Pirkei Avot 1:17 — Messianic Commentary

The following is a brief, messianic commentary I recently wrote for a messianic newsletter on (Pirkei) Avot 1:17.

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Shimon his [Rabban Gamaliel’s] son said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing, but rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin. (Avot 1:17)

In our above mishnah (saying), Rabbi Shimon states his observations from the time which he has “grown up among the wise.” In this he states that true wisdom is found in two main principles: holding the tongue, and living out the beliefs one espouses. These are principles that are commonly supported in the Scriptures.

Subduing the Tongue

The first principle, holding the tongue, is a base requirement for godly living. Proverbs tells us the following:

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

Rabbi Shimon’s saying that “whoever multiplies words causes sin” is merely a succinct restatement of this proverb. His introductory words, “I have not found anything better for a man than silence,” however, are a fence he establishes for guarding against sin. This fence is based on Proverbs 21:23, which states:

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

James, the brother of our Master agrees:

“… the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:6-10)

Our words are important. We must be extremely careful with them, for “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

In the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, commonly known as the Chofetz Chaim (the “Desire of Life” – based on the title of his most famous work, founded on Proverbs 34:12-15), wrote extensively on the subject of Shemiras Halashon (“proper speech” — literally “guarding the tongue”). He became a world-renown authority on the biblical ethics of proper speech, and his works are the benchmark on the ethics of speech within Judaism to this day.

Yeshua taught about the overuse of words in regard to prayer. He taught his disciples,  “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). In this teaching, Yeshua agrees with Rabbi Shimon in that “less is more.” In one instance, Yeshua says regarding our speech, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). In another instance, he says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45). Yeshua’s focus is on the quality of one’s words, verses the quantity. His concern was whether they emanated from the heart, or were a means of manipulation.

Knowing vs. Doing

Back to Rabbi Shimon. Sandwiched between these two expressions regarding speech, he states, “Studying Torah is not the most important thing, but rather fulfilling it.” In the tradition of a true master of Scripture, he ties these expressions of making ones words few to the living out of the principles of Scripture. But the question we must ask is how does Rabbi Shimon connect these teachings, regarding speech, to the “doing” of Torah? How are they related?

Throughout the existence of humanity we have witnessed an epic struggle between knowing and doing. There is a constant battle in relation to these two forces, ever the struggle to marry knowledge and application. This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Whereas knowledge is being informed, wisdom is acting on the knowledge we have been given. When we choose to ignore the knowledge we have been given and make choices that contradict this information, we are being foolish. Hence, it is the fool who ignores instruction and correction according to Proverbs. It is the fool who repeats his folly, not taking heed to warnings from his elders or even his peers. It is the fool who is informed, but who lacks wisdom in his actions.

The chasm between belief and faith have long been the discussion of seminaries, pulpits and armchairs. It is precisely here that we find the spiritual struggle of every believer. Our actions, however, reveal our true nature — we act according to our values. Don’t we justify ourselves in judging others based on their actions, rather than their intentions, but judge ourselves solely on intention? Dallas Willard is quoted as saying, “You can live opposite of what you profess, but you cannot live opposite of what you believe.” This is a very accurate observation, which is in the same line of thought as the words of Rabbi Shimon. We may have an ample number of intentions, but it is our actions that ultimately carry the weight of our beliefs.

This is the litmus test of genuine faith. It is only genuine faith in which “faith and works” walk hand in hand, as James tells us (James 2:18-26). Rabbi Shimon recognized the truth of the common aphorism that “actions speak louder than words.” He places emphasis on minimizing words, and maximizing actions, realizing that one’s actions are the sermons that others will hear quicker than any eloquent speech or illustration. Within the Christian tradition we have a well known saying which agrees with this assessment. St. Francis of Assisi is attributed to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. And when absolutely necessary, use words.

May it be so.

What’s Stopping You?

