Progressive Judaism: Desert Island Texts No. 34

Progressive Judaism: Desert Island Texts No. 34

Desert Island Texts
Desert Island Texts
Desert Island TextsIf you were cast away on a desert island with just one Jewish text for company, which would it be?

This week, Rabbi Janet Burden from Ealing Liberal Synagogue selects PirkeiAvot 6:6

The Jewish text I would bring with me is PirkeiAvot 6:6, which lists the 48 middot (personal qualities or behaviours) by which one ‘acquires’ Torah. This list forms the foundation of a specific ethical and spiritual discipline in the modern Mussar tradition.

In the mid-1900s, medieval Mussar practice was revived and revised by Rabbi Israel Salanter and his followers, in response to the ethical challenges faced by their generation.

Rabbi Salanter’s goal was to reduce the disparity he observed between the behaviour of the Jews of his day and the high-minded principles to which the Torah encourages us to aspire. He reasoned that there could be no better way to improve ourselves than by working towards tikkun ha-yetzer, the correction of our inclination to behave in evil or unconstructive ways.

Rabbi Salanter believed that the key to amending our yetzer was the development of yirah, the appropriate awe and reverence for God. Yirah is indeed one of the middot listed in PirkeiAvot 6:6. However, it is not easy for all of us to cultivate a sense of yirah.

Thus, I find this comprehensive list more helpful than the point-blank, yet vague, instruction to fear God. When I reread the list, I always find some quality or behaviour to work on, trusting that the process will deepen my understanding and appreciation of Torah, which remains the key to ethical Jewish living today.

Some Jews use the Omer period to reflect on a different midah each day, preparing themselves to receive the Torah on the festival of Shavuot. (The 49th day is used to reflect on the whole of the tikkun process.)
I prefer to work more deeply over a longer period. Either way, it is easy to see one could work on this list for a lifetime – and I intend to!

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