J-BOM: Visions of the Fathers

Visions of the Fathers

Rabbi Abraham Twerski

Mesorah Publications, 1999

I’ve owned and cherished Visions of the Fathers for a few years now. It has become a wealth of inspiration, as well as a guide to practical application of the wisdom contained within Pirkei Avot. Some of my readers may not be familiar with Pirkei Avot, so let me begin by sharing a little about this source

Pirkei Avot, often shortened to merely Avot, is a chapter of tractate Nezakin (Damages) of the Mishnah, the Oral Law of Judaism. It contains six chapters1, which are traditionally studied one chapter per week during the counting of the Omer, and then continue again at a slower pace until Sukkot (Tabernacles).

Avot is probably the most familiar work of the Mishnah due to its timeless aphorisms which affect all aspects of our lives. Sayings such as:

  • On three things the world stands: Torah, Service & Acts of Loving Kindness
  • Make a teacher for yourself, acquire a friend/companion for yourself and judge all men on the scale of merit
  • The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah
  • Make your Torah study a fixed practice. Say little & do much; and greet everyone with a cheerful countenance
  • Do not say, “When I am free I will study,” for perhaps you will never be free

So, why is studying Avot important? First, because it’s just good wisdom and we can all use more wisdom. But secondly, because the words of Jesus predate nearly all of the wisdom sayings found within this work, and yet you can almost hear his voice in the majority of these sayings. And though studying these comparatively with the words of our Master, I think we can gain some insight and understanding into his teachings which may have eluded us.

Lastly, I find one of the most important reasons to study Avot is that many often spend a considerable amount of time learning the text and meaning of Scripture, but fail in the application. The main focus on Avot (and all of Jewish theology for that matter) is application. Comparing the straight forward instructions of Avot with the sometimes broad strokes of Yeshua’s teachings can sometimes really help in understanding practical application of the Master’s imperatives.

Every Wednesday morning I meet with three other men for fellowship & to discuss the things we are learning, studying, etc. Over the last couple of weeks we have been discussing Avot, based on Twerski’s work. So far, we’ve gotten through the first three sayings of the first chapter. Yes, it’s that engaging. It’s been a wonderful time of digging into this text and then into the words of our Master to see how they compare and if we can learn something new and applicable to our lives.

In regard to Avot commentaries, there are a plethora of commentaries available from various sources. This commentary by Twerski, however, is personally significant in that it seems to contain the kind of analogies which really drive home the message of each particular mishnah (segment of text, similar to a verse). He is a natural maggid (story teller), and includes an enormous amount of talmudic anecdotes & chassidic stories to illustrate his points for each mishnah. Some Messianics might take issue with his constant affinity with psychological principles or kabbalistic insights. However, I find them very stimulating and accessible.

As far as illustrating Twerski’s methods, time permits me to give only one example.

Avot 1:6 says

Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: Make a teacher for yourself; acquire a friend for yourself; and judge everyone favorably.

Commenting on the last portion of this passage regarding judging everyone favorably, Twerski states

If we are flexible and lenient with other people, then God is lenient to us. If we are stern, rigid, and demanding, then God will act accordingly with us. When we judge other people favorably rather than condemn them, we merit that God will judge us favorably as well.

Essentially, this is what Yeshua tells in the Gospel of Matthew:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

So, why should we judge others favorably? Why not judge them with the measure they “deserve”? Because we will be judged in like manner, according to our Master.

From there, Twerski references the Baal Shem Tov and the Zohar on a couple of insightful points, and then says the following:

If we fail to identify our own shortcomings, we are likely to see them in others and be critical of them. If we acquire a teacher and friend that can alert us to our own biases and allow us to be more impartial in our judgments, we are far less likely to be condemning of others.

This is the essence of Yeshua’s instructions, and the extension of the mishnah at hand. Twerski does a great job at digging to the heart of the mishnah and looking at both the broad and specific applications time after time throughout the book. I would definitely be interested to hear any other specifics as to what you have enjoyed from Visions of the Fathers if you want to post a note for me in the comments. If you haven’t read it yet, you can pick up a copy here.

  1. In liturgical use, and in most printed editions of Avoth, a sixth chapter, Kinyan Torah (“Acquisition of Torah”) is added; this is in fact the eighth (in the Vilna edition) chapter of tractate Kallah, one of the minor tractates. It is added because its content and style are somewhat similar to that of the original tractate Avoth (although it focuses on Torah study more than ethics), and to allow for one chapter to be recited on each Sabbath of the Omer period, this chapter being seen well-suited to the Sabbath before Shavuot, when the giving of the Torah is celebrated. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirkei_Avot#Structure_of_the_work

Daily Dose of Torah set finally complete

Well, thanks to our good friends Erik & Tara Leamon, my Daily Dose of Torah Volume 1 set is finally complete after 3 years of having two volumes missing. Erik & Tara gave us a gift certificate from Artscroll and I put it to good use in purchasing these missing volumes from one of my most treasured study series. Baruch Hashem! Thanks Erik & Tara for your generosity. We love you!

