Following is an abstract of Rabbi Moshe Lieber's commentary on Pirkei Avot, the compilation of rabbinic ethical teachings from 200 BCE to 200 CE.
Snippets from two of Rabbi Harold Schulweis' sermons capture the key themes:
Psalm 90:17 is a summation of everything below: "May the sweetness of God be upon us, and may the work of our hands create a foundation for that sweetness. May the work of our hands create a foundation for God's presence here on Earth." וִיהִ֤י נֹ֤עַם אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֭דֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָ֥ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דֵ֗ינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ
"There are certain timeless, unchangeable values—immutable and eternal—whose truth has stood the test of time. All of these values are included in the mitzvah: You shall love your fellow as yourself. This is the spiritual yardstick by which all actions should be measured. The world is built on kindness. Only when one can go beyond the boundaries of his self-centeredness is he ready to do kindness. Cleave to God through close contact with kind people. Allow them to serve as standard-bearers against which we measure the spiritual cleanliness of our lives. Surround oneself with friends of good character who are good-hearted and perform good deeds. Avoid unkind people so as not to learn from their actions. Remove yourself from their sphere of influence. Exposure will cause a negative influence to rub off. Remain completely outside their destructive orbit. Make a fence for yourself, so you will not be influenced by the surroundings. Live on a level from which you emit pure kindness.
Love peace and pursue peace. If a person keeps to himself he is not pursuing peace. Rather, he should go out and actively look for ways to make peace wherever he can. Actively work to promote it. Learn the practical day-to-day applications of peace. No one can be peaceful on your behalf. If peace is abstract, it is deficient. Peace is not academic. It must become a firmly established element of your personality. Peace is like breathing. It is your life. Man is composed of a confluence of urges, wants, needs, and ideas, many of which are at odds with each other. When peace reigns inside him, the various forces complement each other and bring him to a sense of completeness and fulfillment. Man can then achieve a peaceful relationship with God, his fellow man, and himself.
Peace and kindness must govern practical daily living, even in its most minute, practical details. They must be translated into action. Practice, not study, is the main thing. Study is the vehicle that leads to performance. Unapplied wisdom is of negligible value. Moral authority among the Jewish people stems not from eloquent speakers or composers of provocative aphorisms, but from people who actually live by their teachings. By practicing acts of kindness one can evolve into a kind and good person. Man builds the soul with his deeds. Man’s virtue is determined by the frequency with which he repeats good deeds. Life offers all types of opportunities. Man has freedom to do as much good or evil as he chooses. Are you going spiritually up or down? There is no such thing in human life as stasis. One must go up in order to avoid falling down. The time employed by man for sin is not only defective in the sinful action itself, but it is also responsible for the damage of potential spiritual produce that it could have yielded: you could’ve been busy doing mitzvahs.
Imitate God’s attributes of mercy, compassion, holiness, charity, and hospitality. One should not only seek these qualities for himself but should desire that they be acquired by others as well. A good-hearted person always responds to people softly and considerately, and is always ready to do them favors. Deal in an upright, loving fashion. Follow a path of moderation. Do unto others as one would do unto oneself. Love righteousness, be upset by strife among people, defend the weak from oppression. Enjoy witnessing others’ success and do not be consumed by jealousy. Provide for the needs of the poor. Offer others the opportunity to share in giving charity. Enlist the aid of others. Ask favors. Get others involved. Give them a chance to participate in the mitzvah, sharing with them the privilege of contributing to worthy causes. Give visibly so that others will also give.
Be patient with people and contain anger. It is impossible to never get angry, so do not anger easily. Defuse anger in midstream before it is fully spent. Even a bit of anger can cause a person to lose his perspective totally. An angry person incites strife and one possessed by rage brings much sin. Actively find reasons not to be angry. The wise exercise self-control, while the foolish are controlled by their stormy emotions. A person lost in a fit of anger is bound to demean his fellow. Words uttered in anger can often destroy relationships. Arguments usually begin with one party slighting the other. Angry words ensue and the tone and heat of the quarrel escalate. Be extremely sensitive to the honor of others. If a dispute is not quelled in its early stages, it will escalate out of control. Deliberate until compromise is reached. By arranging an amicable compromise, both parties will not harbor animosity toward each other. Allowing grievances to fester is very dangerous. Extra hatred is caused by allowing animosity to be pent up inside, when the anger only grows and becomes more intense. By taking more time for deliberation, one may become aware of new aspects and approaches which his initial thoughts did not yield. When people argue in search of the truth rather than out of contentiousness their words will be lasting and productive. In spite of their disputes they will enjoy amicable relations and live in harmony and true brotherhood. When people argue in order to exert control or to triumph over each other, the argument will not have any constructive outcome.
