The Transmission of Torah – Ethics of the Fathers


Rabbi Israel Chait

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Last week we left off with an intriguing question, based on Rashi’s commentary on the first mishna in Pirkei Avos. Rashi explains that one of the reasons Joshua was selected to be charged with transmission of the Torah was that he ‘killed himself in the tents of wisdom from his days of youth’. After explaining the idea of ‘killing oneself’ for wisdom, we asked: why is it important that this take place in his youth? Why is it of interest to know at what stage in life this perfection took place? 

The verse in Koheles 12:1 says “Remember your Creator in the days or your youth before the days of hardship arrive and the years where you say ‘I have no desire for them’.” People generally think that the time to get involved in the spiritual is when one is older and the body is waning. Here King Solomon teaches us the opposite - perfection must begin when one is young. The reasoning behind this is that insofar as a person perfects himself in his youth…that is how much more he will be able to perfect himself in later years. Once man’s energies find other roots, there will always remain a taint, no matter how much a person removes himself from those areas later on. The Talmud says “Whomever does not marry before the age of twenty spends all his days in sin; can you possibly mean literally in sin? Rather, all his days will be spent in thought about sin”. Here too, the Talmud is explaining that once a person’s mind is shaped in a certain way because his psychological energies are drawn to specific areas (here the specific area is the realm of the sexual instinct), he will suffer from those effects for the rest of his life.

At this point, another statement of our Sages may seem contrary to our idea; the Sages explain that “In the place where those who repent stand, the completely righteous can not stand”- this would seem to imply that although one was a sinner before, he is on a higher level than one who never sinned and if so, then would it not matter if one was a sinner in his youth?

The answer to this question lies in understanding the different frameworks of the ideas. When our Sages say that the repentant one is on a higher level, they are referring to the specific attribute of removing and distancing oneself from sin. In this context, the repentant person has achieved more because, as the Rambam says (Laws of  Repentance 7:4) he tasted the taste of sin and still was able to separate. In contrast, the idea being expressed by Koheles as well as other statements of the Sages mentioned above, is that with regards to the overall general makeup of the psyche of a tzadik, one who is righteous, is better off because he never sinned, and therefore does not direct his energies towards sin.

Rashi says that the second reason that Joshua was chosen for this role was that he ‘acquired a good name’. Here too, we need to ask: what exactly is meant by a ‘good name’? And why is it so valuable? Is the Torah endorsing the selfish concern that an individual has for his own reputation? Certainly, we would demand more from a leader of a nation!

To answer this question, we need to understand how a perfected individual relates to other people. The Rambam, towards the end of his work, the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed) explains that the highest level of man is where his behavior towards others is based solely on his ‘Ahavas Hashem’, his love of God. He does not involve himself in kindness towards others for any selfish reason, but rather only out of appreciation for God’s Will. It is interesting to notice that in society, people can sense the motivation that others have for doing good deeds. There is an ability amongst people to detect whether an individual is doing something for personal reasons or for some good other than himself. We may then say that one doesn’t have a great reputation, despite the fact that he may perform many good deeds, because people recognize those selfish motivations. People generally have their own selfish considerations so that when one acts based on his selfish goal, others will sense that this person is really not so unique - he is just acting on the same motives that others have.

In contrast, one who has a ‘good name’ will be one who operates on the higher level of doing kindness out of recognition of an objective, selfless good to the extent that it is noticed as such.  When people sense that this is an individual who is sincerely interested in the welfare of others, they will admire him and praise him for this so that he will develop a good reputation.

We can now explain the value of the ‘good name’ and why it was important that the leader of the Jewish nation have this characteristic: as a leader, Joshua was going to come under many pressured situations where a personal weakness would be able to express itself in a wrong decision. Therefore, not only did he need to possess the trait of perfection from youth, so that his energies were firmly rooted in the proper paths and directions, but he also needed the ‘good name’ to express the degree to which he had reached a level of love for God, such that it was also recognized by others. With these two characteristics, Joshua was fit to deal with all pressures of being a leader, internal as well as external.