Opportunity Knocks…And I Need Your Help!

Yes, opportunity has knocked and I need your help. A friend of mine has started a church in our capital city which is very information/media driven. They are very open to new ideas and are very culture-centric. They have started a new blog series called “CityView” and invited me to be a guest blogger on their site in a few weeks to present my perspective on any topic I choose. The concept behind CityView is as follows:

Faith is everywhere. or lack of faith. Either way, there’s a bigger conversation occurring in our city than just a single church or a single faith perspective. Instead of becoming an insular community, we hope that [name of church] can be a place that listens to & engages in the broader faith conversation in our city. CityView is our first shot at doing just that. We’d love for you to share your faith perspective with us in this new blog series.

Whether we agree on this perspective is not the point. The point is that I am going to be able to blog about anything at all and I was wanting to get ideas from anyone out there who wants to give me their input. If you had a chance to stand up to the mic at a Sunday-going-church, what would you say? I would really like for you to submit your thoughts as to what you feel are some important “points” that need to be addressed in greater Christendom from a Messianic perspective. Please submit your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Rules for submissions:

  1. Be nice
  2. Be nice
  3. Be nice

J-BOM: JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, Pt. 2

April’s J-BOM Book: Visions of the Fathers by Rabbi Abraham Twerski

The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah

Joseph Tabory

The Jewish Publication Society, 2008

This, the second half of my review of The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, unfortunately, I have run out of time to highlight all of the interesting information which Tabory puts forth in this succinct volume. We are well into April, and I need to focus my attentions on the April J-BOM review (Visions of the Fathers by Rabbi Abraham Twerski – one of my favorite commentaries on Pirkei Avot). There is, however, one last thing I want to make sure I hit.

I have often been troubled over the last decade or so of celebrating the seder meal in regard to the seeming absence of the answers to the Four Questions in the Maggid. Tabory makes a connection between the mandate of R. Gamliel and the questions. Gamliel requires the “mention” (in context, the “discussion”) of three things at the seder meal: pesach (referring to the meat of the Pesach offering), matzah and maror. He states,

Examination of the best manuscripts of the Mishnah and early haggadot show that there were originally only three questions, which may be summarized as “Why do we eat only matzah? Why do we dip (referring to the dipping of the maror)? Why do we eat only roasted meat?” Thus it seems to be a reasonable assumption that R. Gamliel’s explanations of the significance of Pesach, matzah, and maror are the answers to the three questions, although distanced from them in the haggadah.1

In essence, the original three questions were changed over the centuries to deal with the change of custom (particularly the absence of the pesach after the destruction of the Second Temple), but the answers continued as a type of curious provocation which were not explicit in their connections to the new questions. I feel this is a reasonable explanation which tends to put in a missing piece of the puzzle surrounding the haggadah.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled to try and make some kind of connection between the Questions and the answers. In my Greek-oriented mind (which has to have a clear connection of all the dots), when I created my own haggadah, I attempted to make a clear connection of a question with its answer. Rather than maintaining the mystique and encouraging questioning, I have formulaically given both the problem and the solution. But this is what we are accustomed. Rather than chewing our own food, we have someone else chew it for us. Although this particular example is innocuous, the overarching snapshot is that this is a sad commentary on our culture and the spiritual state of the majority of believers.

There are also a few instances in which Tabory actually rejects interpretations of the text which have traditionally been thought to be written as anti-Christian polemic. It is interesting to hear his opinions on this, because he appears to be unbiased in his approach (he takes the opposition position a time or two as well). The two examples he gives (and defends as not being anit-Christian in origin) are: 1) the de-emphasis of Moses as the redeemer, and 2) the re-interpretation of the Afikomen as the “bread of distress/affliction.” In both cases, Tabory looks at the earliest historical sources (including Philo, an interesting source considering the topic) and refutes (or cast serious doubt on) the interpretation.

Lastly, the listing of the various differences between haggadot across cultural and linguistic lines is fascinating and much attention has been spent in tedious comparisons between them. Tabory does a masterful job at presenting these with fine granularity in the areas that are significant enough for examination. If you’re interested in this type of examination of one of the most central texts of Judaism, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah is a welcome addition to your bookshelf.

  1. Page 14.

Seder Semanim by Boaz & Einya

Boaz & Einya singing

Long after Passover my youngest two children will still be singing the Seder Semanim, the song that lists the 15 different steps of the Passover seder (Kaddesh, Urchatz, etc.). For some reason they just love to sing that song! So… To capture their zeal and sweet voices, I recorded them singing their current favorite tune. Here is Boaz (age 5) and Einya (age 3) singing for you. I hope you enjoy it half as much as I do.

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