Thursday, January 30, 2014
The Chapter that Doesn’t Exist (and the Secret to Eternal Life)
“When it is time to leave the world, and for the soul to rise up wherever it rises to,
it is not the goal or aspiration that the soul stay only up high.
For the real fulfillment of the soul is that while it is "up there", it should also be down here.
Therefore one most strive to leave offspring and students, so that their da'at [wisdom, attainment, uniqueness] will remain down here, shining a light for the inhabitants of this lowly world. For when a person's da'at remains through children and students, it is considered as if that person itself is still in this world.”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov | Likkutei Moharan II:8, Hassidic Rabbi, Ukraine 19th C
When we die, what will remain of us in this world?
Reb Nachman outlines his prescription for eternal life. Each person reflects a core “wisdom” – da’at - which epitomizes them; a quintessential learning, an attainment, unique to her. As long as your essential intuition lives in the world – you remain in this world. And it lives on through the creation of children and students who weave that intuition into their own lives.
Suddenly, the act of study becomes an act of reviving the dead – as long as the knowledge is then truly woven into life. By studying and carrying with me the da’at of previous generations – by being their student – I am keeping them alive.
This sounds great, but what is my “essential” da’at? And what if that da’at is distorted, misunderstood? (Milan Kundera’s “Immortality” explores this anxiety with hilarity).
I pondered these thoughts as we marked thirty days since Edgar M. Bronfman’s passing (see more below). In our community of Bronfman Fellows we marked his passing with a community-wide learning initiative, with one track dedicated to studying the Rabbinic tractate ofPirkei Avot.
Putting Reb Nachman’s intuition to the text of Avot, it became clear that this tractate is a project in conserving the “da’at” of those great teachers, attempting to become their students long after they have left this world. Each mishna attempts to “boil down” the quintessential wisdom of a sage into one or two sentences: “He would say”, “he would say”. There is something appalling about this process, reducing a wide ranging and variegated life into a one-liner (preferably with three parts). What a terrifying project, what a moving one. To be sure, the purpose of Pirkei Avot is the wisdom and ethics, not the individual legacy of the teachers. And yet, those two are deeply intertwined – the wisdom and the person who said it.
Yet the deepest lesson from Pirkei Avot might come from the last chapter of Pirkei Avot, chapter six. It does not arise from the text itself, but from the following curious fact: Chapter Six of Pirkei Avot does not actually exist. As late as Maimonides (12th C), Pirkei Avot has only five chapters. Yet open any copy of Pirkei Avot today, and you will discover not give, but six! Scholars have noted that this last chapter is a compilation of external texts, known in the 9th century as the “Chapter of Torah Acquisition”. Its inclusion in Pirkei Avot is due to a fluke of traditional Jewish study. The tradition was to study Pirkei Avot on the Shabbatot between Passover and Shavuot. The only problem was that there are six Shabbatot between these two holidays, and – oy vey - only five chapters to Pirkei Avot. The fitting “Chapter of Torah Acquisition” was called to serve as a filler to the itinerary of study. With time, well-meaning scribes added this chapter to their copies of Pirkei Avot. By the time printing came along, the chapter had been “rechristened” an organic part of Avot. From a scientific “objective” perspective this chapter is an inauthentic imposter. Yet the living traditions of Jewish communities, the circles of learners, have themselves given credence to these chapters. From a narrow historical perspective this chapter might not exist, but from the view of Judaism as it is lived by its children and students, there is nothing more authentic then Chapter Six of Pirkei Avot.
“And the parable is clear, to those who discern” as the Rabbis would say. What is one’s true da’at? Who you originally were, or how you are remembered by children and students? Who has authority over one’s legacy? What is “true Judaism” – or the true meaning of the Constitution – that which can be proven scientifically to be historically true, or that which is engrained in the lives of vibrant communities? To be sure, a healthy back and forth between these two poles is critical. But it is that which lives on in the memories and practices of a community – children and students - which promises eternal life. What one generation might view as inauthentic and secondary, could become the holy cannon of the next generation – as long as there are “children and students” who truly embed it in their lives. May we be so lucky as to merit a few…
P.S. One Mishna from Chapter Six of Pirkei Avot:
This week, following a moving and stately tribute celebrating Edgar M. Bronfman the businessman, the statesman, the philanthropist at Lincoln Center, over 100 Bronfmanim came together to celebrate Edgar Bronfman who invited us to study together. We concluded studying the Tractate of Pirkei Avot in a “Siyyum” meal and study session. We studied the following mishna from Chapter Six of Pirkei Avot, which discusses the 48 traits required in order to “acquire Torah”. It is a fascinating list – if anxiety inducing, as someone remarked. Studying it, one is invited to ponder: Which ones here do you agree with and which do you find troubling? What would be on your list? What does this mishna understand the “acquiring of Torah to be”? (one answer – Torah cannot be acquired alone, in a cave. It requires other people around you). Finally, which of these traits does our society, our community, value, and which has it abandoned?
THE ACQUISITION OF TORAH | PIRKEI AVOT CHAPTER 6 MISHNA 6
Torah is greater than Priesthood or Kingship,
for Kingship is acquired in thirty privileges, and Priesthood in twenty-four.
But Torah is acquired in forty-eight aspects:
In learning, a listening ear, aligned lips ,a discerning heart,
awe, reverence, humility, joy, purity,
apprenticeship to Sages, close reading with Friends, challenging Students,
calm deliberation, in Scriptures [Reading], in Mishnah [Repeating]
engaging in a minimum of business, sex [worldly pursuits], pleasures, sleep, chatter and frivolity.
