The first Mishna of Pirkei Avot begins by describing the chain of transmission from Sinai to Moshe and from Moshe to Yehoshua all the way to the Men of the Great Assembly. Throughout the first Perek (chapter) of Pirkei Avot we see the continuation of that chain from Rabbi to Rabbi and from generation to generation. Amazingly, that chain of Torah continues all the way to us here in the Capital Region in 2015.
A closer reading of this first Mishna begs us to ask the question of precisely what did Moshe actually receive from Sinai? The Mishna clearly tells us that Moshe received the Torah, but what does that mean? Does that mean that Moshe received a Torah scroll like we keep in the Ark in the Synagogue? Does it include both the Written Tradition as well as the Oral Tradition, the Torah SheBichtav and the Torah SheBaal Peh? What about future study and works of Torah that are added to the Tradition each and every day?
While there are different sources that support precisely what Moshe received at Sinai (see B.T. Tractate Brachot 5a and Shemot Rabbah 41:6 for different interpretations), the one commonality between all of the opinions is that the chain of Mesorah, and our Tradition (both Written and Oral) start from what Moshe receives from G-d.
What is amazing is that Maimonidies (Introduction to the Mishna) as well as others teach us that there was no argument or misunderstanding of the tradition for generations. In other words, the passing down of Torah from one generation of the next was not like a game of broken telephone. There was absolute clarity and agreement as to what the Torah said for many generations. The Gemara in Sanhedrin teaches us that it was only with the students of Shamai and Hillel who “insufficiently studied” that Machloket, or disagreement popped up for the Jewish people. Until that point, any questions that arose were directed to the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish people that settled all disputes. Under these circumstances (and others), the Oral Tradition now needed to be recorded on paper (like we have it now) to prevent losing it for future generations.
Interestingly, if we look carefully, the first Perek of Pirkei Avot represents this perfect, conflict-free stream of Torah transmission. The chapter begins with Moshe and continues the chain of transmission all the way through Hillel and Shamai, maintaining the purity and understanding of the Torah. In that sense the theme of this first chapter is about creating communities and generations that can safeguard the transmission of Torah for generations.
Perhaps this can help us understand the sage advice at the end of the first Mishna by the Anshei Kenesset HaGedola (Men of the Great Assembly). The Mishna teaches that they said three things: Be patient in judgment, set up many students, and create a fence around the Torah. These three ideas are not random or unconnected, but are rather the core ideas for how we can continue the transmission of Torah for generations to come. “Be patient in judgment” – in other words don’t be so quick to judge others. Work to find compromises and stray away from Machloket and arguments in your study of Torah. “Set up many students” – without finding students to teach Torah to, how can the Mesora, the tradition continue? Set them up, seek them out and teach the Torah that you have learned to them. “Set up a fence for the Torah” – cherish the Torah and hold it dear. Protect it and safeguard it from outside influences, as it is the lifeblood of our people. If we can do these three things then we can continue the chain of Mesorah that the Mishna began with.
In that sense, this is what Torah 365 is all about. We are looking to continue the chain of transmission of Torah for many generations to come. We are creating learning opportunities for the many students interested in studying Torah. We need to do our Torah study through thoughtful non-judgmental discussion, learning new perspectives and interpretations from each other. These two ideas at the core of Torah 365 help us get to the third level which is creating a fence around the Torah that we can safeguard and protect it for generations to come. The Torah is the most treasured gift of our people. May we learn from each other and join in with the generations of Jews before us who held the Torah so dear.