Pirkei Avot 1:13 — Messianic Commentary

Hillel used to say: He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it. He who learns not, forfeits his life. He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.

Rabbi Hillel is one of the most famous rabbis of the Second Temple period. He lived during late first century prior to the common era through the childhood years of Yeshua. He was originally from Babylon, but came to settle in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) around the age of forty. He took up residence in the Galilee and came to establish his own rabbinic school, known as Beit Hillel (The House of Hillel), which became the dominant rabbinic school of thought at the end of the Second Temple period. Since his life briefly overlaps that of Yeshua’s and his ministry being located in the Galilee, as well as the fact that nearly all of his teachings align with Yeshua’s, many have suggested that Hillel could have possibly served as a mentor for Yeshua in his childhood. Another New Testament connection and well known fact is that Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher and the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin during Paul’s life. These are some of the words of this great sage…

“He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name.”

If this is true, then the converse should also be true: “He who loses his name, aggrandizes his name.” When we look at the words of our Master, we see that this is indeed what he taught. He said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). He also taught his disciples that in order to become great, one first had to become a servant:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

“He who does not increase his knowledge [of Torah], decreases it.”

In Irving Bunim’s classic commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, he begins his comments on this section with the following illustration: “A man’s knowledge must keep step with his general development. It is considered an achievement when a one-year-old child begins to speak. But we can hardly continue to admire the child of twelve for his ability to talk. If he has not progressed since one, the child is a case of arrested development.” This may sound harsh, especially to the ears of those who have been under the impression that the serious study of Scripture is reserved for the elect; however, if we believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, then our knowledge of Scripture should be ever increasing, informing our day-to-day living. The author of Hebrews shows his frustration with a group of people who are slow to learn, saying:

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Bunim’s observation is correct. The Word of God is the daily sustenance for our souls. In reference to the Word being spiritual nourishment, even Yeshua himself, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, says that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” We are responsible for the teachings of the Holy Writ, particularly the words of our Master. Yeshua confirms this concept by saying, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). We generally associate these words of Yeshua to that of our spiritual abilities, i.e. our “talents” (from a sub-conscience association with the English homonym of the same name, rather than “talent” being correctly understood as a unit of currency). However, in this instance, Yeshua is clearly connecting this instruction with our responsibility as stewards of his teachings. His words are our very life. Peter came to this realization with his confession, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

“He who learns not, forfeits his life.”

As we stated earlier, the Word of God is life. If man does not “live by bread alone,” his existence, therefore, is sustained by the Word of God. Again, if we think about the reverse, it should bear to reason that without the Word of God in our daily diet, our lives fade from existence.

“He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.” The author of Hebrews says that the Word of God has the ability to discern our motives: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If we are making use of Scripture for personal gain, we will be sorely disappointed in the end.

Daily Disciplines of A Disciple

Study while the light still shines

I wake up each morning pretty much the same. My alarm goes off on my phone, I walk to the other side of the bedroom and hit the snooze button. I lay back down for another five minutes until my alarm goes off again. Annoyed by the fact that it’s only been five minutes since it went off last (intentionally), I question why I have my alarm set to this often insane time so early in the morning that I question whether the Almighty even knows about this hour of the day or not. At that point I am reminded of why I have to beat this earthen vessel into submission: to be a true disciple of my Master.

So, I say Modeh Ani (the prayer upon rising, thanking the Almighty for another day of this life), get dressed (sometimes) and make may way to my office at the other end of the house (not very far away in my 1400 sq. foot home). Often I’ll make a cup of tea (Chai, Oolong, Early Grey) or coffee (decaf), and then begin my morning study routine. I first pray the Hareini Mekasher (the prayer for binding oneself to Yeshua as my Master and the Righteous Messiah), then recite a long portion of the Sermon on the Mount (memorization exercise), then move on to study several other things — mussar, Torah, the Gospels, Paul, Torah Club, Daily Dose of Torah, chasidic commentary/insights, contemporary writings among my peers, views that are opposed to mine, blogs, etc.. I’m not saying I study every single one of these each morning. However, I will gravitate toward a particular topic or three, but maintain my “core” sources in the mix.

After that, I try to write. And although I haven’t posted daily on my site, I do try to write at least something each day. Currently, I’ve been very focused on my discipleship book. I have intentionally reserved my site for what I consider more important, complete thoughts, rather than filling it each day with my stream of consciousness that seems to be prevalent among most blogs (and arguably which is actually more of a blog anyway). My choice in this has been to spare people my ramblings, my rants and my questions and offer a few nuggets here and there which may be of value.

