Masechet Avot consists of a collection of aphorisms that provide Am Yisrael with an overarching moral or Mussar framework. Uniquely, there is no section of the Shulchan Aruch, Rambam or any other major halachic work that deals with the practical ramifications of our Masechet. Indeed, in his commentary on the very first Mishnah of Avot, Bartenura notes that this Masechet is structured unlike any other in terms of its non-linkage to explicit mitzvot. He also points out that Avot consists of moral guidelines similar to those advanced by non-Jewish “wise men”48 in their ethical works.
According to Bartenura, it is with sensitivity towards this potentially undermining context that the Tana of our Mishnah very deliberately commences the Masechet with “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai”, highlighting that these aphorisms were not developed through intuitive reasoning but rather “these too were said at Sinai”. In other words, the very ideas encapsulated within the body of Masechet Avot were no less communicated at Har Sinai than any other revelation of Matan Torah.
Drawing on the pasuk in Mishlei (): “For the commandment is a lamp and Torah is light and reproofs of mussar are the way of life”, the Maharal provides three explanations of the word Torah. The word Torah can be understood as 1) the teaching of the Mitzvot; 2) the teaching of the ta’amei (reasons) of the Torah; and 3) the teaching of “the ‘path’ that leads one to Olam Haba” (Netiv HaTorah 1)
In a continuation of this theme in his introduction to Derech HaChaim, the Maharal defines this critical “path” to Olam Haba as the journey paved by the various lessons of mussar from Masechet Avot. In other words, the ethical constructs of our Masechet are absolutely central to the most basic definition and fulfillment of Torah.
In a much earlier explanation by Chazal of our quoted pasuk in Mishlei, the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (9) states as follows:
‘For the commandment is a lamp and Torah is light and reproofs of mussar are the way of life’ (Mishlei ) - go out and see which path leads a person to Olam Haba, I say [it is] the path of yissurim (“suffering”)
What connection could the midrash possibly be referring to in its comparison of a blueprint of ethical standards (tochechot mussar) to the experience of suffering (yissurim)? Perhaps we can better understand this Midrash49 in light of a separate, but related Maharal commentary, wherein he establishes that the linguistic root and very concept of mussar is inexorably linked to the notion of yissurim.
Specifically, and in a powerful assessment of the nature of man, the Maharal explains that man’s natural tendency is not to comply with the highest of ethical standards, because the “suffering” endured through ethical compliance is incompatible with our base inclinations. That hypothesis would of course lead us to the logical conclusion that a true Torah framework commands not only compliance with taryag mitzvot, but also requires willingness to self-negate extreme human tendencies that are often at direct odds with fulfillment of middot tovot.
In similar recognition of the challenges posed by Torah’s implicit ethical standards, the Gra, comments on another guiding pasuk of Mishlei (4:13): “Take fast hold of mussar, let her not go, keep her, for she is your life.” Here the Gra explains that man’s existence is predicated upon the exercise of self-discipline to overcome innate human shortcomings. We overcome these shortcomings, according to the Gra through ethical behaviour. In doing so, we certainly need much encouragement and strength because principled conduct of the highest order is not intuitive and consequently may not be taken for granted.
It is presumably no coincidence that the Ramban50, commenting on the mitzvah of “kedoshim tihiyu”, notes the genesis of that mitzvah lies in the reality that strict halachic compliance could have otherwise theoretically been achievable despite one behaving like a “scoundrel”. It is similarly not for nothing that the Rambam notes that “even though they (the performance of the Mishnayot Avot) would seem to be clear and simple . . . [but] they are not simple for all men” (Hakdamot L’Peirush HaMishnah, Avot).
The sensitivity of Chazal to human limitation is perhaps an appropriate starting point for an understanding of the message of Avot. In other words, a life lived in concert with the principles of Masechet Avot necessitates the confrontation of many innate challenges. If confronted successfully as the Torah demands, such a life is a mission of the highest order, ensuring not only true fulfillment of both the definition and essence of Torah, but the attainment of Chazal’s highest praise (Bava Kama 30):
Rav Yehuda said, one who wishes to be devout… Rava says he should fulfill the words of Masechet Avot.
48 See Rav Kook (ג) אורות הקודש who differentiates between normative secular and Torah ethics.
49 See also Brachot 5a
50 Ramban al Ha’Torah: Vayikra 19
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