Desert Island Texts

Desert Island Texts

If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?

This week Ruth Sterne, honorary life president and founder member of Sinai Synagogue in Leeds, selects Pirkei Avot.

If I were stranded on a desert island, I would like to have with me a copy of Pirkei Avot, or The Sayings of the Fathers, as my main reading material. When I was asked to write this column, this was my immediate response.

Pirkei Avot is a tractate, a section, of the Mishnah. I cannot remember when I was first introduced to this series of ethical, moral, general life-guiding advice and observations about life. It must have been when I was in my teens, having received a very good religious education, this collection of rabbinical sayings made a deep impression on me.

The ‘saying’ that I particularly liked was one by Rabbi Hillel: “He used to say, if I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if
I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” From first hearing it, it seemed to encapsulate advice on how to deal with different situations in life – little did I know then what lay ahead for me as Hitler came to power – and come out of different situations unharmed.

Two further ‘sayings’ have also impressed me. In the first one, Rabbi Zoma says: “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone. Who are mighty? Those who control their passions. Who are rich? Those who are happy with what they have got. Who are the honourable? Those who honour others.”

In the second, Ben Azzai says: “Hold no person insignificant and nothing improbable, for there are no people who do not have their hour and nothing that has no place.”

These words of observation, instructions, good advice and understanding will hopefully keep me occupied on my desert island, as they keep me engaged in my daily life.