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This is the season of the year when the study of the Mishna tractate Avot is a required pursuit. For the six weeks between the conclusion of Pessah and the arrival of Shavuot, its six chapters are studied and reviewed. The first five chapters are from the Mishna itself and the sixth is a later addition of pertinent braitot of talmudic origin.
There are many reasons advanced for the study of this tractate during this six-week period. One of the ideas advanced on this subject that speaks to me strongly is the talmudic dictum that derech eretz kadma latorah - simply put, it means that proper human and social behavior is the necessary introduction to Torah observance and study. And the hallmark of the teachings of Avot is derech eretz - this concept of the minimum standard of human behavior which the Torah deems acceptable and indeed necessary.
Since Shavuot is the anniversary of the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai, it follows logically and almost inevitably that it must be preceded and introduced by derech eretz - by the teachings of Avot. The rabbis felt that boorish and utterly selfish behavior prevented one from truly serving God, no matter how meticulous one may appear in the observance of ritual commandments. Thus without Avot and its holy messages, it is unlikely that there can truly be a meaningful acceptance of the revelation of God on Sinai - the Torah that has preserved us for more than 33 centuries.
One of the basic teachings of Avot is that of the necessity of respecting others - respecting their space, their property, their right to opinions that disagree with ours, and of their innate humanity. There are special levels of respect that are demanded of us regarding parents, teachers, Torah scholars, people of age and experience and of venerated leaders. A society that shows little respect for its elders and even worse for the "others" in society eventually brutalizes itself.
Respect for humans who are created in the image of the Creator is an innate Torah value. It leads to respect for the Almighty Himself, for respect for the unseen and unknown and ineffable is almost impossible if one is not previously trained in respect for those we can actually see and interact with. Even a cursory perusal of Avot convinces us that this concept of respect is central to derech eretz. In fact the concept of derech eretz extends to one's own person and body as well. The Torah that forbids the abuse of others also forbids self-abuse.
It is not coincidental at all that the commandment of honoring and respecting one's parents appears in the Torah as the bridge between the commandments pertaining to our relationship with God and those commandments that deal with our required behavior toward fellow human beings. For without this concept of respect and honor, we cannot effectively serve either God or humans.
Another facet of Avot is its emphasis on tradition. Each of the great men identified in Avot, the people who more than anything else guaranteed the survival of the Jews in Greco-Roman times, are recorded to have had a teacher, a transmitter of tradition. It is the importance of tradition and of a direct connection to that tradition through a human teacher of stature and importance that is the basis of all religious Jewish life. It is only this connection with human greatness that guarantees the vitality, let alone the survival, of Judaism and the people of Israel.
Judaism is a religion of books, but certainly not of books alone or even of books mainly. It is again no accident that the basis of Judaism is the Oral Law of Sinai. The written Bible has become the property of all of civilization and is no longer exclusively Jewish. But the Oral Law of Sinai has remained exclusively the property of the Jewish people. It constitutes the main curriculum of study of all of the yeshivot and many of the courses of higher Jewish studies the world over.
Without understanding the role of the tradition of Sinai as transmitted generation after generation by great human beings and awesome scholars, one never can really appreciate the majesty and worldview of Judaism. It is the teachings of Avot that allow us therefore to march forth confidently to the great moment of acceptance of the Torah as symbolized in the forthcoming holiday of Shavuot.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.