principles

The Meiri presents these two explanations of Avot as a continuation of one another. The two are not in conflict; they complement one another. Our avot principles come from our avot ancestors. This is not only because it makes sense to learn from earlier generations, but also because Judaism is a religion of continuity.

Judaism is not just about individuals understanding and worshipping G-d. It is about belonging to a people who descend from and still identify with their avot and imahot. Though all ancient peoples have living descendants, Jews are the only ones who, on principle, name children after their ancient ancestors. This is because we emulate them and their relationship with Hashem.

Despite our spiritual decline in Mitzrayim, Hashem redeemed us because we continued using our ancestral names (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:25). Upon heralding redemption, Hashem identified Himself as the G-d of our ancestors (Shemot 2:24), and at the Yam Suf, the climax of the redemption, we related to Hashem as “Elokei avi (my father’s G-d).” (Shemot 15:2) Understandably, we begin our Shemoneh Esrei by describing Hashem as not only our G-d, but also as the G-d of our ancestors. This is because we know that our relationship with Him is a continuation of theirs.

By leaving the areas of middot and hashkafah (mostly) unstated clearly by the Torah, Hashem created the need to learn these avot of faith from our ancestral avot. Like the halachot of Torah She’baal Peh, we learn our principles of faith, hashkafah, and middot from our biological parents and spiritual avot.

Over the next weeks, we will, iy”H, study some of Pirkei Avot’s central hashkafic ideas.

May our learning to live by avot hashkafot and up to avot standards reinforce our place as links in our people’s avot—banim mesorah chain and make us worthy of redemption.

Biglal Avot, toshi’a banim Because of Avot, children are redeemed.

Chapter 1

הוּא (שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק) הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. (א:ב)

An Existential Opening

After Masechet Avot’s first mishnah concludes its description of those who relayed the Torah from generation to generation with the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), the second mishnah presents a foundational statement of Shimon HaTzaddik, who was of its last members.

Shimon HaTzaddik’s statement is critical for our general worldview. Unlike most of Masechet Avot, which consists of directives for how to best live life, Shimon HaTzadik relates to the more fundamental question of why the world exists.

He asserts that the world stands on three pillars: it exists to facilitate Torah (learning), avodah (service of Hashem), and gemilut chassadim (acts of kindness). Shimon teaches us that the world’s sustenance hinges upon human action and behavior. Because Hashem created the world to offer humanity the opportunity to live meaningful lives, He linked its existence to us doing so.

Torah

Torah is the first pillar. Though all three pillars are important, Torah learning reigns supreme. Chazal saw this idea in the Torah’s very first word — “bereishit.” Torah learning is the reishit the world was created to facilitate.

We remind ourselves of this fact every morning when we conclude our recital of the berachot related to Torah learning with the mishnah in Pei’ah, which teaches that “Talmud Torah k'neged kulam (the significance of Torah learning is equal to that of all other mitzvot).”

Understandably, the gemara asserts that Torah learning is of greater value than building the Beis Hamikdash, honoring one’s parents, and even saving a life. In fact, Chazal taught that the world's very existence hinges upon Torah learning. The gemara explains the Torah’s formulation of the sixth day of creation as “yom hashishi” (as opposed to “shishi” like the description of previous days — “yom echad,” “yom sheni,” “yom shlishi,” etc.) as teaching that Hashem conditioned creation on a future special sixth day — the sixth day of Sivan when the Torah was given. Had we not committed ourselves to the Torah, Hashem would have returned the world to nothingness.

Rav Chaim Volozhin adds that the world’s existence not only hinged (in the past) on the original Kabbalat HaTorah but also continues to depend upon constant Torah learning. If there would be even one moment completely bereft of Torah learning, the world would cease to exist.

Talmud Torah is not just the world’s purpose; it is also the unique purpose and mission of the Jewish people. As the mishnah in Avot’s second perek teaches, “If you have learned much Torah, do not take special credit; it is (simply) why you were created.” Hashem created the world to be a context for Torah learning; He created the Jewish people as the vehicle. This explains why Hillel taught that one who does not study Torah deserves to die. Torah study is a central reason for our existence. If we do not commit ourselves to it, we do not deserve to exist.

