A poetic paraphrase of Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers,
based on the explanations of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Chapter I

The winter, long and harsh, is over,
The earth brings crocus forth, and squill,
Snowdrift and crust no longer cover
The glance of lake and pond and rill,
And yet there is this shade of mourning
That with the vernal light combines.
Therefore we open, inward turning,
Our prayerbooks to the Fathers’ lines.

This vernal grief—is it for Adam,
For that one bite that poisoned all,
Let all those humors loose, that madden,
’Til even in spring we taste the fall?
Yet we are shown the path to pardon,
Reminded of G‑d’s pledge that we
Are firmly rooted in a garden
That blossoms to eternity.

And so we find ourselves retracing
How the Torah, the bride of thought,
Was from Sinai, the self-effacing,
By meek Moshe received and taught
To Joshua without omission,
So close was their attention fixed—
The speaker and the one who listened—
That no mistake could wedge betwixt.

And Joshua, with like concentration,
In the elders did instill his lore,
Who passed it on, one generation
To the next, until the teaching bore
Prophetic fruit. Then all was shattered,
Yet the last prophet was enrolled
In the league, that, to unite the scattered,
Distilled out of the Torah’s gold

Three counsels: First, be slow in judging;
Second, make many pupils rise;
Third, institute precautions hedging
The Torah. Oft in numbered wise
Spoke their successors, giving measure
To wisdom’s thought, so as to rear
A structure that would stand the pressure
And stress of many an adverse year.

Thus did their last survivor, laying
His course of three on theirs, declare:
“Three pillars keep the world from swaying.
The first is learning; second, prayer
And sacrifice; third, mutual kindness.
His student cautioned me and you
To serve our Master with love’s blindness
To all reward, yet fear Him too.

Two that he fostered rose, commending
Humble and helpful conduct toward
Those who most merit our befriending
Because they keep the Torah’s hoard—
The home that is a meeting-center
For scholars, whom the master heeds,
And where the poor as well may enter
And find an answer to their needs.

Through all our social channels flowing,
Not clogged by careless repartee,
The stream of Torah, life-bestowing,
Must rule our choice of company:
Each of us must elect a teacher
To whose superior mind we bow,
And yoke to us one fellow creature
To draw in tandem Torah’s plow.

Moreover, each must look with favor
On every other that we see,
Putting upon all their behavior
The best construction that can be:
But where the undesired is proven,
Not suffering the neighborhood
Or partnership of such, but moving
Away, so as to keep the good.

Thus did those early generations
Enjoin all who are bound in awe
Of G‑d, and at their various stations
Uphold the structure of the Law;
Then one pair focused their attention
On those who sit in judges’ place
To chasten crime, resolve contention,
And give each wrong its right redress.

They stressed the need to be objective,
And scrupulously sift each plea,
Not taking either side’s perspective
But viewing both suspiciously;
But then, when they accept the sentence,
Dismissing both as righteous men
Clear of all fault, the way repentance
Allows us to begin again.

The pair that followed them, adverting
To scholars of some excellence,
Cautioned such men against asserting
Their rank in idle dominance
And bade them at some trade to labor,
Though arduous and of humble kind,
And seek from ruling powers no favor
But to their words pay careful mind

Lest doom of exile be their portion
And students following after them
Drink bitter streams that breed distortion
And profanation of the Name—
Thus taught Avtalyon and Shemayah,
Two of obscure, even foreign birth,
Who knew the low may be the higher,
And rank no certain guide to worth.

Then, from their beit midrash [study hall] emerging,
Came Hillel and also Shammai,
Both of whose words, although diverging,
A heavenly voice did ratify
From the Living One, whose operation
Is seen in ways both stern and kind,
But ’tis Hillel, the meek and patient,
Whose rule we have, for now, to mind.

The way of Aaron he commended,
Who loved shalom and peace pursued,
Who Jews of every sort befriended
And by such love their love renewed
For the Torah as at its making,
With nothing lost to compromise:
Of one another counsel taking,
At such endeavors strain the wise,

In good each other emulating,
Yet each content with lowly state,
Not even a teacher’s name inflating,
Lest good be swallowed up in great.
Yet not through modesty refraining
From novel flashes of insight,
Nor, all too close, that gift retaining
Which is for others life and light,

Nor rest content with their own teaching,
But taking thought even in their prime
To mold new teachers, thereby reaching
Beyond their reach of self and time.
Thus Hillel’s school, whose overflowing
Of kindness mainly carved our course;
Yet stands, as well, Shammai, whose showing
Of truth has almost equal force.

Amid the claims of service, learning,
And helpfulness to fellow man,
He bade us concentrate (not spurning
The rest) on study of G‑d’s plan,
And shape our actions in conformance,
Unstintingly, yet quietly,
And, integral to such performance,
Receive all humans cheerfully.

Only through sternest self-controlling
Can these demands be reconciled,
Nor, till the perfect world’s unrolling,
Can to such standard we be held,
Yet this uncompromising figure
Stands by us, chastening our delay,
Urging us to employ what rigor
We can, so as to bring that day

When all will fathom that, unriven,
G‑d, Israel and Torah are one,
That truth which in that time was given
To Shammai, and to him alone.
Yet did his lonely rigor soften
To see Hillel receive and teach
One he’d rebuffed, who’d seemed half scoffing—
This taught him cheerfulness toward each.

Thus far we’ve followed the succession
Down to Hillel from Har [Mount] Sinai;
From further on in that procession
Gamliel bids us not rely
On our own wit, but to keep checking
With one whose depth exceeds our own,
Lest we misjudge, or vaguely reckon
The tithe that’s due. Shimon his son
Spoke as one who among the sages
Sat silent long by his own choice,
Distilling from the holy pages
That which can still the yetzer [evil inclination]’s voice:
Not for the power of pronouncing
Some judgment, but with humbly bent
Head, as one hears a voice announcing
Decrees, and murmurs in assent.

Yet when “Rabban” became his title,
He put on force and firmness then
To hold the world to what is vital:
That judgment settle among men
What truth is, and amid the city
Plant peace, that it may long endure.
—And with this thought the end is knitted
Of this first chapter of the lore

Of the great ones into whose keeping
The tree of life was given to tend,
The field of merits, for our reaping
Reserved by our exalted Friend.
That justice in His world might burgeon
He made for Israel’s eyes to see
That field to vast horizons surging,
And many-branched that spreading tree.