In patience, good heartedness, trusting of Sages, taking suffering in stride.
By being one who knows his place, rejoices in one's portion, guards one's words, doesn’t claim merit for oneself.
By being loved, loving the Omnipresent, loving Humanity, loving Righteousness, loving Justice, loving Correction.
Doesn’t seek out honors, nor boasts of one's education, doesn’t give [legal] decisions light-heartedly.
Shares in the burdens of others, gives people the benefit of the doubt, leads them to Truth, leads them to Peace,
Settles his heart in his study, asks probing questions, answers queries honestly, listens and discuses, learns in order to teach, learns in order to practice,
hones one's teacher's wisdom, is precise in stating what he has heard, and one who in repeating learning credits the one who said it originally.
As we have learned, whoever repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it brings deliverance to the world. As it says, “And Esther told the King about the plot in the name of Mordechai” (Esther 2:22).
משנה קניין תורה | פרקי אבות ו:ו
גְּדוֹלָה תּוֹרָה יוֹתֵר מִן הַכְּהוּנָּה וּמִן הַמַּלְכוּת, שֶׁהַמַּלְכוּת נִקְנֵית בִּשְׁלֹשִׁים מַעֲלוֹת, וְהַכְּהֻנָּה בְּעֶשְׂרִים וְאַרְבַּע, וְהַתּוֹרָה נִקְנֵית בְּאַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁמוֹנֶה דְבָרִים, וְאֵלוּ הֵן:
בְּתַלְמוד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתָיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב,
בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה,
בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, בְּפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים,
בְּיִשּׁוּב, בְּמִקְרָא, בְּמִשְׁנָה,
בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק,
בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, בְּקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוֹרִין,
הַמַּכִּיר אֶת מְקוֹמוֹ, וְהַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, וְהָעוֹשֶׂה סְיָג לִדְבָרָיו, וְאֵינוֹ מַחֲזִיק טוֹבָה לְעַצְמוֹ,
אָהוּב, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַצְּדָקוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמֵּישָׁרִים, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַתּוֹכָחוֹת,
וּמִתְרַחֵק מִן הַכָּבוֹד, וְלֹא מֵגִיס לִבּוֹ בְּתַלְמוּדוֹ, וְאֵינוֹ שָׂמֵחַ בְּהוֹרָאָה,
נוֹשֵׂא בְעֹל עִם חֲבֵרוֹ, וּמַכְרִיעוֹ לְכַף זְכוּת, וּמַעֲמִידוֹ עַל הָאֱמֶת, וּמַעֲמִידוֹ עַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, וּמִתְיַשֵּׁב לִבּוֹ בְּתַלְמוּדוֹ,
שׁוֹאֵל וּמֵשִׁיב שׁוֹמֵעַ וּמוֹסִיף, הַלּוֹמֵד עַל מְנָת לְלַמֵּד וְהַלּוֹמֵד עַל מְנָת לַעֲשׂוֹת, הַמַּחְכִּים אֶת רַבּוֹ, וְהַמְכַוֵּן אֶת שְׁמוּעָתוֹ
וְהָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרוֹ, הָא לָמַדְתָּ כָּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרוֹ מֵבִיא גְאֻלָּה לָעוֹלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר "וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר לַמֶּלֶךְ בְּשֵׁם מָרְדְּכָי".
ר' נחמן מברסלב, ליקוטי מוהר"ן - מהדורא בתרא סימן ז:ד
וַאֲפִלּוּ כְּשֶׁמַּגִּיעַ זְמַנּוֹ לְהִסְתַּלֵּק, וְהַנְּשָׁמָה עוֹלָה וּמִתְדַּבֶּקֶת בְּמָקוֹם שֶׁעוֹלָה [...], אֵין זֶה תַּכְלִית וּשְׁלֵמוּת, שֶׁתִּהְיֶה הַנְּשָׁמָה רַק דְּבוּקָה לְמַעְלָה. רַק עִקָּר הַשְּׁלֵמוּת שֶׁל הַנְּשָׁמָה הִיא, שֶׁבְּעֵת שֶׁהִיא לְמַעְלָה תִּהְיֶה לְמַטָּה גַּם - כֵּן. עַל - כֵּן צָרִיךְ שֶׁיַּשְׁאִיר אַחֲרָיו בְּרָכָה, בֵּן אוֹ תַּלְמִיד, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשָּׁאֵר דַּעְתּוֹ לְמַטָּה גַּם - כֵּן בְּעֵת שֶׁנִּסְתַּלֵּק לְמַעְלָה [...] - כִּי הַתַּלְמִיד מְקַבֵּל דַּעַת הָרַב. [...] וְעַל כֵּן צְרִיכִין לְהַשְׁאִיר אַחֲרָיו בֵּן אוֹ תַּלְמִיד, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשָּׁאֵר דַּעְתּוֹ לְמַטָּה, שֶׁיָּאִיר בִּבְנֵי עוֹלָם הַזֶּה הַשָּׁפָל. כִּי כְּשֶׁנִּשְׁאָר דַּעְתּוֹ לְמַטָּה עַל - יְדֵי בֵּן אוֹ תַּלְמִיד, נֶחְשָׁב כְּאִלּוּ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ מַמָּשׁ נִשְׁאָר בָּעוֹלָם: