July 9, 2018, Israel
It is long past midnight, burning the midnight oil, and sleep escapes me. I open The Ethics of the Fathers written two thousand years ago. I received this copy as a reward for great scholarship when I was in high school in New York.
I read..."Rabbi Chanina son of Chachinai said: He who keeps awake at night and he who goes on his way alone, if he allows his soul to wander to idle thoughts, he is transgressing against his own soul."
Rabbi Samson Refael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century) comments, "A man who keeps awake at night because he cannot sleep, or one who walks on his way alone, has perfect, undisturbed leisure during those lone and and wakeful hours. He should utilize these moments for serious meditation and reflection. If he wastes them on frivolous and idle thoughts, he transgresses against his own soul."
And so I reflect, on the pain of life, on the joy, on the Strikes and Gutters, on the unnecessary pain people inflict on each other, on the comments people make without thinking. I think of the words of the rabbis and I know that I have found no better words than these, no greater wisdom to guide me, no greater lesson to follow, no greater balm to calm my soul at this late hour.
The Ethics of the Fathers, a small section of the Talmud which we consider our guide to life. And we learn that Moshe received the wisdom from God and passed it on to his most worthy disciple, Joshua. And so it continued for each and every generation. Each Master found a worthy disciple to pass on the teachings. Each generation recognized the true leaders who had the wisdom in their heads, hearts and souls.
Let us examine some aspects of this amazing tradition, unbroken to this very day.
Why was it so important to know about this tradition of Passing On the wisdom? Why are we told the names?
The answer is that we consider this wisdom precious and we want it passed on accurately. We want to promote the observance of the laws and traditions. We do not want to deviate from the original purpose but we do need scholars capable of making amendments as needed, qualified authorities who have the power to declare as binding any provisions they make to safeguard the observance of the law.
The Law, the tradition, the wisdom belongs to the entire community. However not everyone is qualified to teach and not everyone is qualified to lead, and not everyone is qualified to interpret the law and make adjustments.
This is a key factor in the transmission, in the passing on of the law, the wisdom and the tradition. The law and the teachings always belong to the entire community, however in each generation only one or two scholars are recorded as having "received the tradition", that is because these few are the ones who truly understood the message on the the deepest and highest levels.
The Ethics of the Fathers places great emphasis on the Teacher-Student, Master-Disciple, relationship. "It is only through study with a reliable and scrupulous teacher whom you can consult in cases of doubt that you can establish with certainly what your duty is and how you should conduct yourself." (Hirsch on Chapter 1, 16)
The Ethics of the Fathers speaks of "Choose yourself a teacher", i.e. choose one teacher and not many, for many teachers will lead to confusion and doubt. You must have clarity. The Ethics speaks of covering yourself with the dust of the scholars feet. In all sources of wisdom the term "Sitting at the feet of your teacher" appears. i.e. humility, you sit not at the head of your teacher but at their feet. The symbolism is important.
This Friday night after services I saw Rabbi Yehoshua Katz, the chief rabbi of our town. I had plans to see some friends, but he said, "Accompany me on the way home." so of course I did. It took much longer than usual to get home as every few feet someone would come over, Good Sabbath Honored rabbi, may I ask you a question?
White Jews, Black Jews, Brown Jews, Hispanic Jews, Jews from Ethiopia, Jews from Yemen, Iraq, Russia and Ukraine, Argentina and Mexico, all stopped to greet the rabbi, shake his hand and smile. The rabbi greeted all with patience, every child, man and woman. The rabbi inquired about each one; how is your mother doing? How is your newborn child?
And I thought to myself, what a wonderful world! A world based on values, on Wisdom, on tradition passed down carefully from generation to generation. Each generation being led by the one who truly grasps the meaning.
In each generation many will follow, some will teach but very few will reach the deepest levels of understanding to be able to truly transmit the teachings to the next generation.