Anyone who needs help of any kind—physical comfort, money, sound advice—should be able to find it in your home. One should make them feel totally at home by showing them a happy face, thus minimizing their embarrassment at being dependent. Receive people cheerfully. One’s negative demeanor can be contagious, causing others to be infected with his germ of depression. Assistance given with a cheerful, friendly smile encourages the recipient, while a gift tossed off with a frown demeans the recipient. A smile is a signal to a person that he is cared for: “You are important to me and I am happy to see you.” Often enmity is softened by the expression of concern and respect that is conveyed by a greeting. Conversely, the snub of a failure to say hello or, much worse, to respond to a greeting, can cause animosity. Take the initiative and pursue peace by extending the branch of peace first.
Even the greatest people in history did not attain absolute spiritual perfection, but that does not mean that perfection is not a goal. People are not born perfect, yet are challenged to recognize their weaknesses and fight them through ceaseless toil and effort. Be patient. Nothing is harder than polishing a flesh-and-blood creature into a spiritual gem. Self-improvement is tedious, time-consuming hard work. People can rise. Strive to perfect your character, control urges, refine aspirations, eliminate vices, ennoble relations with others, love others, pursue what should be pursued and flee what should be fled. There have been many sinners who were brought near Torah and emerged as righteous, pious, and upstanding persons. Most sin is not a result of evil intentions but rather of an unclear perspective. Life is made for growth. One who feels no need to learn more is spiritually dead. Achieve a sense of meaning in your life. Success or failure at spiritual pursuits is completely dependent on man himself, and the degree of success is proportional to the effort expended. Reorder your priorities. If one allows his soul to doze off, the body will not be able to withstand temptation and temporal desires.
The spiritual progress you could have experienced today is irretrievable. The evil inclination plays on a person’s instinct to procrastinate, which prevents him from seizing the moment and putting his spiritual house in order. “Wake up my brothers! A guest you’ve never seen has arrived. Once he leaves you will never see him again.” “Who is the guest?” “Today!” Value the preciousness of time and make maximal use of it. Act immediately on one’s good impulses. Perform mitzvahs immediately. Tomorrow and the next day have their own opportunities and challenges. Seize the opportunity now and imbue the moment with its particular meaning. Every moment is precious. Much of life is spent in deep spiritual slumber while opportunities for growth slip away.
Man can rectify his entire life, assume new meaning and direction, in one moment through repentance. Repentance is becoming different. A person’s “hour” is his remarkable ability to recreate himself in an instant through repentance. There is no person without his hour, his capability to restructure his life completely and turn toward the path of goodness. God calls for the end of sin from the earth, not for the destruction of the sinners. Let one not feel imprisoned by the detours and lapses of his past. He can recreate himself at any time. One may become a prisoner of his self-image, unable to free himself of the burdens of his past and repent. One should not view himself as a wicked person hopelessly entrapped in the web of iniquity. The ultimate safety net against sin is self-respect. Self-respect is an internal sensor which warns one of impending spiritual danger. Once self-respect is gone, there are no shields against sin. One who perceives himself as an evil person has no psychological safety net to prevent him from committing the worst of sins. The one person able to free yourself from the chains of sin and raise you to the level of pure and free service to God is none other than yourself: self-liberation from evil. A negative self-image has the power to induce total spiritual paralysis. Sometimes we are spiritually paralyzed by others’ perception of us. We should not allow our fellow man’s narrow view of us to confine or limit what we can become.
