Learning Modern-Day Lessons from Pirkei Avos


Summer is upon us.  As Jewish women, we have conquered Pesach, we received the Torah during Shavuos, and we now venture into summer.  For some of us, summer means having a different schedule and perhaps some time to relax, and for others it is just a continuation of our day-to-day life in more sweltering temperatures.

Summer can also be a time to take a step back and reflect upon where we stand spiritually, as we now have a stretch between yamim tovim for introspection.  This is one reason why it is customary to learn and recite Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers, every Shabbos afternoon throughout the summer. Reading and/or learning a chapter each week is a way to make sure that we stay spiritually and morally connected to Hashem.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, says that the summer is characterized by a sense of freedom.  He says, “Both nature and man are liberated from the oppressive constraints of the winter…People leave their shuttered routines to venture outward, to stretch their muscles and exult in their senses.”  He continues by saying, “The evil inclination finds this a fertile period in which to weaken people’s spiritual resolve. Therefore, we learn Pirkei Avos in order to protect ourselves from its baleful influence.”   We use Pirkei Avos as a benchmark for the values we want to have.  We turn the pages each Shabbos afternoon during the summer to enable us to reconnect with our sages and use their acumen as a guide for keeping us spiritually and morally on the right track.

When I learn Pirkei Avos now as an adult, I try to ask myself how I would incorporate the wisdom of our sages into my life today.  2019 is a different world, and we are faced with challenges that our forefathers could not have imagined.  For example, let’s look at the first mishna in the 4th chapter:  “Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with his portion.”  When I read this section of the mishna, my immediate thought goes to monetary wealth.  Yes, some people are more fortunate than others when it comes to the size of their bank accounts, but there is a greater lesson to be learned here.  When the mishna uses the word “chelko, portion” it does not necessarily mean financial wealth.  One’s “portion” can mean so many things.  The Chofetz Chaim explains that the language of the mishna alludes to how a person can truly grow happy with his portion. “One who is happy with his portion” implies that every individual needs to be satisfied with his own portion—his own task, role and destiny. Rabbi Lau expounds upon this idea, stating that “a wealthy person is one who believes that G-d gives him exactly what is best for him.”

We are now inundated with social media, ad campaigns and the notion that everyone advertises their “perfect” lives.  How often do we sit and fall into the trap of scrolling through the social media abyss, coveting what seems like someone else’s perfect “portion”?  I admit that I have been guilty of this more than once.  It is the great distraction of the modern age.  We need to take a step back and think about the words of the Chofetz Chaim—that we are given exactly what is best for us.  Yes, we can still follow our favorite social media “influencers”, however, we should not covet what they have.  We should think about this mishna and internalize the lessons it teaches all of us.  We need to be grateful for the blessings bestowed upon us by Hashem and not spend our time wondering why we can’t have what others have.

The next time you have some free time on Shabbos afternoon, take out a copy of Pirkei Avos and explore the wisdom contained within.  Even learning one mishna a week can keep us connected to the values of our sages.  Pirkei Avos links us to our past while grounding us for the future.

Enjoy your summer!

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Andrea Schulman is the Program Director of the Rebbetzin Frieda K. Hirmes Women’s Institute of Torah (WIT) in Baltimore, MD.  She has held previous positions as the Marketing Director for both the Jewish Literacy Foundation and NJOP.  She currently serves on the Executive Board of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and volunteers for the Jewish Caring Network. Andrea regularly consults with many local shuls and organizations on their events and programming. Most importantly, she is a wife and the mother of two wonderful teenage boys.