Why is Talmud Torah so important? Firstly, it is the one pursuit we can (and should) devote our free time to. While we perform chesed in response to another’s situational need and daven three times a day, we can learn Torah at any and every free moment. It is the constant that should fill our lives with meaning.

Additionally, through Torah learning, we transcend our world and meet Hashem through His wisdom. Though we connect to Hashem through the performance of all mitzvot and all forms of Avodat Hashem, when we study Torah, we achieve a higher connection because we immerse ourselves in His thought. We understand and connect to Hashem by appreciating the way He “thinks” and what He values.

Avodah

But Torah is not the only pillar. Avodah is also important. Study alone is not enough to sustain the world and our existence. This is why man’s presence in Gan Eden, which was self-sustainable, still included his responsibility to work.

Avodahshould focus on Avodat Hashem. This is why the meforshim explain the mishnah’s mention of avodah as referring to korbanot. Korbanot express our appreciation of Hashem’s role in the world (and our lives) and our interest in giving to and sacrificing for Him. As with all relationships, we reinforce our commitment and closeness to Hashem through gift and sacrifice.

Kayin and Hevel were the first the Torah records as having offered korbanot. After Noach (later) offered a korban upon exiting the ark, Hashem responded with His promise to sustain the world for eternity. When we show our appreciation of and commitment to Hashem, He commits Himself to us and our world.

Of course, today, we are unable to offer korbanot. We offer our tefilot instead. The gemara teaches that the offering of the korban tamid used to sustain the world; today, our tefilot play this role. In certain ways, tefilot are even more significant than korbanot. Petitioning Hashem for our needs expresses recognition of our dependence upon, in addition to our interest in a relationship with, Him.

The Rambam extends the pillar of avodah beyond korbanot and tefilah — he explains that the mishnah uses korbanot as a paradigm for mitzvot in general. Korbanot are significant because they are how we fulfill Hashem’s commandment (to sacrifice them). We serve Hashem in a similar way by observing any and all of His mitzvot.

Gemilut Chassadim

The third pillar is chesed. One might have thought that personal development and commitment to Hashem would be enough to sustain the world. Shimon Hatzaddik teaches us that this is not the case. In fact, the Nevi’im Micha and Yeshaya present care for others (in contrast to korbanot) as central to what Hashem wants from us. Korbanot and Avodat Hashem are important, but Hashem wants us to serve Him by (also) caring about and for His creations — particularly those He created in His image.

By doing so, we emulate Hashem who created the world as an act of chesed. (Of course, He does not need the world; He created it for us.)

Our acts of chesed are also our way of giving back to Hashem. Rav Avraham Chaim Feuer explains that this is why the mishnah uses the term gemilut chasadim: our chesed is a way of “paying Hashem back” for His. By assisting others created in His image, we show our appreciation that we, too, were created this way.

Torah and Ma’asim Tovim

Chesed is an essential complement to Talmud Torah. The gemara compares one involved in only Torah learning but not chesed to one who has no G-d. One focused only on himself lacks a meaningful relationship with Hashem. As we saw, Torah learning can be “gadlus” — greater than other mitzvot, but if taken to a self-centered extreme, it can also be godless. Torah learning is only gadlus when it inspires us to care for Hashem’s other creations.

This is why we celebrate Torah and ma’asim tovim (good deeds) as the goals and the epitome of life. They are the life goals the community wishes newborn babies and mothers daven for each week when they light candles. The two together are how we serve Hashem in the fullest sense of the word.

The Three-Legged Stool

Put together, these three foci, Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim, are what the world exists for and what we should, therefore, focus upon. May appreciating this help us maximize our lives and our contribution to sustaining the world!

Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the

Educational Director of World Mizrachi.

This piece is taken from his new book, Essentials of Judaism, which can be purchased at rabbireuventaragin.com