Title: The Eternal Wisdom of Pirkei Avos
By Rabbi Yechiel Spero
Artscroll Mesorah Publications
In his latest book, noted educator, lecturer and author Rabbi Yechiel Spero provides commentary on a portion of each Mishna of Pirkei Avos along with a story to help illustrate what the Rabbis are trying to teach us. Each Mishna ends with a takeaway: how can we apply these teachings to our everyday lives? The Eternal Wisdom of Pirkei Avos is perfect for reading at your own pace or for following the weekly perek of Avos during these summer months.
In chapter four, Mishna five, Rabbi Spero cites Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka, who says that if someone desecrates the Name of Heaven in secret, punishment will be exacted from him in public; this holds true for unintentional and intentional acts as both are the same when it comes to desecrating the Name. Rabbi Spero reminds the reader that each day brings new opportunities to make a kiddush Hashem, and the opposite, chas v’shalom. Desecrating G-d’s name is looked at very severely. Whether we are paying for something in a store or parking, we have to do what is right.
Rabbi Spero led camp trips as a head counselor for many years. The children questioned why they had to daven Mincha in public as non-Jews might view this as “strange.” The only way to determine if an act is a kiddush Hashem or chillul Hashem is if what we are doing is appropriate in G-d’s eyes, explained Rabbi Spero to the boys. If we acted appropriately, we are only increasing the glory of G-d’s presence in the world. As Jews, we are not worried about being like the other nations. By upholding our values, we draw admiration from the nations. Avraham Avinu went against the grain: he served G-d while the other peoples of the world served idols.
This point was further illustrated in a story Rabbi Spero recounted about Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and rav in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. As Canada is part of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Hier was invited to a dinner attended by Queen Elizabeth II to mark 100 years since British Columbia became a Canadian province. Rabbi Hier had called on the event staff prior to the event to please provide his wife and himself with fresh fruit on new dishes, an accommodation which was promised to him.
Upon entering the mansion where the Centennial celebration was taking place, Rabbi Hier saw the Chief Justice of British Columbia, an unaffiliated Jew, whose parents’ funerals Rabbi Hier officiated at. Despite Rabbi Hier’s best efforts, the judge ignored him. Clearly, the Chief justice didn’t want to have anything to do with the rabbi.
When Rabbi Hier and his wife were seated, they were pleased to see brand new dishes at their places. While the guests were served a scrumptious first course, Rabbi and Mrs. Hier had apples. However, when the first course concluded, the lights flickered, serving as a signal for the guests to switch seats; in this way they could meet more attendees. This seemed like a nice concept, but not to the rabbi and his wife. How would they have kosher food and dishes? Despite the strangeness, of the concept, Rabbi Hier determined that he would bring his dishes and cutlery to each new seat, and his wife soon followed. Despite the oddity of this sight, the couple were determined to do what is right.
The Chief Justice stared at the Rabbi and his wife with derision: how could they act like this when the royal family worked so hard to accommodate them? His face spoke volumes indeed.
When the party ended, the guests lined up on both sides of the hall to pay homage to the royal family. As Prince Philip walked past Rabbi Hier, he stopped and struck up a conversation: “Sir, I take it you are a rabbi. Would you, by any chance, know the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain?”
Rabbi Hier responded that not only did he know the Chief Rabbi, but that he was recently a guest in Rabbi Hier’s home. “We know him and his wife very well,” said Rabbi Hier.
Prince Philip was delighted to hear this and praised the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, noting that he was a bright man. The Queen had questions of her own: she wanted to know about the Jewish community of British Columbia: it’s numbers and how its rabbis were chosen.
After Rabbi Hier answered Her Highness’ questions, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to see the chief justice himself. No longer was the judge bitter over Rabbi Hier’s public display of Judaism. Having seen the reception the rabbi received from the royal family, the chief justice extended his hand toward his “old friend” and stated out loud for everyone to hear: “Rabbi, so good to see you.” In Rabbi Hier’s words, he compelled himself to extend his hand to return the judge’s handshake.
Rabbi Spero reminds us that we have to stand up for our beliefs. This is the only way to garner respect. We might think that our private and public lives should be different. Wear a yarmulke in the synagogue or leave Judaism for the home, G-d forbid. Additionally, we may think that we can get away with doing the wrong thing because others may not know we’re Jewish. Here, Rabbi Hier and his wife were one couple out of possibly hundreds that came out to honor the royal family. Not only did Rabbi and Mrs. Hier remain strict about kashrus, they made sure to uphold their beliefs when it seemed like the evening’s schedule could not accommodate theirs. They were not discouraged by the chief justice. In the end, they were awarded with face time from the Queen and Prince Philips themselves. The royal family wished to honor a family that knew who the true King is; in turn, the judge switched his mood and wanted others to believe he was friends with the Rabbi and his wife all along.
The above is one of many examples in this book on how Rabbi Spero draws life lessons from the Mishna, coupled with commentary, a tale and a message to really bring his point across. Rabbi Spero does this successfully. I recommend reading this book at the Shabbos table and asking your children how they will apply these lessons in their everyday lives.
The author is an attorney and writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.