After פסח it is a מנהג for Jews throughout the world to study מסכת אבות. This tractate in Talmud seems to deal with rules of character, common sense, and intelligent behavior.
In the Sefer “ברוך שאמר,” Hagaon Harav Baruch Epstein זצ"ל states that the Talmud (Bava Kama 30a) teaches us האי מאן דבעי למהוי חסידא.... If you want to be a “Chassid” (which means a very observant, pious person who does more than he or she is expected to do), one should a) study Ethics of our fathers b) be careful with ברכות c) be diligent with נזקי (civil laws).
Harav Epstein questions why observing these three areas are unique to a Chassid. Avot deals with common sense, practical, and intelligent behavior. Observing the laws of Berachot is also not an issue of piety, since the Talmud (Berachot 35a) states האוכל בלי ברכה כאילו גוזל מהקב"ה, “One who eats without a Beracha is robbing from the Almighty.” And finally, civil laws that relate to נזיקין, damages, are certainly not issues of piety but rather of civil obedience.
The answer is that the passage in Bava Kama has a deeper and more subtle meaning. In Ethics of Our Fathers, פרקי אבות, we are taught סיג לחכמה שתיקה, “A fence to wisdom is silence.” This seems to be a matter of common sense. However, a Jew with a נשמה understands this to mean not only is silence golden, but words must be measured and be dignified. Too many pious, religious, and fine Jews lose control of their mouth and lavish its use with לשון הרע, idle talk, and abusive and vulgar language. Berachot is not simply thanking God for what we eat and what we have, but saying that we appreciate these gifts, for were it not for the grace of God. אי אפשר לעמוד אפילו שאה אחת, “We wouldn’t be able to survive an hour” (the conclusion of the blessing after leaving a restroom).
Observing civil law- נזיקין- implies more than merely not breaking another’s possessions. It impliesיהי ממון חבירך חביב עליך כשלך, “consider the money or property of your neighbor as if it were yours.” We don’t merely avoid breaking another’s objects. Rather, we care and respect it as we respect our own.
These attitudes constitute the core of the soul of a Jew. They do not constitute הלכה (Jewish law) and they are difficult to concretize but they are clear to the sensitive eye and heart.
We must come to grips with an ethical reality. We are the way we dress, we are the way we speak, we are the way we treat others and as we care less for the needs of others so we lose our own self esteem, individuality, and dignity.
Let’s Daven better, let’s dress like Bnai Torah, let’s be caring of and sensitive to all people of any faith or color.
The soul of a Jew defines our character even more than the laws that we observe.