One of this week’s mussar teachings from A Daily Dose of Torah (ADDT) references arguments & techniques of the yetzer hara (our “evil inclination” – or as Paul would say, our “flesh”) which keep us from achieving our potential. It summarizes it as follows:

The arguments and persuasive techniques of the yetzer hara are presented in two categories: (1) those that involve raising doubts about fundamental religious beliefs and faith; and (2) those that try to dissuade a person from concentrating on spiritual concerns, and urge him instead to focus on the physical and the self. 1

ADDT defines these things as things which raise religious doubts, and arguments which cause us to loose our spiritual direction. I would like to broaden these to two general categories. In a nutshell, the two things that keep us from fulfilling our divine purpose in life are Doubts and Distractions.

Doubts

We have all had doubts that creep in as to our purpose… Should we be doing this? Should we be doing that? Should we have done this? Should we have done that? Is this really the choice I am supposed to make? What if I’m wrong? The list goes on and on. Doubt is a huge factor in following the will of the Almighty. The problem with doubt is that it is so deceptive. In nearly every case, we can overcome doubt by looking at the possible outcomes of our choices, and the “what if” scenarios. “What if” we made this choice? “What if” we made that choice? Would it be a disaster? In some cases, yes, it would be. But in the vast majority of cases, no, it would not. It would just mean that we would fail trying to accomplish something. Therefore, our pride is the only thing standing in our way. Our pride guards our doubts, and therefore cripples us from ever really knowing if something was the will of the Almighty or not.

“…the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” (James 1:6)

I don’t believe that it is as much of waiting to hear clearly sometimes as it is taking initiative and allowing our Heavenly Father to open and close doors along the way. He can do much more with one who is in “drive” than in “park.” In other words, “Get off your duff, and go for it!”

Distractions

In regard to distractions, I think this may be the single-most pitfall of Western Christianity. We are so distracted by entertainment (and even “edutainment”) that the Adversary doesn’t have to work hard to keep us from fulfilling our purpose. Our X-boxes, Wiis, iPads and smartphones keep our minds revolving around things other than our spiritual needs. We are constantly being inundated by the TV as to what to eat, wear, & buy. Not only do we rush off to get the latest trendy gadget or hairstyle, but most of the time we view it as a “necessity.” What if we focused all of that time, energy & money on doing something that would have eternal repercussions? What if we weren’t so distracted from our spiritual purposes? The sages were unsympathetic in regard to making excuses for distractions:

Rabbi Jacob said: If a man is walking by the way and is studying and then interrupts his study and says: “How fine is this tree?” or “How fine is this plowed field?” Scripture regards him as though he was liable for his life. (Avot 3:9)

The author of the epistle of Hebrews says something similar:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

And then Paul admonishes us:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

So… we can either use our time to serve our flesh, or to serve our Heavenly Father.

Rabbi Yosi said… Let all your deeds be done for the sake of Heaven. (Avot 2:17)

Are you pursuing things that are eternal, or are you allowing doubts and distractions to direct your life? What if all believers across the globe actually lived out their faith every moment of every day? What if we actually put aside doubts & distractions to accomplish the work of the Kingdom? Wouldn’t that be strange…?

Wouldn’t It Be Strange

(by Charlie Peacock)

I’ve got a question for your consideration
I’ll make you privy to my contemplation
Let me say in my defense
I know it goes against all common sense

It’s not our nature
Not what we’ve been taught
Flies in the face of every lie we’ve bought
It’s hard to see it
Harder to explain
I know it cuts against the grain

Wouldn’t it be strange if riches made you poor
And everything you owned left you wanting more?
Wouldn’t it be strange to question what it’s for?
Wouldn’t it be strange?

I know we’ve got some interest to protect
A set of dots we’re committed to connect
It makes us nervous in light of how it’s been
To play a little game of pretend

Wouldn’t it be strange if power made you weak
And victory came to those who turned the other cheek
Wouldn’t it be strange to welcome your defeat
Wouldn’t it be strange?

Wouldn’t it be strange to find out in the end
The first will be the last and all the losers win?
Wouldn’t it be strange if Jesus came again?
Wouldn’t it be strange?

  1. The Kleinman Edition, A Daily Dose of Torah, Vol. 10, p. 139.