Until death one must be afraid of spiritual backsliding. One is susceptible to lapses. Spiritual success is temporary since the evil inclination is a tireless foe. The evil inclination will return again and again. The war is lifelong. The evil inclination begins its conquest by inducing one to commit a minor infraction and constantly increases its influence. Man is born with an aggressive drive toward evil which he must temper and tame since it keeps coming back again and again. Do not be overconfident. One can be sure of the permanence of a good character trait only when it is put to the test. We can never be sure how tightly a person is holding something until someone tries to remove it. Similarly, we can only assess how entrenched a character trait is when it is under attacks. Carefully nurture your spiritual growth. You still have a long way to go to achieve our potential. Always seek greater spiritual accomplishments and continue to do so until the day you die. Subdue anything that arouses negative impulses, elicits anger, or incites any inclination toward excess. Strengthen all your positive attributes, bringing them to expression.
Despair is a spiritually fatal malady. Overwhelmed by the enormity of one’s spiritual duties, one can easily despair of accomplishing them. But man is obligated to commit his best efforts. It is the full effort God seeks, not total success. It is not the measure of the moral and spiritual goals you have actually achieved that constitute the true worth of a life’s course. It is the measure of earnest striving, of devoted endeavor, of sacrifices made and privation endured, all for the realization of good purposes, that determine the true worth of a life. Pure willpower is the only effective weapon against the natural inclinations of laziness. Believe that your soul can be cured and survive and flourish. Hold yourself to a high spiritual standard. Use God as a barometer and you will know what is expected of you. No matter how deeply we have fallen into sin, there is still a chance for us to repent. The Torah gives us many mitzvahs so that we have the means to achieve perfection and get beyond the grasp of evil. By issuing mitzvahs about most life situations man is thus never left without a mitzvah opportunity. Each person may have a strong inclination toward a different mitzvah. God gave many mitzvahs so that each person will find his own spiritual niche. The abundance of mitzvahs gives us the ability to serve God many different ways and under all kinds of circumstances. The more necessary something is for survival, the greater its availability. Perform mitzvahs frequently and with care and enthusiasm.
Who tells you that God wants you to have idyllic conditions? Maybe he wants you to perform mitzvahs while you are harried. Maybe what is pleasing is the special holiness you achieve despite difficulty. Maybe you can get satisfaction in how you overcome your burdens and create light in the midst of darkness. Suffering, sorrow, and pain may be a test of your commitment. The word “trial” is related to the word “banner,” an item raised up high. A trial is meant to raise up the righteous by lifting them to new spiritual heights. A man’s hidden qualities remain out of sight until they are brought to light by means of a trial. Someone who turns theory into practice in difficult situations gains wisdom and strength of character. God told Moses: “The place on which you stand is hallowed ground.” Despite all its difficulties, your present situation is an opportunity for holiness and growth. There is no rule that greatness can bloom only under optimal conditions. Every human experience is really a lesson from God. Analyze the experience and use it to better yourself spiritually. One can derive instruction on how to serve God from everything one hears or sees. Sometimes the righteous are tested in order to benefit those who witness their trial and their ultimate triumph, through being exposed to the deep commitment of those who are willing to follow God’s word even under trying circumstances.
Your personal deportment must serve as an example of the type of behavior you ask of others. Embody the lessons you wish to preach, live up to the ideals you expect of others. Help people repent via positive motivation. One who can bring repentance, but does not, bears guilt. Change the person’s very character. Speak words of such warmth and inspiration that by the time a person leaves your presence, his life will have been totally changed. Strengthen his faith in God and in his own potential. Help him develop faith. Inspire others to do good deeds. When you comport yourself in an ethical, upright fashion, those who note your exemplary behavior will gain heightened respect for the Judaism that molded you. Behave in such a way that will cause God to be beloved.
