Pirkei Avot each Shabbat, beginning after Pesach and concluding before Shavuot or Rosh HaShanah. The Gemara (Bava Kamma 30a) states that one who wishes to be a “Chasida,” “Pious person,” should learn Pirkei Avot. Rav Pinchas Kehati, the renowned banker from Tel Aviv who composed a Hebrew commentary on the entire Mishnah in 1963, states in his introduction to Pirkei Avot that this Masechet is different from all others in the sense that it does not discuss matters of Halachah, but rather, it accentuates matters related to “Mussar VeDerech Eretz UMidot Tovot,” “Ethics, courtesy, and good character traits.” Rav Kehati continues by describing the nature of the name of the tractate, Avot. He explains that the term Avot (literally, fathers) refers to the “Avot Ha’Olam,” “Fathers of the world,” whose opinions, which are “Ikarot LeChol Chochmah UMitzvah,” “Fundamental to all wisdom and commandments,” are expressed in the tractate. The Mishnah in Masechet Eiduyot (1:4) identifies the “Avot Ha’Olam” to be the prominent Jewish leaders since the time of Moshe Rabbeinu.
The custom to learn this Masechta during the historical time of redemption (Pesach to Shavuot) can be dated back to the days of Rav Amram Ga’on, who lived during the 9th century, and it can be found in the works of countless Rishonim and Acharonim as well. In fact, Rav Moshe Isserles, one of the leading Ashkenazi Poskim, strongly encourages people to uphold this Minhag (Orach Chaim 292:2).
A sixth Perek, known as Perek Kinyan Torah, was appended to the tractate after the completion of the Mishnah, to allow the study of one Perek each week during the six weeks from Pesach to Shavuot. The reason for the name Kinyan Torah is clear. The underlying premise in all of Torah observance is the achievement of proper moral character. The Mitzvot that were given to us at Har Sinai were merely a rubric to refine our character and persona; for this reason, Pirkei Avot begins by clarifying that these ethics were given directly to Moshe Rabbeinu by the Almighty Himself.
Unfortunately, across the entire Jewish world, the fabric of unity and cohesion that weaved our people together is being torn apart due to the disregard of etiquette and religious decorum which are “Ikarot LeChol Chochmah UMitzvah.” This past Thursday, Jews from around the world commemorated the horrors that occured in the Sho’ah 75 years ago. The Nazis, Yemach Shemam, did not take into account which Jew was Reform and which Jew was Orthodox, which Jew maintained a Kosher household and which Jew did not. A Jew was Jew. In the throes of the Sho’ah, every Jew was, in Rashi’s famous phrase, “Ke’Ish Echad BeLeiv Echad,” “As one man with one heart” (Rashi on Shemot 19:2 s.v. VaYichan Sham Yisrael). Accordingly, Hashem acknowledged our unity and granted us the first whiff of the ultimate Ge’ulah, the modern version of Matan Torah: the founding of Medinat Yisrael. Hashem granted us sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael solely because we upheld the core values of the Mitzvot.
The Gemara (Berachot 2a) points out that the very first Mishnah in Masechet Berachot atypically states that one can begin reading Kri’at Shema from the time that the Kohanim enter the Beit HaMikdash to eat the Terumah. The Gemara explains that this time is really Tzeit HaKochavim (the time when the stars are apparent in the sky), but Rabi Yehudah HaNasi phrased the Mishnah in this fashion to teach other Halachot as well. Rav Kehati (Berachot 2:1) points out that the Kohanim may eat the Terumah anytime between Tzeit HaKochavim and Chatzot (midnight). Therefore, the Mishnah should have stated that one can recite Kri’at Shema from the time the Kohanim are permitted to enter the Beit HaMikdash to eat the Terumah, not from the time that they actually enter. Rav Kehati suggests that the Kohanim were zealous to fulfill the Mitzvah of Achilat Terumah, and therefore ate their Terumah right away. Rav Kehati then writes that it is important to be zealous when fulfilling the Mitzvot so as not to tarry and miss out on them completely.
