The White House and Pirkei Avot

Ancient Goat Skin Torah Scroll

On June 2, the White House’s first-ever Cabinet-level science advisor Eric Lander was sworn in using a volume of Pirkei Avot. Pirkei Avot, sometimes translated as “Ethics of the Fathers,” is a unique section of the Mishna. Unlike the rest of the Mishnah’s legal precepts, Pirkei Avot is a collection of sayings having to do with good conduct, moral behavior and admirable values. These quotes from early 1st century rabbis can be read as general life advice.

In choosing to use Pirkei Avot as the holy book worthy of taking an oath upon, Eric Lander is signifying that Jewish wisdom can be a guide for a life well-lived.

If you are not familiar with Pirkei Avot, take a look at some of our favorite excerpts from this beloved little volume and an interpretation that brings it to the present day:

  1. Be patient in administering justice. What we teach each other matters.

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah. —Pirkei Avot 1:1

Pirkei Avot’s opening idea, which claims that Oral Law was received at Mount Sinai. This simple piece paves the way for one of the most important Jewish ideas: that what we teach each other is just as holy as the written word we received at Mount Sinai.

  1. Our world is built through relationships.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: Where there is no Torah, there is no right conduct; where there is no right conduct, there is no Torah. Where there is no wisdom there is no fear of God; where there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom. Where there is no understanding, there is no knowledge; where there is no knowledge, there is no understanding. Where there is no bread, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no bread. —Pirkei Avot 3:17

Our world is built through relationships, and even abstract concepts work together as pairs. This section of Pirkei Avot reminds us that nothing can function in a vacuum.

  1. All love that depends on something will end. Love that depends on nothing is neverending.

All love that depends on a something, [when the] thing ceases, [the] love ceases; and [all love] that does not depend on anything, will never cease. —Pirkei Avot 5:16

No wisdom volume would be complete without some love advice. Here we learn the makings for unconditional love—a love that depends on nothing, and lasts forever.

  1. In a place where there are no role models, become one.

He used to say: A brute is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person pious; nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person teach; nor will someone who engages too much in business become wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. —Pirkei Avot 2:5

A thoughtful meditation on the makings of success, and subtle encouragement to be the best version of yourself even when you are alone in doing so.

  1. If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?

He [also] used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when? —Pirkei Avot 1:14

Probably the most quoted piece of Pirkei Avot, here we have Hillel’s famous quote. These three ideas ask us to consider ourselves as responsible members of the society, compelling us to take care of ourselves and each other, and not to delay!

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Zoe Fertik

Written by Zoe Fertik

Zoe Fertik is Associate Director of Jewish Content at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. There, she is building a partnership between the OFJCC and BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change, in an effort to expand opportunities for American Jews to experience Jewish learning in the style of BINA's Secular Yeshiva. Zoe is grateful to be an alumna of amazing Jewish programming, including: the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, the Schusterman ROI community, Yeshivat Hadar, Pardes, Kivunim, and EIE.

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