Visualization of the consequence of one’s actions can deter one from iniquity, and by the same token, vision of reward can give him the impetus to follow the good path. Use forethought, plan ahead, conjure in your mind, and try to imagine what will result from your actions. One should consider carefully the nature of any proposed course of action, bearing in mind that it will trigger either a positive or negative chain reaction. Each wrongful act makes the next sin all the more easy to do, conditioning one to a sinful lifestyle. The initial sin contains the seeds of destruction that come in its wake. Feel a sense of shame when contemplating sin. Chase after mitzvah opportunities. Create the circumstances for doing mitzvahs. God is found wherever man allows him to enter. Spiritual abilities are similar to muscles. The accomplishment of spiritual tasks expands one’s spiritual capacity. Create a spiritual groove of a particular pattern of action. Having developed good habits, goodness becomes almost second nature. “I don’t especially envy you for the mitzvah of donating this building site, since it is a mitzvah done publicly, for which you get much honor. It is the mitzvah that you must have once done privately, that was the catalyst for this mitzvah, which makes me envious.” By means of the light he has already attained, he can see that there is yet more light, and can hope to attain that too.
You should be too busy to sin. Fill your hours with healthy pursuits and occupations. Leave little time for sin or fantasies about having this or that pleasure. Achieve an overall sense of satisfaction that precludes sin. Dissatisfaction is a prime factor in man’s vulnerability to the wiles of the evil inclination. Worldly possessions do not ensure a good life, rather they preoccupy one’s heart and mind. Never allow your entire being to be totally consumed by your occupation. It is a universal malady to see the belongings of others as special and beautiful rather than to appreciate one’s own blessings. The second hundred—the unachieved half—always seems bigger and better than the first. One should be satisfied with his own possessions and not assume that others are more precious. Perfectly content with what is yours, you will never covet your neighbor’s property. One cursed with an insatiable appetite for wealth tends to be jealous, arrogant, and self-important and therefore unkind to others. Overindulgences are roads to worry and spiritual oblivion. Enjoy the good life but don’t let it become your major focus so you forfeit your soul. “What good is a comfortable train if it is not taking me where I need to go?” An intelligent person is not blinded by the pleasures of this world. He remembers his purpose and goes immediately to enrich himself spiritually. One who receives honor for his wealth or beauty is being honored not for what he is, but for what he has. One who is happy with his lot in life is always in a festive frame of mind. A serene and happy person has a sanguine view of life.
Each of us is a judge who must evaluate people and situations. We bear responsibility for the sins of others if we refrain from rebuking them. Do not shirk responsibility for the spiritual welfare of others. One should be pleasant toward others even when he offers rebuke. Criticism which attacks the person rather than his negative behavior is bound to backfire, while that offered in a palatable way may be very productive. When offering chastisement, one must take care not to be insulting to the target of his criticism. Break up the criticism about a particular fault and approach the person gradually, a step at a time, in order to draw him closer to your point of view in a friendly, palatable way. Be meticulous. Interpret people’s actions in a positive light. If a negative act can be interpreted positively, try to do so. Have an eye for the good. Consider the totality of the person and his situation. Even if he suffers from some flaw of character, he certainly possesses other redeeming qualities which compensate. Search further, seek out positive elements in the totality of his being. Judge the entire person. Do not focus on one incident and use it as a negative barometer. One should not believe that he is better able to withstand temptation than others who succumbed, for one never knows how he would react in the same predicament.
Other people can be catalysts to bring out your spiritual potential, sharpening the mind with constant questioning. Hear the ideas of others. Express appreciation when one is taught something new: “Thank you for introducing me to a new idea.” The learned person, who seeks only truth, allows his intellectual adversary the opportunity to state his case clearly. One who is truly wise is never ashamed to ask for further clarification on a matter which he does not understand. The involvement of more people will yield a clarity unattainable even by the most brilliant individual. Regarding matters of the soul, one should engage in constant discussion. A spectrum of opinion produces a clarity of understanding that cannot be achieved in solitude. The word for “review” and “different” is the same. The purpose of reviewing is not merely to repeat the old. It is done in order to reach new levels of understanding. Material that is reviewed assumes new and different meanings. Through constant review you will discover new facets of Torah every time you study it. A lifetime is too short to master it. It is your responsibility to pass this knowledge on intact to future generations, preserving it for the future. Share your spiritual knowledge. Torah knowledge should never be used as a means of degrading others by pointing out their ignorance.
