Pirke Avot Shavuot Study: “Strive To Be A Human Being”

David's Star (Patrick Lentz photo via Flickr.com, Creative Commons license.)
David's Star (Patrick Lentz photo via Flickr.com, Creative Commons license.)

Shavuot greets us next week. (erev is May 28). We celebrate the 10 Commandments, Confirmation in many congregations and for this final Pirke Avot passage, we turn to a line from Chapter 2 of the collection (either paragraph 5 or 6 depending on translation you use). It is a small line with a huge impact: “In a place where no one acts as a man/person/human being (b’makom sh’ain  anashim) strive to be a man/person/human being (hishtadel l’hiyot ish). 

In tradional translations, the words anashim, ish are rendered as “man”. In many more contemporary translations, we see an expanded sense of the word. Let  me suggest, as you study this passage, that it is one of the most important in Avot. It speaks to so much of our modern world. We see now people who see the world only through their own eyes, their own experience, rather than how their actions may impact the larger community. This passage includes the values of compassion and mercy, lovingkindess and dignity: in truth, this one line carries with it the very essence of what is means to be and act as tzelem elohim.

What does it  mean to act like a human being? That really is the task before us. This season beetween Passover and Shavuot helps focus our souls on this very question. Likewise, the 10 days between Rosh Hoshonnah and Yom Kippur mirror, in a different way, this call to assess our own life and soul. What does it mean to act like a tzelem? Let that be our charge for this holiday. The Commandments serve as a symbolic guide to creating a society that brings order out of chaos, reflecting the Creation stories in Genesis. Once again, we face choices. Once again, our tradition calls on us to “strive to act like a human being”

Stay safe and healthy

Rabbi Rchard F Address

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