This lesson is one of many that can be found beneath the surface of each and every Mitzvah recorded in the Torah. This past summer I attended NCSY Kollel. Before my night seder shiur began, my Rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, would stress the fact that the statements in the Torah were the mere tip of the iceberg; if one truly wants to grasp the essence of the Halachot, he or she must dive deep below the surface and delve into the statements of the Talmud and the great Rishonim. Pirkei Avot is the concomitant of such learning.
In Parashat Acharei Mot (18:4), the Pasuk states that we must walk in the ways of the statutes and laws of the Torah. The Or HaChaim (ibid. s.v. Lalechet BaHem) explains that the Mitzvot are likened to a lamp (Mishlei 6:23: “Ki Neir Mitzvah VeTorah Or,” “For the commandments are a lamp and the Torah is a light,”) which will illuminate our lives in a supernatural manner, as expressed in Tehillim (119:105), “Neir LeRagli Devarecha Ve’Or LeNetivati,” “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” When we walk in the ways of the Mitzvot (i.e. when we act in accordance with the moral principles underlying the Jewish faith) we achieve spiritual heights beyond our comprehension. Or HaChaim continues and suggests that this is the reason we use the light of a lamp to eradicate the Chameitz in our homes on the night of the 14th of Nissan. Only the refinement of Mitzvot in every aspect of our lives will eradicate the erroneous behavior which Chameitz represents. Furthermore, once we achieve a state of proper moral character, we can eat the Matzah and begin the redemption process.
This fundamental concept expressed by Rav Kehati and Or HaChaim also finds mention elsewhere. Shlomo HaMelech concludes the aforementioned Pasuk in Mishlei (6:23) by stating, “VeDerech Chayim Tochechot Musar,” “And the way to life is the exhortations [from the Avot Ha’Olam] that instruct [us how to live our lives properly].” This declaration is quite similar to a statement of Chazal in Masechet Megillah (28b) which we recite after Mussaf on Shabbat and Yom Tov. The Gemara mentions that it was taught in the school of Eliyahu that anyone who learns Halachot will merit entry into Olam HaBa (the world to come). The Gemara cites a Pasuk (Chabakuk 3:6) which states, “Halichot Olam Lo,” “[Hashem’s] ways are eternal.” The Gemara then claims that Hashem’s Halichot (way of life) are the same as the Halachot. This conclusion affirms Shlomo HaMelech’s statement that the Mitzvot and their underlying principles transmitted by the Avot Ha’Olam are the pivotal ways to a proper Jewish lifestyle.
Finally, I would like to conclude with a story which I read in former MK Rav Dov Lipman’s book “To Unify A Nation”. Rav Aryeh Levin, one of the great Rebbeim in Jerusalem during the early years of Medinat Yisrael’s existence, saw a young soldier in the street who was off from his military service. He invited the soldier to his home for tea, but the soldier, who was without a Kippah, felt uncomfortable eating at an ultra-Orthodox rabbi’s home. Rav Levin smirked and responded that he is a short man and cannot see what is on the soldiers head; rather, he can see what is in the soldier's heart. Rav Levin then added that the soldier was putting his life at risk for the safety of the Jewish people in Israel; thus, he said again, “Please drink tea with me - your Kippah is probably bigger than mine.” Rav Levin understood the Mitzvot at their core and implemented what is taught in Pirkei Avot. He put religious differences aside in order to connect with his Jewish brother.
The somber Sefirah period in which we are currently undergoing represents the antithesis of what is taught in Pirkei Avot. During the first thirty days of Sefirat Ha’Omer, Rabi Akiva’s students, who lacked Achdut, were punished with death. It is our responsibility to learn from their mistakes and prepare for the Ge’ulah as one Am, “Ke'Ish Echad BeLeiv Echad”, so that we can reach the heights of righteousness. As Shlomo HaMelech also notes in Mishlei (29:4), “Melech BaMishpat Ya’amid Aretz,” “By justice [the Halachot and the Mitzvot] a king sustains the land.” Our greatest threat is not our enemies abroad, but rather ourselves, should we fail to follow the ethical principles fundamental to the Torah. May we all take this message to heart, and together, may we see the final redemption speedily in our days.