The Tractate Avot seems to get its name from the opening list of our ancestors who transmitted the Oral Torah from generation to generation: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and passed it to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the Zekeinim; the Zekeinim to the Nevi’im; and the Nevi’im to the Anshei Knesset Hagedola.”
The obvious question is why this mesorah of chachamim appears here, at the end of the third Seder of mishnayot, and not at the beginning of Tractate Berachot? Why not list the mesorah at the beginning of the Gemara?
The Meiri answers that the mesorah is listed here to emphasize the significance of the topics discussed in this Avot. Since it focuses on issues that are neither halachic nor derived from pesukim, people might see these issues as not really mitzvot or aveirot, and therefore not be careful about their observance. To stress their importance, the Mishnah links them to the greats of our mesorah – the leaders of past generations.
Avot as Principles
The Meiri then presents a second explanation for the name “Avot.” As when the word used to describe the melachot of Shabbat and types of nezikin (damages), avot here means “root principles” – the principles from which other concepts originate.
Both of Avot’s central components facilitate living a meaningful life. First, the middot taught by Avot are the precondition for Torah itself – “Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah.” In addition, Avot addresses matters of faith and hashkafa (outlook). It teaches us how we are meant to see the world and our place and role within it.
Both of these ideas highlight the importance of Tractate Avot. In order to live proper Jewish lives, we need to know and internalize Judaism’s outlook on the world and human life as well as to behave properly. The Gemara teaches that we become a chasid by studying Avot. We live life most ideally when our hashkafa expresses itself in our behavior and our behavior is rooted in our hashkafa.
The Meiri presents these two explanations of Avot as a continuation of one another. Indeed, our “Avot principles” come from our avot ancestors. This is not only because it makes sense to learn from earlier generations, but also because Judaism is a religion of continuity.
Judaism is not just about individuals understanding and worshipping G-d. It is about belonging to a people who descend from and still identify with our avot and imahot. Though all ancient peoples have living descendants, Jews are the only ones who name children after ancestors. This is because we emulate them and their relationship with Hashem.
Despite the depths to which we descended in Mitzraim, we were redeemed because we continued using the names of our ancestors. Upon heralding redemption, Hashem identified Himself as the G-d of our ancestors and at the Yam Suf climax of the redemption we related to Hashem as “elokei avi va’aromimenhu.” Understandably, we begin Shemonah Esreh by describing Hashem as not only our G-d, but also as that of our ancestors, because we know that our relationship with Him is a continuation of theirs.
By leaving the areas of middot and hashkafa (mostly) unstated clearly by the Torah, Hashem ensured that we would learn these avot of our faith from the avot of previous generations. Like the halachot of the Oral Torah, we learn our principles of faith, hashkafa, and middot from our biological parents as well as our spiritual avot.
I look forward to learning the principles of Avot with you in the coming months. May our learning to live by Avot hashkafot and up to Avot standards reinforce our place as links in our people’s Avot-Banim mesorah.