How to Face Reality
or
The Importance of Learning Pirkey Avos

By RABBI SHLOMO PRICE

I started this sichah in the summer, when it's the tradition to read "Pirkey Avos" every week. However, as we will soon see, this sichah is appropriate the whole year.

The Torah Anthology on Pirkey Avos, by David N. Barocas (the translation of the Meam Lo'ez, by Rabbi Yitzchok [ben Moshe] Magriso) brings one of the reasons why we say Pirkey Avos in the spring:

"These are the days of spring, when a person is tempted to neglect his studies, and go strolling in the gardens and fields. With the weather only too conducive to such pastimes, with the trees beginning to blossom, it is very easy for a person to yield to his temptations.

It is for this reason that we study Avos. Such study prevents a person from succumbing to his desires, and motivates him to keep the commandments and do good deeds so he will have a place in the World to Come. He will not lose this eternal good by pursuing the vices of this world, which are only passing fancies, of which nothing is left in the end."

This last line about "passing fancies..." reminds me of a moving saying that I saw from Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, z.t.l.
"The person gives everything away for a 'little whistle'-- and at the end, it doesn't even work!!"
Unfortunately, our generation has this problem of "pursuing the vices of this world" all year . Consequently, we also need the antidote all year.

I'm going to start this sicha off with a question.

Q. Why does Pirkey Avos start off with the Mishna " Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Yehoshua..."?

A. I will start off the answer by clarifying the question.

As the saying goes, "Understanding the question is half the answer." That means that sometimes we don't fully comprehend what the difficulty is. Consequently, we won't be able to figure out or understand the answer.

[This reminds me, of course, of the age old question, "Why do Jews answer a question with a question?"

The two classic answers that I heard to that query were:

"Why not?"

"Do we?"]

The question basically is as follows.

Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi wants to tell us the Masoretic Tradition- how the continuos link of (Written and Oral) Torah goes all the way back to Moshe receiving it from Hashem on Har Sinai.

This, apparently would be a very fitting Introduction to Mishnayos Berachos being the beginning of Mishnayos, which is the Oral Law. Why did Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi wait with this declaration until the Mishnayos Avos, somewhere in the middle of the order of Mishnayos?

Rav Ovadya Mi'Bartenura, (a commentary on Mishnayos), explains, "... This Tractate is completely morals and ethics, and the wise men of the nations also made such books of ethics according to the dictates of their hearts. Therefore the Tanna starts off here with the Masoretic Tradition, to teach us that the morals and ethics here WERE NOT FROM THE SAGES' HEARTS, RATHER THEY TOO WERE TOLD TO MOSHE ON HAR SINAI BY HASHEM.

My Rebbi would always point out that many of the philosophers said a lot of profound thoughts that sounded very much like the words of the Torah. The major difference was the final outcome of their words.

The great philosopher, Socrates, for example, gave a beautiful lecture on the lowliness of this world, when he was sentenced to die by drinking hemlock. He spoke about the animalistic desires that people have on this world and how happy he was to be leaving it.

Lehavdil, the Chazal also speak about our animalistic desires but they have a different conclusion. NOT TO LEAVE THE WORLD, RATHER TO WORK ON CONTROLLING THESE DESIRES.

In fact, the secular solution of dealing with harsh reality is to escape it. Hopefully, by good ways, but if not, then even bad ways, such as alcohol, drugs and the like.

There are two episodes of Rod Serling, the master of the "Twilight Zone", that underscore this point.

In one episode, there was a fellow who was having a lot of problems with his boss and wife. When he would go home by train, he started to imagine the conductor announcing a new stop called "Willoughby". Everyday, at a certain point, the conductor would announce "Willoughby, next stop". He never got off there, but one day he finally decided to see what this town was like. When he got off at that stop he was amazed. He found himself transported through time into a beautiful serene and peaceful town, without any problems. The residents invited him to join them, but he wasn't ready yet.

One day, after he saw that his problems were unbearable, he finally decided to join them. He was anticipating the conductor's announcement "Willoughby, next stop," but, to his horror, it never came. He decided to jump off the train, while it was in motion, at where he thought "Willoughby" was. Naturally, he ended up killing himself.

The last scene shows you when the undertaker puts him in the hearse and they close the back doors . You can see the name of the funeral chapel in big letters, "WILLOUGHBY AND SONS." Yes, he had reached his beloved "Willoughby."

A different episode shows a fellow who visited an art exhibit in a museum many times. This fellow has a special power. He is able to focus on a picture and transport himself into the scenery and live there as if it was a real live situation. Every time he passed by a certain picture of a fisherman in a boat, on a beautiful lake, on a sunny day, he would transport himself there and enjoy the fishing. Eventually, he would have to come back to reality and face his many problems. One day, he decided that he would just escape reality for good, and join his friend in the fishing boat.

He came to the museum when it was closed and decided to sneak in. When he entered, all the lights were off, but he went to the place where his beloved picture always was.

He focused on transporting himself into the scenery with his friend, but all you hear is a terrifying scream.

It seems that they had recently moved his beloved picture, and replaced it with a different one. It was a picture of the "Crucifixion".

