Chassidic Psychologymain postsPirkei Avot

Pirkei Avot 1:1 Dealing with Intense Experience

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be moderate in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a fence around the Torah. (Pirkei Avot 1:1)

Higher Fear and Nullification

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai” is the direct experience of the Giving of the Torah, which flows forth from Moses all the way until the Men of the Great Assembly. It is an experience of Higher Fear and self-nullification, which parallel the attribute of wisdom, represented by the yud, the first letter in God’s Name, Havayah.

Recognizing One’s Place

Following the Giving of the Torah, every person has to invest the effort to properly integrate the great light of the experience. How is this accomplished? In the first stage, a person has to contemplate upon the experience that he sustained and to understand that in and of himself, he is quite distant from this experience. Then he reacts by setting a careful distance from the experience. This work belongs to the attribute of understanding, the first hei in God’s Name, Havayah. The contemplation safeguards us from falling. It parallels the first directive of the Men of the Great Assembly: “Be moderate in judgment.” The judge has to be sensitive to the loftiness of the Torah and to how distant his own knowledge is from it (as long as he does not enjoy special Heavenly assistance).  He studies the details of each law in the Torah time and again and appreciates the fact that the small details are just as important as the larger general rules.

Caution from External Experience

In the next stage, which is in the world of emotions (parallel to the letter vav in God’s Name, Havayah) there is the concern that a person will become addicted to the external aspect of the experience. This is an explanation for “And all the Nation saw the sounds…and the Nation saw and they trembled and they stood from afar.[1]” “And all the Nation saw the sounds” from a place of complete self-nullification. But “and the Nation saw and they trembled and they stood from afar” is the reaction of the mixed multitude (and the mixed multitude inside every person). This is what happens when we stop relating to the scene that we are witnessing and instead emphasize the “I” who is witnessing the scene. If that happens, the person focuses on his own emotional fulfillment, shaking to and fro to further intensify his own experience. In this manner, he distances himself from the pure Godly experience, “and they stood from far.”

This state is remedied by the directive of the Men of the Great Assembly, “and establish many pupils.” Remove the limitations on Torah study and open the gates of the study hall to everyone, including those who do not seem to want to study Torah for its own sake. With the veteran, choice pupils, the educator can achieve an intense experience of learning and a lofty spirit, an experience that is external. Opening the gates to all is an inner experience, with no external pomp. It is specifically this action that perpetuates the Torah, while the mentor also gains a multitude of pupils, from whom he can learn: “And from my pupils more than from them all.”[2]

Written Torah in the Vessel of the Oral Torah

The final stage is the practical application, parallel to the attribute of kingdom and the lower hei of God’s Name Havayah. After the person is saved from sinking into the external aspect of the experience, he searches for a practical outcome for the experience that he sustained. Ultimately, he understands that the intensity concealed in the mitzvot and in the Torah given at Mount Sinai are larger than him. He feels that he doesn’t have the strength to actualize that intensity in the world and thus – he must “make a fence around the Torah.” This is another way to understand “and they stood from afar”: In order to maintain and fulfill the words of the Torah, it is necessary to create fences and other forms of distance. This provides us with a deeper understanding of the role of the Oral Torah. It is the Oral Torah, specifically, that makes it possible for us to comprehend the words of the Torah and internalize them until they can be fulfilled in reality.

In short:

Higher Fear and nullification Moses received the Torah from Sinai Yud, wisdom
Recognizing one’s place Be moderate in judgment Hei, understanding
Caution from external experience Establish many pupils Vav, emotions
Written Torah in the vessel of the Oral Torah Make a fence for the Torah Hei, action




[1] Exodus 20:14.

[2] Pirkei Avot 4:1.

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