This may very well be one of the biggest memes of the Jewish world:
If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? — Pirkei Avot 1:14
(You can even find this teaching in the entrance hall to Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium!)
If you’ve been on social media even a little bit throughout this pandemic, you’ve become well versed in the less holy category of internet “memes” that cover a variety of topics: from making light of a hard situation, to offering inspiration, critique, and sometimes just something completely random to get our minds off of everything else going on in the world.
Memes have been floating around the internet well before the pandemic, but I feel like I see them more and more in my newsfeeds. But I’d like to draw our attention to a Jewish text that I’ve always thought had a slight parallel to “meme” culture (but obviously far more holy). The parallel is that the text offers tangible, relatable, and quick teachings for us to digest: Pirkei Avot, commonly known as, “The Ethics of our Fathers,” but perhaps more appropriately titled: “The Big Book of Teachings.”
Tucked away in the Mishnah (codified around 200 CE), Pirkei Avot is a text that we can study anytime, but it is a custom to be studying it right now, in the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. One typically studies a chapter every Shabbat as a grounding spiritual force in what can be a spiritually relaxed part of our year: When we often vacation or at least change up our typical routines. Studying Pirkei Avot is supposed to ground us back in the morals and ethics of our tradition, reminding us that though we could get a little too carefree in some areas of our life right now, our morals and ethics shouldn’t go astray.
The Jews who fled Egypt were supposed to work on their character in the days leading up to revelation on Mt. Sinai. As we move from our replication of the Exodus with the seder and prepare to replicate revelation through the celebration of Shavuot (when we engage in Jewish study all night long), we too can be mindful of this time to work on our character and ethics.
So in addition to sharing those funny internet memes that catch our attention, I encourage each of us to set aside time also to study the wisdom of our sages with the brief, accessible, and digestible teachings of Pirkei Avot like:
Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness.
— Pirkei Avot 1:2
Hillel and Shammai received [the oral tradition] from them. Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.
— Pirkei Avot 1:12
Shammai used to say: make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive all people with a pleasant countenance.
— Pirkei Avot 1:15
Rabbi Tarfon used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
— Pirkei Avot 2:16
Shabbat Shalom,Rabbi Rachael
Click HERE to study Pirkei Avot today.