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Pirkei Avot 6:2: Stages in Receiving the Torah

"Anyone who engages in the study of Torah, is elevated, as it is said: “From Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamot.” (Pirkei Avot 6:2)

It is customary to study Tractate Avot during the summer months, between Passover and Shavuot, in preparation for the “time of our Torah's giving,” the festival of Shavu’ot. The first five (and original) chapters of Tractate Avot primarily deal with the rectified attributes that a person should embrace, which is one of the explanations of the meaning of “derech eretz”—the proper manner of conduct in the world (or literally, “the way of the world”). Additionally, the sages state[1] that, “derech eretz [i.e., proper conduct] precedes the study of Torah. Thus, we too study the first five chapters of Avot before Shavu’ot, which commemorates the Torah’s giving, learning how to properly conduct ourselves.

Although originally, Tractate Avot consisted of only five chapters of mishnah, another chapter was added at its end, a chapter composed of “external mishnayot” (beraitot) that were passed down in parallel to the Mishnah’s main corpus. This sixth chapter is known as “The Acquisition of Torah” (קִנְיַן תּוֹרָה) and over the centuries became an integral part of the tractate. The sixth chapter discusses the habits and actions required to acquire mastery of the Torah, the virtues demanded of Torah scholars, and their expected behavior. There is no chapter more fitting to study just before Shavuot!

Our Mishnah brings a verse from the Book of Numbers (which we begin reading this week), “And from the wilderness to Mattanah. And from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamot[2] (וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה וּמִמַּתָּנָה נַחֲלִיאֵל וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל בָּמוֹת. וּמִבָּמוֹת הַגַּיְא…). On this verse, it is expounded in the Talmud, “If a person makes himself like this wilderness (מִּדְבָּר), which everyone treads on—then Torah is given to him as a gift (מַתָּנָה), and once it is given to him as a gift (וּמִמַּתָּנָה)—his inheritance is with God (נַחֲלִיאֵל)…. And once his inheritance is with God (וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל)—he rises to greatness (בָּמוֹת). But, if he is haughty—the Holy Blessed One humbles him, as it is said 'And from Bamot (וּמִבָּמוֹת) to the valley (הַגַּיְא). However, in our mishnah, only the three middle stages are brought, “From Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamot,” which are the principal stages that are more strongly related to the study of Torah.

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s Principle: Submission, Separation, and Sweetening

Upon closer inspection, we find that this triplet of stages perfectly corresponds with the process of transformation taught by our teacher the Baal Shem Tov: Submission, Separation, and Sweetening, as follows:

The first stage, from which one must begin, is to receive the Torah as a gift from God. We must be careful to not appropriate our study of Torah to ourselves at all, but to feel how the Torah completely belongs to God and is given to us as a complete gift (Mattanah, or מַתָּנָה). This understanding creates humility and lowliness of spirit in a person and thus corresponds to the submission stage.

After internalizing this consciousness, we arrive at study from the consciousness of inheritance (Nahaliel, or נַחֲלִיאֵל, which means inheritance). That which is inherited is traditionally handed over from father to son. This is a stage in which we discern and separate between that which we do not deserve to inherit, and that which we will eventually inherit and receive rightfully. This corresponds to the stage of separation, in which one can feel the positive acquisition.

Finally, a person merits growth and ascent through the study of Torah, like a person ascending a high stage (בָּמוֹת, or stages), and from there he looks over the entire world and brings it to its rectification. This corresponds to the stage of sweetening whereby we can achieve a state of sanctity and elevation attained through the power of Torah.

 

[1]. See Vayikra Rabbah 9:3; Tanna Devei Eliyah Rabbah 1.

[2]. Numbers 21:18-20.

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