So much for escaping reality.

However, the Torah teaches us how to deal with reality. If we can't change it-and not every time is it to our advantage to change it- then at least we should have the proper attitude of how to view it.

I heard a story from my Rebbi that showed the Torah's approach of dealing with reality.

He was once recruiting in a certain city for his Yeshivah. He met there a fellow who had many personal problems. His father was an alcoholic, among other problems. The Rabbi was trying to persuade the fellow to come to his Yeshivah for a year and learn Torah and get away from these problems.

The fellow complained that it wouldn't help. When he would come back a year later, the problems would still be there. How would it be different then getting stoned and drunk to temporarily escape reality? That won't solve the problem.

As Hashgocho would have it, the Rabbi had just received a moving letter from a former student.

This student had suffered a terrible accident and had major surgery . He was feeling a lot of pain and was depressed about his situation. He wrote to the Rabbi how if not for the year that he spent at the Yeshivah he would have already jumped out of the hospital window to end his problems.

It was in the Yeshivah that he learned the Torah's viewpoint of reality. "Hasgocho Protis-Divine Supervision" and "Gam Zu L'tovah-This too is for the best" were giving him a real meaning in life. They kept him from giving up.

The Rabbi had the letter in his pocket and showed it to this fellow. He explained that you are not escaping reality. The Torah teaches us "how to really view reality and learn to cope with it."

I'll end of this thought by bringing a very important point about viewing reality from "Gateway to Happiness", by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin.

In Chapter 3, he explains that people mistakenly think that there is a two step process.

There is an event that takes place and that causes your emotional reaction. If the event is a happy one it will automatically cause your emotional reaction to be joyous and if the event is sad then your emotional reaction will be sad. If this were true, then the only way to always be happy is to always be in control of events-which is impossible for us mortals.

The truth is, however, that there is a very important middle step between the event that happens and our emotional reaction. It happens so fast that we don't realize that it has happened.

That is our ATTITUDE AND PERSPECTIVE of the event. The event is basically parve. It can be viewed as good or bad. It all depends what aspect WE focus on. If our attitude is that we focus on the positive aspects of the event then our emotional reaction is joy. If we choose to focus on the negative aspects of the event, then our emotional reaction is sadness. So, in truth one can always be happy, because it all depends on our attitude and perspective of the event, which we are in control of. We just have to learn the proper attitude and perspective in each situation in order to insure our happiness. This is the aim of Rabbi Pliskin's book.

I usually give a personal example to illustrate this point.

I live in the bottom of Telz Stone and to get up the hill to Neveh Zion is a bit of walk. I especially find it hard as I have weak nerves which make walking harder for me. I always try to get a hitch but sometimes I end up making that trudge up the hill.

Now, while I'm making that trek I have two ways of viewing it.

I can focus on how hard it is to walk or how hot (or cold) it is. I can complain to Hashem why I don't have a car or why didn't I get a hitch?

On the other hand, I can focus on the fact that even if it's difficult, at least I can walk. I don't need crutches or a wheelchair. I know where I'm going, I'm not lost. I'm going to do a Mitzvah and the more pain the more reward. There is reward for the walking itself-sechar halichah.
If I focus on the negative aspects then my reaction will be sadness .If I focus on the positive aspects then my reaction will be joy. It is up to me.

Another example I like to use is when you have to clean your baby who just defecated all over himself.

If you focus on the "dirty work" that you have to do then it's depressing.

However, if you realize that there are many childless couples who would pay a million dollars to be able to do this dirty work to their child then you will be thankful to Hashem for the "brocho-blessing" that Hashem has bestowed on you.

Rabbi Pliskin, (ibid. p.58) says so beautifully:

"I have frequently found that pessimists say to optimists, 'You are not being realistic.' But this is a misconception with serious consequences. If a glass is large enough to hold a quart of water and it now contains half a quart, what is the reality? The reality, is it contains half a quart of water. Nevertheless, some people will say it is half full and some will say it is half empty. As regards the reality, both views are correct. Nevertheless, some choose to be grateful for the water they have, and others choose to be bothered by what they do not have. This familiar example holds true for all aspects of life. We constantly choose what we will focus on and how we will view it. It is harmful to rigidly consider reality in a counterproductive way, when you can choose positive ways of looking at things."
Rabbi Pliskin, (ibid. p. 52) compares a person who always chooses to focus on the negative to the following story.
A worker always brought jelly sandwiches from home for lunch . A co-worker heard him mutter to himself, "Oh no, It's a jelly sandwich again, I hate jelly." The co-worker asked, "Why don't you tell your wife to make you a different kind of sandwich?" The worker replied, "My wife doesn't make my sandwiches. I make them myself." A person who makes himself miserable by repeating to himself negative thoughts is acting just as foolishly as this worker with his jelly sandwiches. He is needlessly making himself miserable.
Another important factor is, that when morals and ethics are left up to the whims of the so-called "wise men", they can come up with some crazy results.

I read in the Reader's Digest an article about the earthquake in Kobi Japan.

It spoke about the ineptness of the Japanese Government which caused much loss life. The obstacles put up by government bureaucracy took a terrible toll.

