Moshe received Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Yehoshu’a, and Yehoshu’a to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets passed it on to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be moderate in judgment, make many students, and make a fence for the Torah.
We are here presented with the chain of the Oral Torah, going back to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Moshe Rabenu, A”S, according to the rabbinical tradition, received both a written and an Oral Torah, the one giving the guiding lines, the other to explain them.
HaRaMBaM, Z”L, explains in the introduction to his M”T, that the teachers of the Oral Torah, Yehoshu’a bin Nun, the Elders, the Prophets and so on, would write down notes on the Oral Torah, but not itself, in order to help on memorizing it. This chain is continued through the Pirqei Avot (P”A), stating who received and from who, every time a new Rabbi is mentioned. Here it stops with the men of the Great Assembly, which was established by ‘Ezra, A”S.
They present the first ethical statement in this Seder, namely moderation in judgment, to make many students, and make a fence in Torah.
What does this mean? Well, there is of course the obvious reading of the verse, that this is directed to some kind of court, but personally I see a more personal level as well. Namely that when we end in situation where we “judge” people, then we shouldn’t judge people harshly, without understanding or mercy. Everybody can fail, and we are all people, so sometimes we don’t even realize when we fail, which doesn’t just go for the person we are “judging” but also for us selves. We might believe that we are right in the moment, but maybe we are actually the one who is wrong.
And in that regards, we should influence people, making them our “students”. Maybe not so much in the technical understanding of the word, that now we are teaching somebody, but when we act in the society, some are bound to react to it, to take it to themselves, and maybe even act as we are. The manner we are acting should be in a moderate way, and when people see how we deal with things, when we believe that we have been wronged, will influence how they will believe is right to act as well. We are a specie of social animals, influencing each other, as well as being influenced by each other, and each and every one of us, has an impact on the whole society.
And that is why we have to make a fence around Torah, because our actions are crucial for all of us, not only for the individual. We should guard us selves in our approach to Torah, not taking it for granted or too easy. As said earlier, we are only humans, and we do fail, so making a fence, will keep us from breaking the Commandments themselves, keeping our failings in safe distance, sort of speaking.
By having these three things in mind, we can help establishing a more ethical and understanding society, also when we or others are failing.
Who are introduced here?
Most know of Moshe Rabenu and Yehoshu’a, A”S, also known as Moses and Joshua. The Elders are the Judges and leaders mentioned in “Judges,” and the Prophets are, well, the Prophets of the NaCh (the Prophetical Books of the Bible). Then a group is mentioned, which might be unknown for some, namely “The Great Assembly,” which is also know, in Hebrew, as Anshei Knesset HaG’dolah (אנשי כנסת הגדולה), and existed – according to the traditional view – from the end of the Prophets until the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. This Assembly are believed to have consisted of 120 known Sages, and probably a number of unknown Sages, among the Scribe, Ezra, A”S, who has a book ascribed to him in the Bible. Also some Prophets are believed to have been part of the Great Assembly.
The Assembly is credited for having established the Jewish Canon of the Bible, some of the more central prayers, such as the ‘Amidah, and the Rabbinical hagim, such as Purim. As such it is given great credit and has had a great impact in Judaism.
Though there are discussions on whether the Great Assembly really has existed among scholars, I will follow the traditional Jewish view here.
A”S: ‘Alaiv HaShalom (עליו השלום), Hebrew for “Peace be upon him!” A term normally used about Prophets and Patriarchs.
Hag: Hagim in plural, a Hag (חג) is a Jewish religious festival.
Seder: Part of the Mishnah. The Mishnah is made in six parts, called S’darim (סדרים, plural for סדר), which is Hebrew for “order.” The word can also appear in other contexts.
TaNaCh: The Jewish Bible. The Bible is parted in three parts, namely Torah, which are the Five Books, Nevi’im, the Prophetical Books, and Ketuvim, the Scriptures. Taking the first letter of each part, the word TaNaCh (since Kaf, k, is changing to ch in the middle and end of words as a general rule) is formed. When only talking about the Prophetical Books and the Scriptures, the term NaCh is used. On more on the TaNaCh, see my article on it on Judaic Awareness.
Z”L: Zichrono Livracha (זכרונו לברכה), Hebrew for “May his memory be blessed!” Normally used for Rabbinical scholars and others who should be respected (such as parents), who are dead.