Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Michael Taubes
Pirkei Avot presents the ethical teachings of our sages, as opposed to purely halachic lessons. It is a powerful guidepost for every Jew attempting to perfect his or her character and behavior. In this course, Rabbi Taubes teaches the Torah mode of conduct based on Pirkei Avot in a stimulating series of classes.
Hillel Hazaken was one of the great leaders of the Jewish people during the time of the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash. He bequeathed to us a number of important teachings found in Pirkei Avot. Hillel tells us, “One who spends his life trying to build up his name will end up losing his name.” The Torah permits a person to take credit for his good deeds. In fact, the Rashba rules that a donor may put up his name on a Yeshiva building because this will inspire other people to give. However, if a person’s intent is not to do good deeds, but rather to see his name in lights, he will eventually be forgotten.
Then Hillel says, “One who does not increase, diminishes.” Many people understand this statement refers to learning. If a person does not continue studying, he will lose what he already knows. A person who has not used his physical limbs for a long time needs physical therapy to get back in shape. If a person does not exercise his mind, he will forget his learning. Indeed, a noted psychologist points out that one of the reasons older people’s minds deteriorate is because the brain does not work as hard as it did when the person was young. Many commentaries write that the key to success in Torah learning is review. All of our great gedolim knew this and spent countless hours reviewing what they learned. In fact, the Gemara says that until one has reviewed something four times, it is not even called review.
The Mishna writes that one who does not review will forget, and one who doesn’t learn deserves death. This seems strange, but in a certain sense if you stop learning, you stop living the way Hashem wants a Jew to live, which is a form of death.
Hillel continues, “One who makes personal use of the crown of Torah shall perish.” The Gemara says that Rabbe Yehuda Hanasi, who compiled the Mishna, said of himself before his death, that although he spent his entire life learning, he never derived any personal benefit from it. Using the Torah for one’s own grandeur and pleasure is a terrible thing.
Hillel continues, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Some people suffer from debilitating depression, which leaves them with the feeling that they can’t do anything for themselves. A person has to recognize his responsibilities and do what needs to be done.
In order to accomplish in life, one needs a certain measure of self dignity and pride. Every person needs to recognize the gifts Hashem gave him and use them to sanctify His name. However, Hillel admonishes us, you may not care only about yourself. You cannot step over others to accomplish your goals. May Hillel’s ethical teachings serve as our guidepost through the bumps and turns on the path of life.