The long, sunny Shabbat afternoons of summer are perfect for Torah study. Which is why our sages instituted the study of a weekly chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, starting with the Shabbat after Passover.

This Shabbat, we study chapter two of the Ethics, the first lines of which read:

Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for other people.

Half the people reading these lines will go on reading. The other half will stop short in their tracks, scratch their heads and say, “Huh?”

I must have read those lines dozens of times without giving them a second thought. After all, I’ve been doing the annual Ethics of the Fathers thing since I was a kid. But the first time that I actually paid attention to what I was reading, I was shocked. I stopped short, scratched my head and said, “Huh?”

There’s nothing unusual, of course, about Rabbi Judah HaNassi’s words per se. They’d fit right into a politician’s speech or an “ethicist’s” advice column. They’d sit very comfortably on the “Quotable Quotes” page of Reader’s Digest. But the Ethics of the Fathers is none of these things—it’s one of the 63 tractates of the Talmud. And to see a statement like that in the Talmud is not just amazing; it flies in the face of just about everything else the Talmud, indeed Torah as whole, says everywhere else.

What is “The Torah”? What does it come to say to us? If the message of the Torah could be summed up in a few lines, it might be something like this: “There is an objective, divinely ordained path of goodness and truth. G‑d has revealed this path to us at Sinai, and it has been handed down through the generations in an unbroken chain of tradition. It is this path that you should follow—not the desires of your heart or the conventions of your society. The fact that ‘I want this’ or ‘it feels right’ does not imply that the desire is moral. The fact that ‘everyone says it’s okay’ doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. The Creator of the universe is the arbiter of good and evil, not the wiles of the human heart or the ‘political correctness’ of the current decade.”

So it’s quite surprising to see Rabbi Judah HaNassi (one of the most central figures in the Talmud and in the history of Torah’s transmission through the centuries) advising us to “follow your bliss.” Nor would we think that he, of all people, would make a statement to the effect that “if it’s going to make other people like you, that’s the thing to do.” Certainly we wouldn’t expect him to define these guidelines as “the right path for man to choose for himself”! Unless I’ve completely misunderstood what the Torah is and says?

There’s a story told about a child who’s just starting to learn Talmud and is experiencing confusion with its new, unfamiliar language. The Arameic word chamra means “donkey.” But chamra also means “wine.” “How do I know,” asks the cheder boy, “which is which?”

“Simple,” says the teacher. “It depends where it’s standing. If it’s standing in the stable, it’s a donkey; if it’s standing on the table, it’s wine!”1

Context is everything: show me where it’s written, and I’ll tell you what it means.

That’s how the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory explains Rabbi Judah HaNassi’s perplexing statement. If we examine more closely where this statement appears, says the Rebbe, we’ll better understand its meaning.

Rabbi Judah’s statement is set as the opening lines of the second chapter of Ethics of the Fathers. So we need to understand the relationship between the Ethics’ second chapter and its first, as well as the place that the Ethics occupies in the Talmud.

The teachings contained in the Ethics are described as “matters of piety” (mili d’chassiduta), or behavior that’s “beyond the line of the law” (lifnim mishurat hadin). For example: In the other tractates, you’ll find the details of the Torah’s laws forbidding one to slander, insult or curse one’s fellow, but you won’t find a law that commands you to smile at a neighbor and wish him good morning; the Ethics, however, enjoins, “Receive every man with a pleasant countenance.” Torah law obligates us to lend material support to the needy; the Ethics instructs that “the poor should be members of your household.” The strict letter of the law states that “one who says, ‘I am giving this sela coin to charity so that my son shall live,’ is a perfectly righteous person.” The Ethics, however, admonishes: “Do not be as slaves who serve their master for the sake of reward.” The Torah commands us to obey G‑d’s will; the Ethics wants us to “make that your will should be as His will.”

In other words, while the other 62 tractates of the Talmud concern themselves primarily with the “law”—the dos and don’ts of the Torah’s commandments—the Ethics is wholly devoted to the conduct of the one whom the Talmud calls a chassid: one who takes these laws to the next level, going beyond what is mandated as his or her moral duty. The chassid is not content with fulfilling the “body” of the law; he desires its “soul,” its inner spiritual truth, even if, technically, he’s not “obligated” to go that far.

The “body” of Torah is a set of actions. The “soul” of Torah is the deeper significance of those actions—the inner purpose they achieve.

The connection between the Torah’s “body” and its “soul” is emphasized in the opening lines of the Ethics’ first chapter, which reads:

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and gave it over to Joshua; Joshua [gave it over] to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly . . .

Why does the Ethics begin by describing the Torah’s “chain of tradition”? The commentaries explain: The rules, laws and regulations contained in the rest of the Talmud were obviously commanded by G‑d at Sinai. But when it comes to the pietistic sayings of the Ethics, one might think that these are the “personal” teachings of the sages in whose names they are quoted. Thus the Ethics emphasizes that these, too, form an integral part of the Sinaitic tradition. Indeed, they are the soul of the laws—their inner expression, their ultimate fulfillment.

When creating the first man and woman (as described in Genesis 2:7), G‑d first formed a body out of the “dust of the earth” and then “blew into its nostrils the soul of life.” The Talmud describes similarly all subsequent creations of human life: a body is formed in the mother’s womb, into which a soul is infused from on high.

The same is true of the body and soul of Torah. First comes the grounding of a moral life—an existence governed by the rules, laws and regulations of the right path. Then, the chassid breathes life and spirit into this body, uncovering the “beyond” that lies within. But first must come the body; for a soul without a body is but a ghost, a disembodied spirit with neither grasp of, nor effect upon, the terrain of reality.

In this context, we can understand Rabbi Judah HaNassi’s saying: “Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for other people.”

The “right path,” obviously, is the path of Torah. But there are two ways a person can tread this path: he can walk it as a stranger, or he can chose it as his own.

The body of the law is fulfilled by simply walking the path. It may be difficult and uncomfortable. It may be a lonely path, scorned by society, a burden even to those who walk it. But as long as they obey its signposts and remain true to its trajectory, they have fulfilled their duty to G‑d and man.

But the chassid wants more. He wants the soul. He says to himself: if this is the right path, why don’t I desire it with every fiber of my being? If this is the right path, why doesn’t all the world recognize it as such? Obviously, there is much about myself that requires improvement and development. Obviously, there is much about my world that requires improvement and development.

But the chassid also knows that to attain the soul, he must first attain the body. To choose the path, he must first walk the path. To make that the path should be in harmony with his wiles and desires, he must first subordinate his wiles and desires to its law. To make that the path should ultimately be in harmony with all inhabitants of earth, he must first commit to it despite its unpopularity.

The chassid knows that life’s journey has two chapters. In “chapter one,” Moses receives the Torah at Sinai and hands it over to Joshua, and to all subsequent generations, as the divinely ordained path of life. In “chapter two,” this right path is chosen as harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for all mankind.