On Shabbat afternoons between Passover and Shavuot – between Zman Cherutaynu, the season of our freedom and Zman Matan Torataynu, the season of the giving of our Torah – it’s customary to study Pirkei Avot. Why? What is the connection between Pirkei Avot and the season we’re just concluding?
We can begin to see the answer in the words of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who is quoted in the sixth chapter of Avot, a chapter that was added to give us the requisite six weeks of study. He explains the passage in Exodus 32:16: “‘The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets.’ Do not read the word as charut – incised but rather read it [with different vowels as] cherut – freedom, because the only free person is one who is occupied with Torah study.”
The holiday of freedom – Passover – is not complete without the Torah and its study. For our sages, freedom was not chaos but order – the order of Torah. The Omer period, the counting the days between the beginning of Passover to the celebration of Shavuot, is the counting of the days leading to true freedom.
From the rabbinic perspective, Judaism is meaningless and the Jewish People are rudderless without Torah. That’s why the opening of Avot is so important to take to heart. Moses received the Torah and transmitted it to Joshua. God gave the Torah, Moses received it, and in turn, he transmitted it to the next generation. There were three, and there are three, essential actions: giving, receiving and transmitting.
Unless there is someone to receive God’s gift of Torah, it will simply fall to earth. As in football, the passer still needs the receiver. But the Torah cannot survive if it ends in one generation. The recipient must in turn transmit it to the next generation, which in turn must transmit it to the next.
That’s why we prepare for the holiday of Shavuot with the words of Pirkei Avot. For the rabbis cited there are part of the chain of transmission beginning with Moses at Sinai and – God willing – never concluding. We, too, must be part of that chain of transmission. When we study and teach, we fulfil that obligation. We forge the links of the chain – not a chain of bondage, but of freedom.
Without Torah, without receiving and transmitting it, we lose our freedom. We may not be slaves to others, but we’re slaves to godlessness, we’re slaves to our passions, and we’re slaves to the momentary, the finite.
With Torah, we serve God, we rule ourselves and we join with the infinite.
Rabbi Berman is spiritual leader of Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Thornhill, Ont.