Pirkei Avot Chapter One Mishna One| Part Two
By Rabbi David Weissman
The first Mishna in Pirkei Avot ends with the teaching of the Men of the Great Assembly, which included the prophets Haggai, Zakariah, and Malachi. It states as follows: “They said three things: Be patient in judgment, develop many students, and make a fence around the Torah”.
The commentaries ask: why does the Mishna state that the Men of the Great Assembly said three things? Could it be that these men of great wisdom, among them prophets and leaders of Israel, said only three things? These commentaries answer that here we mean to say that the Men of the Great Assembly said three things specifically to strengthen Torah in Israel, in other words, to strengthen the nation and community which was their main goal and purpose.
After the destruction of the first Temple, the Men of the Great Assembly had the foresight to understand that, despite the rebuilding of the Temple after 70 years of exile in Babylonia, there was another exile yet to come. Great efforts were made to prepare the people for the long and dark that lay ahead. Towards this end, the Men of the Great Assembly worked to educate and strengthen the Jewish people and decentralize its religious practice from the Temple to the synagogue and study hall.
First, courts of Jewish law needed to be established and given the highest degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The Men of the Great Assembly understood that only with careful, patient leadership that understands the people’s true concerns and needs could the Jewish People survive, and even thrive in exile.
However, care and kindness are no substitutes for true and zealous administration of Torah law. Only careful deliberation of the facts and proper application of the law would ensure the people’s confidence, and more importantly, the blessing of G-d.
There is nothing more important to Torah observance than the establishment of righteous and competent courts and judges. We find that a discussion of the administration of courts comes right before the recounting of the giving of the Ten Commandments. (See Parshat Yitro.) Further, it is no coincidence that the Noahide code also directs the establishment of a system of justice.
The Torah does not instruct man to escape from this world and hide in the heavens ignoring the real-life problems here in the material world. To the contrary, the purpose of Torah is to direct mankind to engage in this world and correct and sanctify it, to bring G-d down to earth, so to speak. This means all dimensions of life must be uplifted and wiped free of corruption, even political and public life. Judaism is not some religious experience relegated to practice in a synagogue within the privacy of a person’s heart; it speaks to the life the community, the nation, and eventually all nations. Thus, the establishment of courts was of the utmost concern to the Men of the Great Assembly, and they instructed all future Jewish leadership to similarly emphasize its importance.
Second, a project of mass education was undertaken by the Men of the Great assembly and the rabbis that followed them to create a nation knowledgeable and literate in Torah law and lore. Consequently, they stated “develop many students”. The doors of the yeshivot were opened and masses of students were taught. This policy disputed the ruling of Rabbi Gamliel who taught that only those who were “on the inside as on the outside” – sincerely pious – should be allowed to enter the yeshiva’s hallowed halls. So it remains the policy today: to reject no one except those who would cause spiritual harm to other students through their poor outward behavior, their private spiritual state is overlooked. We give them a chance to change and mature.
Third, they said “build a fence around the Torah”. The Men of the Great Assembly instituted additional strictures to ensure that, despite expulsions and upheavals, and the potential ignorance such events may cause, the Jewish people would remain sensitive to the seriousness of a Torah transgression. They also instructed future halachic authorities to do the same – to enact decrees to protect Torah observance according to the needs of the generation.
The Men of the Great Assembly made it their life’s work to strengthen Torah and disseminate it to as many Jews as they could. We should be inspired by their actions to spread knowledge of Torah and its practical application to everyone we can, by example, through words and actions, without hesitation, with confidence, warmth and sincerity.