A doctor trained in disaster relief tried to get an army helicopter to transport the critically injured to hospitals. His efforts were entangled in hours of paper work before he was permitted to do it. The doctor still wonders about the number of lives lost in the ten hours that dragged by till he could comply with the obligatory paper work.

"Offers for help came pouring in from 76 nations and districts, as well as from the U.N. and the World Health Organization. Incredibly the Japanese government either turned them down or delayed aid with time-squandering bureaucratic procedures. As people lay dying undiscovered in the wreckage, officials spent one whole day debating a Swiss offer to fly in 20 trained sniffer dogs-and then accepted only 12. A French team of trauma specialists, also belatedly admitted, were not allowed to work at all because they lacked certain Japanese medical qualifications.

U.S. forces in Japan offered to dock the American aircraft carrier USS Independence in Kobe Bay; it was equipped with 2000 beds and a hospital-size staff of doctors and nurses, plus supplies and equipment that ran from fresh food to earthmovers. Tokyo accepted only some tents and blankets, and refused the rest.

Why? Because to the Japanese, saving face mattered more than saving lives. Sociology professor Kazufumi Manabe of Kwansei Gakuin University put it this way: "No Japanese would invite a guest into his home if it was in disarray, and Kobe was a mess. The government was desperate for help, but an economic superpower mustn't admit that. This would be showing weakness, and to show weakness is to lose face."

I just want to ask this sociology professor one question.

"No Japanese would invite a guest into his home if it was in disarray..." What if his own son was dying there, and the Doctor came to save him, he wouldn't let him in?!

The "Tiferes Yisroel", another commentary on Mishnayos, gives a different reason why the Masoretic tradition was written next to Pirkey Avos.

"... That a person shouldn't think that it is enough just to learn Torah and keep it without working on his middos (characteristic traits), to get Olom Habo. This is not true.
Chazal speak at length about the evil of the one who learns and doesn't have good middos. Therefore they put the Masoretic tradition here to teach you that middos is also Torah."
My Rebbi once explained this point from the Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 1:15):
"Any Talmid chochom who has no 'deah '- who is not humble...(see Chidushei HaRadal 27 ibid.) a carcass is better than he."
My Rebbi explained that a carcass has a bad smell, but at least it doesn't travel. It only remains in the near vicinity of where it is. On the other hand, a Talmid Chochom who has bad middos takes his stench with him everywhere he goes. People point to him as a reason why it is not good to learn Torah and this causes a chilul Hashem.

If however, he has good middos, his exemplary behavior will encourage people to want to emulate him. As the Gemoro Yoma 86a says that people will say about him, "Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah. Fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah. Woe to those who have not learned Torah. See how pleasant are the ways and how proper are the actions of this person who has learned Torah."

The Vilna Gaon starts off his sefer "Even Shleima", with the importance of middos.

"All service of Hashem is dependent on improving our middos...all sins are rooted in middos. The main [purpose of] existence of man is to always strengthen oneself in breaking his middos. If he doesn't, then of what purpose is his life?"
I have shown the contrast of middos between the "wise secular giants" and l'havdil the Torah giants in my "Pesach sicha"

"Consider the difference between the "freedom" of Rav Moshe Feinstien, z'tl, and l'havdil Sir Winston Churchill.

Everyone knows that Churchill was a genius. He always knew what to say, even when he was drunk.

I once read that he was once at a party and had imbibed a bit too much. A woman reprimanded him and said, "Sir Winston, you're drunk!" He immediately responded, without missing a beat, "I know, and you're ugly, but tomorrow I'll be sober."

Despite his ingenuity, he had a terrible temper. Whenever someone did something that wasn't to his liking he would go into in a tirade.

I read, in his biography, that once his butler had irked him so, that he even started to hit the butler. When the butler hit Sir Winston back, he was appalled.

"How dare you hit me!," Sir Winston exclaimed.

"Well, you hit me first," replied the butler.

"Yes, but I am a great man."

The author concluded that everyone knew as well as the butler, that Churchill was right.

When I read this I was disgusted. This is the freedom and privilege of the great "Gedolim" of the Goyim. He can hit and scream at anybody not as great as he.

Now listen to the freedom of Rav Moshe Feinstien z'tl.

I read in "Love Your Neighbor," by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin and in "Bastions of Faith" by Rabbi Avraham Fishelis an unbelievable story.

Rav Moshe was getting a ride from one of his talmidim to the yeshivah. When the talmid closed the door of the car, by accident Rav Moshe's finger got caught. Rav Moshe did not utter a word during the ten minute ride, much to the surprise of the other talmidim who saw what happened. When he arrived at the yeshivah and the driver left, Rav Moshe quickly went to sink to wash his fingers. The talmidim asked him why he didn't say anything to the driver as soon as it happened?

Rav Moshe responded, "He was nice enough to do me a favor and drive me, how could I embarrass him."

May we all learn these lessons and more from learning Pirkey Avos every week. Not just saying it, but learning it with a commentary, so we can cull the great moral lessons that our sages want to give us.

Have a great summer (fall, winter, spring--whatever season it is when you read this).

List of Rabbi Price's sichot
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