The Introductory Mishna
We have finished the Maharal's introduction to his explanation on
Pirkei Avoth. What I presented was very close to an orderly translation of
his writings (editing for a smooth flow, or to exclude things that don't lend
themselves to a concise written explanation). You may have realized that
the parts that were in parenthesis were my "editorial" comments. In this
class I will present what is known as the introductory Mishna when
reciting Pirkei Avoth. Its source is the opening Mishna of Chapter 11 of
Masechet Sanhedrin, and the Maharal spends some time explaining why
it opens the weekly recital of Pirkei Avoth. I will again present what is
basically a translation of his explanation (with my comments in
parenthesis), leaving out the lengthy second half of his explanation.
The Maharal frequently begins his explanations with questions
challenging the textual and logical percision of the Mishna. Why did the
Rabbis use this example, what is the connection between the elements
included together in any specific Misha, did the quoted verse really
demonstrate the validity of the idea it was supposed to support. These
problems are frequently solved by going below the superficial
understanding, and showing the relationship between underlying
principles. We will have this frequently. In this Mishna, it stands out in
the quoted verse of the Mishna.
Next class, I will begin with the Mishnayot from Chapter 1,
and I will present more of a summary of the Maharal's ideas in a free-
flowing form, incorporating my understandings in the body of what I write.
I hope this will be valuable for everyone, and those of you who have the
time and the ability may want to check my presentation against your own
reading of the original text.
"Every member of the nation of Israel has a
share in the World to Come, as it is written 'For your
nation has all righteous people; they will inherit the
land forever. They are the stick of My saplings, My
handiwork to glorify me.'"
There are a number of difficulties in understanding this Mishna.
Firstly, how does the verse "Your nation has all righteous people; they
will inherit the land forever" (Isaiah 60:21) teach about the World to
Come, something which is not mentioned at all in this verse? (If the idea
needs textual validation, this text doesn't seem to "deliver the goods!)
Secondly, why is "saplings," referring to the nation of Israel, written in the
plural rather than singular? And why is Israel referred to as a sapling
rather than a tree?
The righteousness of the Nation of Israel referred to by the prophet
is not due to their deeds, for a) it is impossible for the entire nation to be
composed only of righteous people; b) then only the righteous should
merit "inheriting the land forever." Yet the prophet says that the entire
nation inherits it. Rather, the righteousness referred to by the prophet is
an intrinsic component of the Nation of Israel, and it is this which qualifies
every member of the nation for a portion in the World To Come,
independent of their good deeds. The Jewish nation was created
flawlessly, being compared to the "solet," fine flour which has no residue.
G-d created both the finite present world (Olam Hazeh), as well as an
infinite and higher level World To Come (Olam Habah). The most
appropriate ones to be the inheritors of this elevated World To Come are
the members of the purest and most elevated nation, Israel.
(This perspective of the Maharal on the Jewish people is
discussed at length in his work "Netzach Yisrael." The Kuzari, Rabbi
Yehuda HaLevi presents a similar perspective. It is built on an
understanding of the covenant made between G-d and Avraham.)
The quoted verse tells us that because the nation is intrinsically
righteous, they will inherit "aretz," land, for eternity. The word "aretz" is
used a number of times in scripture in conjunction with the concept of
"chaim," eternal life. Some examples are "G-d, in the land of life" (Isaiah
38:11); "my portion in the land of life" (Psalms 142:6); "exiled from the
land of life" (Isaiah 53:8); "and I will give glory to the land of life" (Ezekiel
26:20, referring to the land of Israel).
The reason land is associated with life is that among the four
basic elements - -fire, wind, earth, and water - - earth is the one that can
be located as the center of the world. (This is true on a physical level,
with land perched on top of the 75% of the earth made up of water, while
fire and air rise above the land. This is also true on a conceptual level.
When the Rabbis speak about something being at the "center" they
usually mean that it is the main element, of primary importance. Since
man lives on the land, and the world exists for man, the land is
considered the element which is in the center.) The power of the center is
that it is the point where everything is in balance, not skewed towards an
extreme or an edge. The Hebrew word for edge is "keitz" which also
means a termination point, implying an end. The center, the point of
balance, is where we find life and eternity, for this point is the most
distant from any extreme, and it as the extremes that we find termination
(This idea appears in a number of places in the works of the
Maharal. See Gvuros HaShem Ch. 46. The practical implications of this
idea are enormous, and we will come back to them a number of times
during Pirkei Avoth. In a "sound-bite", it is a treatise for a life of balance
and harmony, eschewing extremes and extremism in every area.)
