Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), one of the tractates contained in Nezikin within the Mishnah, offers moral advice and insights of the leading sages of different generations. One of the customs of the Sfradim & Mizrachim is that we read the six chapters of Pirkei Avot during the last six weeks of the Counting of the Omer. So, as I continue to delve into this amazing work, I've decided to share one quote a week and offer some commentaries on it. The format will be simple - the quote in Hebrew, Ladino & English followed by some commentary on it. Please feel free to add your take in the comments.

*This 'project' is dedicated to my late Nonnou (Grandfather in Italian) Nissim who lived by this tractate. Although he failed to get me interested in it as young boy (I did write the opening few lines for 100 Rand though), he helped plant the seeds that have allowed me to mature spiritually.

Pirkei Avot 1:7

נתאי הארבלי אומר: הרחק משכן רע, ואל תתחבר לרשע, ואל תתיאש מן הפרענות

Nitai el Arbeli dizyen: Aléshate de vizino malo, i non te adjuntes kon el malo i non te desfeuzyes de los males

Nittai of Arbel was wont to say, keep away from an evil neighbor. Have no association with a wicked person, and do not fail to believe in final retribution.

Besides the obvious, Nittai teaches us a very important lesson here: The effect of detrimental & bad people on us. Around bad influences, we are likely to adapt bad character traits without even realizing it. We can see this being practiced in the Torah by Yaakov Avinu, who twice in Parashat Vayishlach, made major decisions to avoid associating with what he saw as evil. When Yaakov leaves Aram-Naharim, his reasoning to Leah & Rachel is:

I have noticed that your father's disposition is not towards me as in earlier days

One famous Torah commentary offers an additional interpretation. The literal translation of Yaakov's reasoning is, "I see your father's face, and it is not to me as it was in earlier days. In the past, when I saw your father, I saw the evil in him and it repelled me. Now, I seem to be more tolerant of him." By associating so long with Laban, Leah & Rachel's father, Yaakov felt he was becoming callused by his corrupt ways and worried that it would corrupt him. Later on in the parasha, Yaakov twice refuses the help of his twin brother Esau for similar reasons. One other commentary on Nittai's second piece of advice that I liked commentated that the 'wicked person' is in fact Yezer Ha'Rah (the evil inclination).

Nittai's last tidbit of advice is something that I'm sure many struggle with, a question that even Moshe couldn't find an answer for, 'Why the righteous suffer?'. The late Rabbi Meir Matzliah Melamed states the difficulty rather eloquently:

When we see an evil person prospering, and not being punished immediately for the evil he or she commits, do not despair, for sooner or later, those who are evil will receive their just deserts. On the other hand, if good people suffer, and are not rewarded for their good deeds, they should not refrain from keeping up their good works, for reward always comes in time

In essence, what Nittai is saying here is advising the religious Jew how to live: Don't despair, embrace life and love the world and Hashem, and make your life worth living.

1 comment:

Zak S said...

nice touch with the ladino, maybe you could explain abit more about why sefardim do this as I don't know much about it. Very interesting!