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Both the Mishnah and Talmud are unique in their style of composition for in effect it allows the students thousands of years later to feel as though they have entered into that ancient study hall to hear the discussion of the scholars of Israel. Though most of the text of the Mishnah covers matters of law, ritual, commandments and observances, the tractate called Avot deals almost exclusively with matters of life, society and education.
Perhaps it is for this very reason that the book is so beloved amongst Jews and is of enormous influence in Jewish life. According to the Talmud, Avot provides the gateway to a meaningful life of piety and observance, goodness and altruism. According to ancient custom the book is reviewed every Sabbath between Pasach and the advent of the High Holy Days. The book itself has spawned myriad commentaries and interpretations over the centuries.
Each commentary in the book of Avot reflects the issues particular to the time of its writing but distills the problems and solutions through the prism of the eternal wisdom of the scholars of Israel. As such, due to its never-ending popularity, the book itself has become the cornerstone of all works of Jewish scholars in the fields of ethics, sociology, and human relations.
The Mishnah and Talmud oftentimes discuss subjects and details of law and observance that are beyond the scope of the ordinary Jew to truly appreciate and understand. However, the book of Avot speaks directly and simply to every Jew and, in fact, to every human being about life, its problems and vicissitudes, accomplishments and disappointments. I would dare to call it the most human of all of the books of Jewish life and lore.
I have always been impressed by the fact that almost every statement in the book is associated with the name of a particular scholar, a certain person. Had the book been written and edited by an editor, the statements quoted would be anonymous in character. The addition of the names and the fact that almost each statement in the book is ascribed to a certain person, at first may seem strange, if not even superfluous.
However, there is a great lesson to be learned from this. The lesson is that even though morality and goodness and human wisdom are gifts granted to us by   God, it is only through the actions and teachings of human beings that the noble ideas of the Torah and Judaism can be activated and made real.
Goodness and social probity do not occur in a vacuum. In the hustle and bustle of daily life, with the pettiness of situations and the pathos and irony that mark human existence, it is the imperative of Torah to be a good and moral person. And the book of Avot is the book of instruction….how to become that good and moral person. Without its guidance, many human beings will fall prey to false ideas and fake definitions of goodness and morality.
The book of Avot represents the yardstick by which we intelligently measure our lives to see that goodness and morality truly reign over our actions, attitudes and thoughts. It is the fact that all later generations, so to speak, through the words of the great sages of Israel, are instructed in the moral ways of life.
The book of Avot often contains opinions that differ one from another. This is also an important reflection of the humanity that lies within its pages. Though generally speaking, there are clear and broad outlines as to what is good and what is moral in any given situation, there are always nuances of detail and circumstance that make every situation in life different from one another.
The entire structure of Jewish law and life, which is reflected in the Mishnah and the Talmud, consists of differing opinions and viewpoints. All these opinions are quoted and explored, for even if we are bound to follow one opinion over the other we should always have within our consciousness the knowledge that there does exist another opinion. This lesson of broad wisdom and of human respect for the differences that mark human life is one of the greatest lessons that we can learn from the study of the book of Avot.
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

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