By being located at the center, at the point of balance, which is
where a righteous person is, they are situated furthest away from any
point of termination, thereby acquiring eternal life. This is the meaning of
the verse "...righteous people... will inherit the land forever."(Smilarly, the
Maharal interprets the Mishna (Kiddushin 39b) which teaches that one
who does a Mitzva receives "good", long life, and inherits the land. If the
intent was that he inherits the land of Israel, asks the Maharal, then how
do we explain all those righteous people who died outside of Israel.
Rather, "inheriting the land" refers to eternity, as does our Mishna.)
"They are the stick of My saplings." A sapling in its primary state
is the trunk of the young tree, before it has developed any branches that
grow out of the sides. The branches that go in different directions deviate
from the center towards the extremes, implying termination. But the
nation of righteous people never deviate to extremes, always remaining
exclusively in the center, the way a young sapling has only its center,
before it develops its side branches.
The plural, "saplings," is used to represent the many nations that
G-d has "planted" in the world (the nations being represented as trees) but
each of those is really considered like a branch of the central trunk, which
is the Nation of Israel. Branches go off the central trunk, and as
something which deviates from the center they terminate, while Israel, the
central branch, is eternal.
"...My handiwork to glorify me." Because the Nation of Israel is
the work of G-d's hands, more so than the rest of the nations, it is
imperative that they reside in the eternal World to Come. Would they not
be there, it would indicate a deficiency in G-d's handiwork, something
which is inherently impossible. Even though all of G-d's creations are his
handiwork, they are not called "banim," His children, the way Israel is.
Other nations were created to serve Israel, while Israel was created as
the primary nation, an end in and of itself. Therefore, they alone are
called "banim", and their absence or deficiency would compromise the
glorification of G-d.
Understanding the difficulties we have raised imparts depth and
clarity to this Mishna, and shows how the quoted verse validates that
every Jew, by virtue of his membership in the holy nation of Israel, has a
portion in the World to Come.
This Mishna, which is the opening of Chapter 11 of Sanhedrin
(90a) was chosen as an introduction to the weekly recital of Avoth, while
the Mishna at the end of Makkos (23b; Ch. 3, Mishna 16) was chosen to
close the weekly recitation. This custom requires explanation.
When the Wise Men of the generation foresaw the difficulties and
troubles of our long and bitter exile, reciting this Mishna was instituted in
order to comfort Israel through the knowledge of their elevated state. If
the nations of the world are rejoicing in their wealth and success, Israel
should know that they can rejoice in their own destiny and ultimate
success. The attainment of their place in the World To Come derives from
their fundamental creation as the special handiwork of G-d (giving them
confidence in their ultimate well-being).
Beyond that, they also have an elevated state due to their
balanced character traits and moral behavior. This develops from their
being created as a good and virtuous nation, in contrast to other nations
whose foundations are evil, and whose basic character contains
promiscuity, murder, and corruption. (This less than "politically correct"
perspective requires elaboration which is beyond the scope of this forum.
The issue of the special role the Jewish people play in the world, and how
we got there, is discussed by many commentaries. In addition to the
Maharal and Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi that I quoted above, the Ramchal in
"Derech Hashem" as well as the Rambam (in the Yad HaChazaka, in a
number of his letters, and in the Moreh Nevuchim) and the Ramban in
various places, all present various perspectives on this issue.) Finally,
the ultimate grandeur of the Jewish nation is the Torah they have, as
described by Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia at the end of Makkos.
The structure of the recitation of Avoth is built on this progression.
We open with the Mishna from Sanhedrin that describes the superiority of
the Jewish nation attained through their creation. This innate status
facilitates their attainment of superior character traits and moral behavior,
derech eretz, which is taught to us during our reciation of Avoth. And the
attainment of this derech eretz facilitates, and is a prerequisite for, the
attainment of Torah (as we will explain in Chapter 3, Mishna 19 "If there is
no derech eretz, there can be no Torah"), leading us to conlcude our
reciation of Avoth with the Mishna in Makkos teaching the merit of an
abundance of Torah and Mitzvos.
This progression also reflects the process of creation. First the
world was created, followed by 26 generations of derech eretz without
Torah, and only then was Torah given.
So we have three stages of elevation in which the Jewish nation
can rejoice despite all the difficulties they experience in their exile: Their
initial creation, their attainment of superior character traits, and ultimately
their immersion in Torah, all of which leads to their special place in the
World to Come.
Shabbos (when Avoth is customarily recited) is a most suitable
time for this rejoicing. The special day of rest was given to no other
nation, and indicates the special status of the Jews. We recite in the
Shabbos prayers: Moshe will rejoice with the gift of his portion (the
Shabbos)... And You did not give it to the nations of the lands, nor did You
bequeath it to worshippers of idols, and in its rest the uncircumcised will
not dwell. But only to...the offspring of Yakov whom you have chosen...
The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky,
Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, Yeshivat
Darche Noam/Shapell's and Midreshet Rachel for Women.