Every shabbat morning, we take a short detour early in our services to study one mishnah of Pirqei Avot, that seminal tractate charting the transfer of authority from Moses to our Sages of blessed memory. Moses is the first word mentioned therein, but certainly not the last, at least when it comes to ethics. Avot goes through the long chain of sages and their disciples and includes each one’s main ethical teachings. Hillel the Elder, being among the most famous of the sages, got a few of his ethical teachings included. One of them, which we studied last shabbat, is striking:
Be like the disciples of Aaron – loving peace, pursuing peace, loving all creatures and attracting them to Torah.
No mention of Moses? What gives? Would we even have Torah if it were not for him? Why is Hillel ghosting him?
Perhaps Hillel hopes to mention at least one kohen, or priest, to compensate for the fact that it was Moses, not Aaron, who received and transmitted Torah. In fact, one would think that there was never a Holy Temple from reading Avot. The sacrificial rites are virtually ignored, as are any priestly practices. Historians believe this is due to the fact that our Sages evolved from a cultural trend in early Judaism away from the centrality of Temple worship and towards grass-roots governance based on intellectual merit. The kulturkampf between the Sadducees – the priestly oligarchy – and the Pharisees – the precursors to our Sages, burned hot, resulting in several instances of civil conflict which enabled the Roman general Pompei to conquer Judea in 63 BCE without firing a spear. This conflict was settled once and for all when the Holy Temple – the Saducees’ base of power – was destroyed and the Pharisees lived to teach another day in Yavneh. A century and a half later, the Pharisees – now called rabbis – issued the Mishnah, its first comprehensive code of rabbinic Jewish law. Avot is believed to have been added up to a century later.
Avot – and the Mishnah itself – is addressed to rabbis as a guide for them in their role as teachers and judges. Now studied by Jews of all walks of life, it contains profound insights inton ethics the human condition. Among these is the aforementioned quote from Hillel.
What’s weird is we have no evidence Aaron had any disciples. He certainly had four sons, and numerous grandchildren. To this day one is a kohen solely by accident of birth, while a Jew from any walk of life can become a rabbi. Hillel’s statement may be an implied polemic: Be like one of Aaron’s disciples, not like his children or their sycophants; the reason being that just as Aaron pursued peace, even at the price of ethical compromise, so should we. Perhaps Hillel is also implying we should not be like a disciple of Moses, who was known for being a man of action and not words. The contrast between their leadership styles is starkly demonstrated during the sin of the Golden Calf. Aaron collaborated with the idolators in fashioning it, while Moses called upon innocent Israelites to take arms against their brothers but then strong-armed God into not destroying all of them.
One can excuse our Sages for emphasizing Aaron’s peacemaking role and deemphasizing Moses’ activism for truth at any cost. The first two centuries of the common era were littered with the bodies of Jews who repeatedly took up arms against the Roman empire, leading to destruction, exile and even the prohibition against teaching Torah under pain of death. Many of the Sages got caught up in that revolutionary fervor, including, famously, Rabbi Akiva, who a century after Hillel both wrote the first draft of the Mishnah and backed Simon bar Kokhba in yet another disastrous rebellion. It’s hard to love all creatures when you’re being oppressed by and trying to kill some of them.
Of course, Hillel said a lot of things, but he did not get to choose which of his sayings got included in Avot. That task fell to a defeated and depleted class of rabbis who lived two centuries later, who tried to rebuild out of a destruction so complete that the center of the Jewish world was shifting to the great academies of Babylonia. They sought to “be steadfast in judgment, raise many disciples, and build a fence around the Torah.” That doesn’t sound as sexy as messianism and burning animal flesh, but Lordy it worked! After all, here we are, having passed through crucible after crucible of oppression with our rabbinic system remaining the dominant form of Judaism even in an increasingly secularized 21st Century.
A disciple of Moses would more often be right, but a disciple of Aaron creates communities that are built to last. All you need is love. Shavua Tov.