Excerpted from Foundation of Faith: A Tapestry of Insights and Illumination on Pirkei Avot based on the Thought and Writings of Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Gibber Edition, edited by Rabbi Mark Dratch, co-published with Ktav Publishing
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence around the Torah.
Why did the Sages choose this particular tractate as the one to introduce the chain of Tradition?
The answer offered by R. Ovadiah Bartenora, and others, is that the other tractates are all halakhic, legal. This tractate is fundamentally that of musar, morals and ethics. Now, it is obvious – if one does not delude oneself, and despite the futile efforts to do so by certain movements in Jewish life – that Halakhah is meaningful only if it is rooted intradition, in divine authority. For the Halakhah to survive 2,000 years of Jewish exile, when we had no police force and very few means of coercion, it had to be subscribed to on the basis of its authority, the authority of Sinai. Otherwise, it would be like playing a game where you make up your own rules as you go on.
However, Avot is all musar. It is constituted largely of private dicta, such as “hu hayah omer, he used to say,” and one might therefore assume that it is highly individualistic, it is all subjective and a product of personal imagination, sentiments, and ideas, that Halakhah is “hard” and musar is “soft.”
Hence, we begin this particular tractate with the account of the origin of tradition, Moshe kibel Torah miSinai. Ethics, like law, derives from a divine sanction; morality, no less than Halakhah, is firm, fixed, not subject to human whim. Both musar and Halakhah have their roots in mesorah.
The word musar is not grammatically related to mesorah, but the fact that they sound alike points to a conceptual continuity between them: Musar too has a sacred mesorah, tradition: it derives from Moshe kibel Torah miSinai umesarah leYehoshua.
Torah min Hashamayim
Torah is not only God-given; it is also Godly. The divine word is not only uttered by God, it is also an aspect of God Himself. All of the Torah – its ideas, its laws, its narratives, its aspirations for the human community – lives and breathes godliness. Hillel Zeitlin described the Ḥasidic interpretation of revelation (actually it was even more true of their opponents, the Mitnagdim, and ultimately derived from a common Kabbalistic source) as not only Torah min hashamayim (Torah from Heaven) but Torah shehi shamayim (Torah that is Heaven). It is in Torah that God is most immediately immanent and accessible, and the study of Torah is therefore not only a religious commandment per se, but the most exquisite and the most characteristically Jewish form of religious experience and communion. For the
same reason, Torah is not only legislation, Halakhah, but in broadest meaning, Torah – teaching, a term that includes the full spectrum of spiritual edification: theological and ethical, mystical and rhapsodic.