Preparing for Shavuot this year, I was reminded of the custom of reading one chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbat afternoon following Pesach. Those who observe the practice today are likely to continue beyond the giving of the Torah and only conclude with the arrival of the Days of Awe. Supposedly, it serves to ‘counteract the tendency to idleness that is experienced during the long afternoons of the summer months’. It is certainly an opportunity to engage with one of the most stimulating collections of Jewish thought. At times like these, when ‘the situation’ has returned with a vengeance, the Rabbis, no strangers to strife and turmoil themselves, are well worth hearing again. The following selection, drawn from the prayer book of the Liberal movement, Siddur Lev Chadash, is accompanied by my own brief and tentative commentary. The reader can add one of their own and, indeed, make a different selection. Each of us is wrestling with these things, and only in doing so are we true to our name, Israel.
Hillel used to say: Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow men and women, and drawing them near to the Torah. ‘Loving your fellow men and women.’ That means: you should love and not hate them. At least, not hate them.
If you stay at home and keep quiet, how can you ‘pursue peace’ between individuals in the community? You should rather leave your home and go about the world and actively promote peace in the community, as it says ‘Seek peace, and pursue it’. (Simeon ben Eleazar) We remember all those who do so and are encouraged and sustained by their example.
You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it. (Tarfon) We engage, not disengage, in words and actions.
Hillel also used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? Let us hear both parts of the maxim simultaneously. Neither has precedence because it appears first or last. We are not meant to negate ourselves in loving our neighbour. We are particular and universal in our outlook.
Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die. Do not judge others until you are in their place. How much empathy has been exercised recently? Few seem prepared to consider those across the divide. The Other, whoever that represents for us, has a story to tell and to be heard.
Where none behave like human beings, behave like a human being. And remember that we are all human beings, however we are behaving.
Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel used to say: All my life I have grown up among scholars, yet I have found nothing better for one than silence. At other times, to say nothing can be a statement in itself. Yet, we can at least hear and consider before we speak out.
Rabbi Eliezer says: Let your friend’s honour be as dear to you as your own; do not be easily angered. And let us extend friendship, not restrict or withdraw it.
Rabbi Joshua used to say: Ill will, selfishness and misanthropy lead to the destruction of humanity. It is easy for words and emotions to spill over and lead us further into the abyss.
Never be the sole judge, for there is only One who may judge alone. And do not say: ‘You must accept my view’, for the choice is theirs, not yours. (Ishmael ben Yose) How tolerant are we of dissonant voices; how threatened by them? Does one side possess the whole truth? Are there really no shades of grey?
Let all who labour for the community labour with them for the sake of Heaven. For then the merit of their ancestors will support them, and their righteousness endure for ever. (Judah ha Nasi) When did we last examine ourselves and our own motivations?
Rabbi Akiva used to say: How privileged we are to have been created in God’s image; how much more privileged still to have been made aware that we were created in God’s image. If all life is sacred, can we remain partisan?
This is the penalty of liars: that even when they speak the truth they are not believed. (Simeon bar Yochai) Beware of misinformation and selectivity. Pursue more than half truths.
If you have done your neighbour a small wrong, let it seem great to you; if you have done your neighbour a great kindness, let it seem small to you. But if your neighbour has done you a small kindness, let it seem great to you; and if your neighbour has done you a great wrong, let it seem small to you. (Judah ben Teima) We are set a high ethic by the Rabbis. Do we consider it to be an unrealistic one, too idealistic for the world we live in? Or do we employ it and swim against the tide once again?
There are four types of person. Some say: ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’ – average. ‘What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine’ – stupid. ‘What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours’ – saintly. ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine’ – wicked. (Anonymous) Who would be wicked, stupid or saintly? Where is the balance to be struck?
Class of 2018
 In Klein, I., A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, New York, 1979, p. 147.
 The prayer book presents selected aphorisms from Pirkei Avot and Avot d’Rabbi Natan.