Listen carefully. Among the qualities of a wise man is that he refrains from speaking in the presence of those wiser than him. He does not interrupt others. He does not offer opinions about things with which he is unfamiliar, and he is not quick to answer. A wise man should always think of himself as a student. The things you have not studied exceed by far the things you have studied. Humility enables someone to admit to ignorance and to be ready to seek answers without regard to the status of the person who can enlighten him. One may learn some lesson applicable to his own spiritual endeavors from almost anyone. One who overestimates his own intellectual abilities blocks his own path toward wisdom. Whatever you know is insignificant compared to what you should have learned. A person whose yearning for truth is stronger than his ego is happy and grateful when someone points out his shortcomings, for then he can begin to correct them. Welcome constructive criticism, focus on your shortcomings, and never be angry with someone who points out your errors. God created man with two ears and one mouth, and the mouth both eats and talks. Talk alone is not worthwhile enough to merit an exclusive organ and therefore the mouth performs more than one function."
Pirkei Avot can be seen as a way of fulfilling human destiny. Reading it this way requires a nuanced understanding of the distinction between fate and destiny.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) explained:
Fate is “factual existence, simply one line in a long chain of mechanical causality, devoid of significance, direction, and purpose, subordinate to the forces of the environment into whose midst the individual is pushed. A person is acted upon through a passive collision with the objective ‘outside,’ as one object confronting another. A person’s fate lacks inner content, substance, and independence. The experience of fate is not satisfying. It causes pain.”
Destiny is an “active existence, when a person confronts the environment. According to Judaism, our mission in the world is to turn fate into destiny, into an existence that is active and influential, full of will, vision, and initiative. Wrestle with fate for an exalted purpose. Emphasis is removed from the causal and directed to the realm of action: arise, purify, cleanse, and repair. Spark the candle of God. Elevate oneself from object to subject, from thing to human. Destiny signifies an existence chosen by free will, an active experience full of purposeful, movement, ascension, aspiration, and fulfillment. The life of destiny is a directed life. From an existence of destiny, a person draws strength and sustenance, creative power, and joy. Destiny is existence by volition, created by man himself, who chooses and makes his own way in life. Destiny embodies purpose and objectives.”
Rabbi Harold Schulweis (1925-2014) affixed to fate and destiny the two Hebrew names for God in the Torah: Elohim and Adonai, respectively. Schulweis’ thoughts are relayed by his biographer Rabbi Ed Feinstein:
“Elohim is the God who appears in the first chapter of Genesis: the God of being, unmoved, unaffected, amoral. Elohim represents the reality principle expressed in the Talmudic dictum: 'the world pursues its own natural course' (Avodah Zarah 54b - עולם כמנהגו נוהג). Judaism embraces a realism that keeps us from denial, fantasy, or magic. It demands acceptance, surrender to what is. But to live with Elohim alone would be to live a life of resignation, accepting all that is as inevitable, unalterable. There is another aspect of divinity…
“Adonai appears in the second chapter of Genesis and only with the creation of the human being. The human is charged to till and tend the Garden. Adonai is the imperative to transform the world and heal it. Adonai is revealed in human efforts to make the natural world livable, to impose moral order on an indifferent natural universe. If the world is cruel, fix it. If disease steals life, cure it. If war devastates, teach peace. The presence of Adonai in the world is real, but it is contingent upon human action. Bring those potentialities into reality. Adonai calls upon us to overcome, transform, and transcend the conditions of existence. No matter how few in number, the rescuers provide testimony to the truth of Adonai. We cannot change the past but we can profoundly affect the future.”
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in Man's Search for Meaning, offered a view on how to accept often unwanted and unpleasant fate:
"Humans can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. Everything can be taken from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. There are always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offers the opportunity to make a decision about one's attitude toward existence, an existence restricted by external forces. Here lies the chance to make use of or forego the opportunities. A person's inner strength may raise him above his outward fate. Everywhere people are confronted with fate. It is a free decision to be cheerful in spite of fate.
"It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our 'provisional existence' as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives a person the opportunity to grow spiritually. Instead of taking the camp's difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. Life for such people became meaningless. Yet in reality there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.
"Think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life--daily and hourly. Find the right answer to its problems and fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets, which differ from person to person and moment to moment. Realize hidden opportunities for achievement."