Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-three

As we wind down the fifth Chapter of Pirke Avot, we come back to the quotes from named sages. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about Judah ben Tema, but here is his quote, in the Joseph Hertz translation:

Judah, the son of Tema, said, Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a hart, and strong as a lion, to do the will of thy Father who is in heaven. He used to say, the bold-faced are for Gehinnom, the shame-faced for the Garden of Eden. (He said further) May it be thy will, O Lord our Gd and Gd of our fathers, that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days, and grant our portion in thy Torah.

This certainly gives the impression of being the end of the tractate, but editing will happen, and there are three more verses. Actually, it looks to me as if editing happened in the verse itself, and the bit about faces is interpolated. The father-in-Heaven part (avicha shebashamayim) seems to be a good ending, with the prayer following as a kind of ending epigraph (hypograph?); the bit about faces could have been added to make a triple, although then the next verse appears to also be in his name, which could have made a triple in itself. But we’re getting ahead of the week, and there’s plenty to chew on this week.

The commentary on the first part of the verse, the animal part, goes into detail about when it is better to show the leopard’s boldness and when to show the hart’s fleetness—Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin talks about the necessity to be fleet, to go from place to place to hear the Sages and learn from them, rather than staying in one place. To me, though, the interesting thing is that in the rhythm of the sentence, there is a long build-up with the animals, extolling their virtues and by implications the virtues of those who imitate them, but then the turn: it is not praiseworthy simply to possess those attributes, but only to use them for the will of the Divine. Is speed good? Speed is good if it is it haste to do what is right; speed has no value in itself. Is strength good? Strength is good if it is used for justice; strength has no value in itself. I love the way the verse flips to emphasize that point.

On the other hand, I deprecate the use of the avicha shebashamayim without the balancing aretz; in the Scripture, the Divine is usually referred to as in Heaven and on Earth, rather than just in Heaven. Solomon is an exception, there, but, you know, Solomon. Not really a role model. The avicha shebashamayim talk evidently becomes very popular in the rabbinic period (y’all may be familiar with one teacher who used the phrase to head up the Lord’s Prayer), but I am a big believer in lo bashamayim hi, It [is] not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? And (to me) the animal talk underlines the necessity of doing the will of the Divine in this world, which is where the Divine resides, in and through the Creation.

I was going to talk about the rest of the verse, but I am short on time, and that’s the part that really interests me anyway, this time around.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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