Summer of Ethics
We are now in the period of time known as Sefiras Ha’omer – counting of the Omer, the time between Pesach and the following festival which is Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, which occurred the 50th day after the exodus of Egypt. And so, in between Passover, when we became a nation, we were born as a nation physically, and Shavuot, when we were born as a nation spiritually, those two festivals are linked by a time that we count every single day, days and weeks. The idea here is to link those two events, so that the physical creation of the Jewish people is linked to our spiritual creation. The only reason we are a nation physically is so that we can carry out our spiritual task, found in the Torah. The great Jewish philosopher Rav Sa’adya Gaon, wrote “Ein umateinu umah elo b’torata – our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah.” The essence of our national identity and the essence of our national task is the Torah, the fulfillment of its commandments, and being G-d’s “representatives” here on earth.
During this particular period of time it has been a common custom for at least 600 years, to study Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, which is the section of the Mishnah, discussing ethics, personality, character development, and in general, how to be a decent, good person. In Hebrew, middot, character traits, and derech eretz, basic decency. (In Yiddish mentchlichkeit).
Why is it studied during this time? My father OBM used to tell me that in Poland they explainded that because summer is approaching and that’s when the evil inclination is at its strongest, we need to learn Pirkei Avot.
Many commentaries point out another basis for this custom. In order to receive the Torah and fulfill its requirements we need to first be decent people. There is a statement of the Sages that kadmah derech eretz la’Torah chaf vav dorot – that derech eretz, basic decency, preceded the giving of the Torah by 26 generations. Because if you look through the Torah there are 10 generations from Adam to Noah, 10 generations from Noah to Abraham and 6 generations from Abraham to Moses. That means that there were 26 generations of humanity that were not yet given the Torah and the Torah was only given after 26 generations. What preceded the Torah? The Talmud says, derech eretz – the learning and the understanding and the absorbing of the ideas of human decency, how to be a good person, that we were taught by the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
Rabbi Chaim Vital, one of the great Kabbalists noted that the various personality traits and basic decency are not part of the formal system of the commandments. The reason for this is that they are prerequisites of the commandments. He maintains that cannot approach the higher levels of morality and spirituality, the ethical subtleties of the commandments without first being a basically, decent human being. If someone does not understand basic ideas suc as gratitude, commitment, promises, not doing damage, then they have no hope of fulfilling the formal commandments of the Torah.
So, in an attempt to reach the summit of Mount Sinai, we climb to the base camp by studying Pirkei Avos before Shavuot.