GIVE & TAKE
Many communities are accustomed to studying one chapter from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) every Shabbat between the festivals of Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
Many communities are accustomed to studying one chapter from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) every Shabbat between the festivals of Passover and Rosh Hashanah. Like other Mishnaic tractates, Pirkei Avot deals with halachic issues, but differs from the others in that it deals primarily with laws directly related to character development. Originally, the custom was to study these teachings for a much shorter time, between Passover and Shavuot, in order to improve our character traits in preparation for the momentous receiving of the Torah on the festival of Shavuot. The custom was later extended all the way until Rosh Hashanah.
The thirteenth Mishnah of this week's chapter, chapter five, discusses four categories of people. The Mishnah mentions differing opinions regarding the status of a person whose attitude is, "That which is mine is mine, and that which is yours is yours." One view is that this person is an average citizen - not particularly righteous, but at the same time not evil. The other opinion characterizes this person as having the attributes of the residents of the infamous city of Sodom, who epitomized callous insensitivity towards others and were destroyed by G-d for their wicked behavior.
Rabbeinu Yonah, a classic commentator on Pirkei Avot and many other facets of Torah study, states that the Mishnah refers to a person who neither gives nor takes from others. If so, he wonders, how can this person be considered an average individual? Isn't he forgoing the positive Torah commandment of giving tzedakah (charity)? His wickedness should be indisputable, yet only the second opinion deems him to have the characteristics of Sodom!
Rabbeinu Yonah answers that the person referred to in the Mishnah certainly does give tzedakah. However, he does so only as a result of his fear of Hashem, and not because he has a philanthropic personality. He is not considered evil, since he does indeed perform the act of tzedakah. Nonetheless, since the attribute of giving has not been inculcated into his character makeup, he cannot be viewed as a righteous individual.
The words of Rabbeinu Yonah give us an important insight to the Torah's view of the ultimate Torah-observant Jew. One might have thought that the person described in the Mishnah should be considered righteous. After all, Rabbeinu Yonah does not say that there is anything lacking in his actions. Presumably, this person is fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah completely in accordance with all of its intricate laws. Furthermore, he is going against his natural tendencies to not help others in order to do this mitzvah! Is the reward for such an act not great? Is he not showing great strength and dedication in his performance?
He certainly is, but Rabbeinu Yonah tells us that this is not enough. Our job in this world is not only to fulfill the mitzvot, but to make the traits embodied by them our own. He teaches us that we must not only perform acts of loving kindness, but that we should become kind people. If we take this lesson to heart and inculcate Hashem's mitzvot into our nature - if we weave them into the fabric of our very beings - then we can truly become righteous people.
Yaacov Cohen, who hails from Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, New York.
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