Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers/Ancestors, is a handbook of ethical wisdom for the right now. But it originally emerged out of the need for wisdom and guidance for a people utterly displaced and dispossessed.
The Jewish people know how to walk through massive disruption and make it onto the other side. But never in our history have we made it to the other side unscathed and unmoved. We have survived because of our ability to rapidly evolve to meet unchosen and unwanted changes to our reality.
The most massive disruption in the history of the Jewish people was the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era—close to 2000 years ago. The Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple in retaliation for the ongoing rebellion by the Israelites (now known as Jews) against Roman domination. We tried to hold onto our ancient systems and religious and political autonomy, but ultimately we were overpowered physically.
We were exiled, spread apart from each other, and to the four “corners” of our real round globe. Jews ended up in India, China, North Africa, England, and throughout the Middle East. We are spread out to this day. We live in the reality of our exile, though the modern State of Israel has also been a reality for over a lifetime now. We did not just survive the diaspora; we thrived in it. To the point where the majority of us chose to make our homes in it even with the option of return home.
The vast majority of post-biblical Jewish wisdom and Jewish thought is deeply rooted in our exile and our response to this massive destruction of our way of being in this world. What was destroyed when the 2nd Temple was destroyed? How grand was this scale of societal destruction?
The entire Torah is a road map for how to be in relationship with each other, to the ”other” and God through the systems we were to set up in the holy land and through the function of the Priesthood. Much of what is asked of us in the Torah is impossible to fulfill outside the land and without a Priesthood and Temple centrally located in the holy city Jerusalem. And yet here we are. Zooming away. Continuing to gather and make meaning and to heal and repair the world—pivoting always towards life and goodness. It is our way.
We, as a people, are able to PIVOT on a massive scale. Judaism would be long gone had we not had the confidence and drive to pivot. Prior to the first century, our entire Universe was based upon the Temple and the priestly systems of sacrifice and atonement. We believed that God literally resided, took residence in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. And just like that, the winds of history changed, and we lost it all. We were kicked out. And according to our tradition, so was God!
The 2nd Temple stood for almost 600 years. Our United States constitution, our own American basis of societal reality, is just under 250 years old. The rights we hold as unalienable and precious: they are young, and they are not immune to the winds of history. Any and all human systems, no matter how rooted and strong we believe them to be, are fundamentally susceptible to destruction. Look around. A little virus has disrupted our entire local and global economy. And our survival is once again based on our ability to pivot.
At this season between Passover and Shavuot, the space between liberation and revelation, Sinai, is a space for wandering, wondering and exploring. It is our custom to study one of the first and great ethical texts to come out of Judaism: Pirkei Avot/Thr Ethics of our Father’s/Ancestor’s. This is a little book. A tiny book found within the vast Talmud. It is a post-destruction handbook for how to live within a new reality.
One of the most important maxims in Pirkei Avot, for the history of the Jewish people, comes in the second teaching of this ethical handbook. It is a saying associated with Shimon the Tzadik/Righteous who was related to the Priesthood of the old system. There is a story about this text in Pirkei Avot that Shimon was standing upon the burning rubble of the destroyed Temple, and one of his students approached him, crying, “what will we do now?” The great leader advised his students with these words, a significant pivot, which is the foundations of Judaism to this day.
The world exists through three things: the Torah, Service (Temple sacrifice, and today prayer), and acts of loving-kindness. PA 1:2
In a profound and straightforward redirect, Shimon was able to move Judaism and the Jewish people into their future. Though he himself was defined totally by a connection to the old ways, he was able to essentialize the ancient wisdom into a new path forward—one which has given us life and direction to this day.
During this time of seclusion and pandemic, world-wide, Jews all over the world have pivoted. We continue to pray, study, give back, celebrate, mourn, transform the world, and hook into our ancient calendar in new ways. The ability to turn away from what is no longer is viable, what no longer is alive, and towards an original path is a crucial survival skill. Right now. How can we allow the strength of Judaism to inform our own lives today as we are forced to pivot: economically, socially, educationally, physically, psychologically?
The world will not go back to how it was before this pandemic. Like the destruction of the 2nd Temple, we know some historical events leave us changed forever. While Judaism will move forward relatively unscathed by this pandemic, so many other parts of our lives will be changed forever. And Pirkei Avot is full of wisdom for moving through this challenge. Pirkei Avot was written as a response to destruction and the immediate need for guidance within an unnavigated reality.
Pirkei Avot asks us questions. Who is wise? Who is honored? Who is rich?
It helps us reframe.
Pirkei Avot invites us to seek wisdom and find meaning in our own lives.
It guides us towards greater meaning in our own lives.
Our ability to successfully pivot to a new reality is rooted in our confidence and our calm. Our knowledge that we will be alright; we will emerge in the other side, not unscathed but alive, vital, and empowered.
Consider this wisdom of the sages. How does this relate to our current circumstances, and how does it lead us towards a good pivot?
There are four types of people: One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine" is a boor.
One who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" -- this is a central characteristic; others say that this is the character of Sodom.
One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" is a chassid [pious person].
And one who says, "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" is wicked. Pirkei Avot 5:10
Consider this wisdom too.
There are four types of temperaments.
One who is easily angered and easily appeased--his virtue cancels his flaw.
One whom it is difficult to anger and difficult to satisfy--his flaw cancels his virtue.
One whom it is difficult to anger and is easily appeased, is a chassid/righteous.
One who is easily angered and is difficult to appease, is wicked. Pirkei Avot 5:11
I invite you to study. To flex your intellectual and spiritual muscles to make meaning and provide for yourself guidance through this walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Being truthful with ourselves about what the future might hold and being willing and able to pivot is key to our survival: physically, emotionally, economically, intellectually, and spiritually. We have seen and experienced worse as a people. We got this. But not without the wisdom, not without wrestling with the wisdom of our ancestors.
Use Pirkei Avot as a tool and a guide. Let it be your friend. Let the rabbis of ancient times be your friends and comforters. Let them challenge you towards your own pivot. And of course I will be teaching these texts in our communal zoom gatherings and my writings.
Many blessings for a week of life and joy. No matter what circumstances in which you find yourself, a pivot is always possible. Turning away from Destruction and Death and towards Life. This is the way of Old, today to be implemented for the New.
You can find free online versions of Pirkei Avot many places. I suggest using Sefaria as a source for all Jewish texts: Sefaria.org
Or: Did you like the art in this post? Support a Jewish artist and teacher and order the book! Order a wonderful illustrated version of Pirkei Avot is also available to enjoy now and to pass on to generations to come: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/jewish-ethics-and-morality-like-youve-never-seen-them
The Illustrated Pirkei Avot: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Ethics https://www.amazon.com/dp/0990515559/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_UCZLEbR3N3BAN