From there I spend time in Shacharit (morning prayer) and then begin my work day.

Anyway… a few weeks ago, the eldest daughter of one of my best friends painted a picture (above) for her family of a burning lamp with a couple of scrolls in the background. Her caption reads, “STUDY while the light still shines…” Her father made me a copy of it, and I hung it in front of my desk yesterday. It will serve as a constant reminder of why I have to beat this flesh into submission, rather than getting the extra hours extra sleep that most people would enjoy.

The sages say that one of the first questions we will be asked by the Holy One in the world to come is, “Did you set aside fixed times of study?” (b.Shabbat 31a). Whether this is true or not is not my point. We should make it, however, as important to us today as it was at the time of the disciples. Where the disciples had the Torah-made-flesh as their instructor, today we mainly have the written works of others to guide us. Some of us are fortunate to actually walk in the dust of a great teacher to whom we have been taken under their wing. Most are not that fortunate. So, until we have that opportunity, studying the writings of holy men and women who have walked this journey ahead of us is our primary means of staying the course and molding our minds into godly vehicles by which we convert information into action, thoughts into deeds. It is in these times of concealed, un-noticed self-discipline that our minds, hearts and souls are transformed. It is this preparatory work that tills the soil for hearts that are receptive to the work of the Almighty during the day. It is this preparatory work that I enjoy sharing with my close friends, knowing that they, too, are seeking the Holy One daily.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a boast feast. I have nothing to boast in. I struggle daily with submission. My point is this: I’ve been writing a lot about discipleship. However, it doesn’t mean beans if I’m not living it. So, I’m throwing the ball back into your court: Are you actively making effort daily to be a better disciple of Yeshua?

When Yeshua returns, I want him to be able to look at me with loving eyes and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” What about you? Does your daily routine leave room for discipleship?

Dying In My Tent

“Resh Lakish said: Whence do we learn that words of Torah are firmly held by one who kills himself for it? Because it says, This is the Torah, when a man shall die in the tent.”
(Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 63b)

While studying this week’s Torah Portion (Chukat/Chukas), I came to the this passage:

זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּי־יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל

This is the law when someone dies in a tent (Numbers 19:14a)

It reminded me of the lessons I had learned from Artscroll’s A Daily Dose of Torah (ADDT) regarding this passage. Although this passage is literally about the law regarding the transfer of corpse impurity to anyone under the roof the same roof as a corpse, it is understood midrashically from the Hebrew to be a lesson about one who would “kill himself for the sake of Torah.” As the passage in Berachot 63b says, “the words of Torah are firmly held by one who kills himself for it.” Or as ADDT phrases it, “Torah remains only with one who kills himself for it.” And, as a reminder for the literal-minded, they clarify that it is not that one is to endanger one’s life for the sake of Torah. It is rather that we must restrict our personal pleasures, and sacrifice of our time in order to make the time for study so that the lessons of Torah will be impressed upon us with a lasting impression.

From the moment I learned this a few years back, this has spoken to me. However, this week it speaks even louder. Due to some undisclosed circumstances, over the last year or more, my guiding philosophy has been:

“For in much wisdom is much vexation,and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

I have kept up with my studies just enough to give my family some direction, but nothing more. I have not “died in my tent.” I’ve only been in survival mode. However, during Shavuot of this year Hashem spoke to my heart and said that I must get back on course and “die in my tent” for His sake. I must put aside all of the coping mechanisms (distractions) with which I have been filling my life. I must “die to myself” in order to truly live, and become who He has intended for me to become.

“When I die and face the heavenly court,” the Hassidic Rabbi Zusha famously said, “if they ask me why I was not more like Abraham, I will say that I didn’t have Abraham’s intellectual abilities. If they say, ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ then I will explain that I did not have Moses’ talent for leadership. For every such question I will have an answer, but if they say, ‘Zusha, why were you not Zusha?’ for that I will have no answer.”

Since Shavuot, I have been studying with renewed fervor. I have been a lot more consistent in my studying, and more engaged with the Holy Text. I’ve also been gleaning from other sources, and studying them more carefully as well. Although I still have a nagging trepidation, I am looking forward with anticipation to what Hashem is going to do in my life as I surrender to Him.

Will I ever become who I was intended to become? Will you? Maybe it is time for both of us to “die in our tents” together.