December 16, 2018

Saturday night with Yitz Greenberg

It’s tempting in our modern world to go broad with Judaism. Since the vast majority of Jews have no training in the study of ancient texts, it’s a lot easier and more empowering to engage with Judaism through familiar and relevant themes such as repairing the world, social justice, human rights, spiritual connection, Jewish values, and so on.

I have the same tendency. Because I write for a mass circulation paper, I tend to go broad when I write about Judaism, or even when I discuss Jewish themes with my kids. This year, though, in picking what to learn on Shavuot night, I was in the mood for something different. I wanted to delve into those arcane, ancient texts with my kids and see if we could make sense of them.

So, I picked up the perfect book for the occasion, “Sage Advice,” a new and original commentary on Pirkei Avot (“The Ethics Of Our Fathers”) by one of the leading lights of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.

Although Pirkei Avot is known as a distillation of rabbinic wisdom and, as Greenberg describes in his introduction, “a masterpiece of popular education,” there is a catch. The starting point for this education are the hundreds of core teachings, maxims and sayings derived from the Mishna that are articulated by the leading sages of the Talmudic era. In other words, you must still pore through ancient, sometimes difficult texts before you can reap the fruit of their wisdom.   

Indeed, our learning session on Shavuot night got off to a stumbling start with this controversial text from Mishna 7:

“R. Yaacov [b. Korshai] says: He who is walking on the way and going over his [Torah] and interrupts his study and says: ‘How beautiful is this tree!’ Scripture considers him as if he is guilty of a mortal sin.”

A mortal sin! How was I going to explain this to my nature-loving kids? Talk about ancient.

Of course, with any book titled Sage Advice, you can expect that even the most outlandish statement will be redeemed. I couldn’t wait to see how Greenberg would pull a Houdini.

One of the original features of the book is that, before commenting on the actual text, Greenberg gives you the historical context. So, here we learn that R. Yaacov, the grandson of a famous skeptic (R. Elisha b. Avuya), was an associate of the prominent leader, or nasi, Rabban Shimon Gamliel. One day, R. Yaacov learns that two sages want to set an intellectual trap for Gamliel by challenging him at his public lecture on obscure laws, in order to force him out of office. What does R. Yaacov do? He tips off his master and preps him on the intense Torah study that helps him foil the plot.

It’s a little easier now to understand why R. Yaacov would make such an extreme statement on the importance of not interrupting Torah study, even to admire beauty. But Greenberg reminds us that the Torah never suggests that pausing while learning Torah is a capital offense. So he quotes some traditional commentators who offer a rationale for R. Yaacov’s statement.  

One rationale is that R. Yaacov was walking alone on a dangerous road (referring to a previous mishna), but the merit of learning Torah was protecting him. Interrupting this study would thus expose him to danger.

Greenberg describes a more fascinating rationale as follows:

“It is a mitzvah to admire nature and even to say a blessing over beautiful, natural phenomena such as a rainbow, or when the trees first blossom in the spring, or when tasting a fruit. However, here the sin is to break off from Torah study in order to appreciate beauty, thus pitting God’s beautiful revelation against God’s beautiful nature.

“There are two books of revelation—Torah and nature (‘The heavens tell the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork’). The two do not contradict each other since they have one Creator. Each should be accorded its own respect and studied in its own time.”

Now, we start to taste modern wisdom from an ancient text. How often do we allow ourselves to be interrupted while doing something important? How often do we allow “beautiful distractions” to interrupt our conversations with people we treasure, such as our children, our spouse or our parents?

This very modern idea of constant interruptions is where our family discussion really took off, and God knows my Instagram-happy kids could relate.

As we were going back and forth on the text, the history, the commentary and the wisdom, it struck me that maybe the secret to the longevity of ancient Jewish texts may lie precisely in their often problematic nature.

Just imagine if the first text we had read went something like this: “It’s important to do everything in its own time. Do not allow even beautiful things to interrupt your meaningful moments.” All true, no doubt, but do these self-help sugar highs ever last?

Is it any wonder that thousands of easy, accessible self-help books come and go every year while our ancient texts just keep plugging along, bravely challenging the facile ethos of our no-attention-span world?

This might be the great merit of Greenberg’s book—he starts with the difficult stuff. He doesn’t jump to relevance. He doesn’t worry about curb appeal. He plunges into the ancient and slowly brings you into the present, the personal, the meaningful.

The book is best read as a conversation guide with a partner or partners. By the time you get to the Sage Advice, you’ve done plenty of discussion and digestion. The wisdom is in you. You own it.

Our evening conversation with our ancient Sages continued into the night. By now, we were not intimidated by the outlandish. We trusted that Greenberg would help us navigate the high seas and bring us ashore. I will only tease you with one more text, this one from Mishna 10, which ignited quite a conversation:

“R. Dosa b. Harkinas says: Sleeping [late] in the morning, drinking wine in the afternoon, [constant, immature] talking with children, and sitting in the meeting places of the unlearned shorten a man’s life.”

You’ll have to trust me, or you’ll have to get the book, to see how Greenberg’s commentary helps make an extreme claim (“shorten a man’s life”) not that extreme, and even plausible. Even my kids agreed.

One of the great ironies of Greenberg’s book is that he includes a long introduction that may be the best Big Picture of Judaism I’ve read. In twenty carefully crafted pages, Greenberg takes us on a 5,000-year journey of our tradition and our people that is deep, accessible and enlightening. From the Biblical Era to the Rabbinic Era to today’s evolving era, he helps us grasp a multi-faceted and complicated story that is still being told. It should be required reading for every Jewish school and for all those interested in Jewish outreach. 

But as much as I loved his broad introduction, it’s the study of ancient texts that held my attention. I know, because I didn’t let anything beautiful interrupt me.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at