Pekei Avot: the Ethics of the Fathers and Happiness in Life

            June 2012    
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Finding Love, Happiness and Fulfillment in Marriage and Life

By Larry Fine

The tractate known as Perkai Avot (which is translated as the Ethics of the Fathers) is a compendium of the wisdom of the greatest rabbis from very early times. It can be looked upon as a distillation of wisdom into short but succinct phrases composed for easy memory to aid the reader to enhance life and navigate through life's difficult times.

The custom prevalent today is to study one chapter on each Shabbat afternoon during the summer months. Since the summer day is long and there is much extra time for study and in addition during the summer months we go outside more and there by interact more with people make the study of Pekai Avot a summer must. Add this to the fact that this book is easy to obtain and has many various and interesting commentaries, from the ancient to the modern, the study of Perkei Avot has taken roots in many communities.

How much more so is it relevant during our times when relationships between people, especially men and women as husband and wife, have become more embittered and the family relationships are strained, we see children suffer growing up lost and bewildered as to how to live their life without risking the shattered relationship of their parents make the study of the Ethics of the Fathers for all, not just one group. It is the simple homespun advice that perhaps appears simple but is actually very deep advice that is the prescription for today's family and interpersonal problems.

Let us look at one such example in the book of the Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter Five, Mishna Sixteen:

    Any love that is dependent on something - when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases. What is [an example of] a love that is dependent on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one that is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.

Let us now reflect onto this Mishna to see how this can help us in our life.

We see that love which is dependent upon something is exactly that: dependent on something and if that something ceases to exist, the love will cease to exist too. However the opposite is: if love is not dependent upon a thing, then the love has no reason to cease even if external circumstances change. But let us now understand what is meant by love that is “dependent of something” and love that is not “dependent of something”? The teacher of this mishnah gave us an example so that we may understand it better.

Love that is dependent on something is like the love of Amnon for Tamar. What was this case? Amnon’s love for Tamar begins with his seeing Tamar’s beauty. His love is dependent on her attraction to him. In the biblical story he feigns illness so that Tamar should come to him, not willing or able to withhold her attraction he rapes her. Afterwords, he realizes that this is not good and he begins to despise her.

In this story (to which the teacher of the mishna relates) we see clearly that love that based on something (here the physical beauty and desires) turns into hatred. This can be understood simply because the love is based on the pleasure that the lover receives from the object. The “love” in such a case is not real love, but pleasure received that causes the receiver to become attached to the object of his pleasure but the reason for the attachment is pleasure received – end the pleasure received and the connection to the object will cease to exist.

On the other hand the example give of the love between David and Jonathan – (warning: this is not a homosexual relationship) – is a love not based on something. Jonathan was the son of King Saul and was next in line to the throne. David who was anointed by Samuel the Prophet should have been perceived by Jonathan as a rival to his position as the next king of Israel. Instead Jonathan saw David as being more fitting then himself and so he tried to help David become king. This love between the two is a love not based on something – both want G-d's will to be accomplished in face of adversaries. Since there is no 'thing' upon which their love was based, there is no 'thing' to cease to exist. Therefore their love never ceased to exist.

Applying this to our life we can see that as we live our lives we can become attracted to another person because of a perceived factor, such as beauty, money, fame, etc. A love that is generated because of one or more of these 'things' is contingent upon the 'thing'. When the 'thing' ceases or ceases to attract us, then the love will wane.

When two people 'fall in love' meaning that they have mutual feelings of pleasure from the other person and based on these pleasureful feelings they decide to get married, the beginning of the marriage is starting in a very precarious position. Once one (or both) of the partners no longer get that 'pleasureful feelings' from the other, the marriage will begin to become a burden.

A marriage that is not dependent on physical attraction, but rather a desire to fulfill G-d's plans to be fruitful and multiply, meaning getting married and having a family is not one based on generated pleasureful feelings. A marriage that begins like this is one with a firmer foundation than the former.

People who wish to avoid the common pitfalls of life, especially today's life that has more options than ever before, would be wise to purchase a copy of Pikei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, and read a chapter each week. This will help avoiding the pitfalls of modern life and insure the continued individual's happiness.


from the June 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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