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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-five

We are nearing the end of the tractate, or perhaps after the end, depending on what you think about the redaction process. The last two verses are probably by the same person, although he is described by two different names. I think I’ll save that story until next week, though.

Ben Bag Bag said, Turn it (the Torah) and turn it over again, for everything is in it, and contemplate it, and wax grey and old over it, and stir not from it, for thou canst have no better rule than this.

The Talmud records a conversation between this sage and Hillel that I find interesting, and I will attempt to retell it in my own words. They are discussing the proverb that He who is crooked cannot be made straight; and our sage says to Hillel that his use of terms is slippery. First he talks about the righteous and the wicked, and what is due to them, and in another context he talks about those who serve the Divine and those that don’t serve. Surely, he says, those that serve the Divine are righteous? And surely those that don’t are wicked! Surely the wicked do not serve the Divine, and the righteous do serve the Lord. They are the same categories! So surely the same terms apply to them.

Hillel says no, that’s not the way he is using the terms at all. Among the righteous, he says, among the perfectly righteous, there are still those who serve the Divine and those that don’t. You can’t compare the person who has studies the text he has learned one hundred times to the person who has studied it one hundred and one times.

Our sage is astonished: because of one more time studying you call him a man who doesn’t serve the Divine? Hillel is unperturbed. He says to our sage: go park your car at a meter. You can leave your car there for sixty minutes for seventy-five cents. If you leave your care for sixty-one minutes, it costs twenty dollars. OK, he didn’t actually say that, he said if you go to the mule-drivers, you will find that a journey of ten leagues costs one zuz, but a journey of eleven leagues costs two zuzim. The point is the same: it’s the extra mile that counts.

The thing is that it may not be the hundredth time that counts. It may be the forty-third, or the two-hundred-and-twelfth. It may be your next time through the text, or perhaps the next time through the text will be apparently fruitless, and it may yet be the time after. Turn it, and turn it; everything is in it. I believe this, and in some ways I believe that this is the definition of Scripture. Or at least a reasonable working definition. The epiphany you seek, and the epiphany you have not been seeking, and the one beyond that—they are all in the text. The years I have spent on Pirke Avot have only intensified that feeling. You are never finished with it; you are never at the bottom of it; you are never complete without it. Grow old with it, stir not from it. Everything is in it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Do you think that the benefits of continued study of the text would be true of any complex-enough text existing in many translations with a rich history of analysis and commentary?

I do think that close study of, say King Lear over a lifetime, together with the commentary and the contributions of actors and directors and so on, could well produce a situation where the person who has been through it one hundred times is not to be compared to the person who has been through it one hundred and one times.

One important difference with Scripture is that most of the translators, analysts and commentators treat the text as Scripture, that is, as being a living communication from the Divine to the current population, through the history of that commentary. So if you, as a reader, buy in to that sense of currency, that sense that this text is a connection between you and the Divine, the various commentary share this with you (if nothing else) and you can partake of a communion with them that (to me) is a central part of the whole business.

So there's a difference: Study King Lear all you like, and it will likely make you a better person, in some ways, but it's not the same as working on that communication with the Divine.


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