A poetic paraphrase of Pirkei Avot
based on the explanations of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Chapter II

The month of miracles, Nissan, is done;
Behind us lies the crossing of the sea.
To reap the goodly harvest in us sown,
We now must make the miracle our own,
Bring will with covenant into harmony
So that in us G‑d’s beauty may be shown,
Refine our nature’s animality
And help to fashion Israel’s eternity.

And so arises on our inner sight
The form of Rabbi, Israel’s President,
Teaching us how to choose our way aright,
Divine and human favor to unite.
Our reason must approve the covenant,
And feeling cling to it as chief delight,
And any light to us from Heaven lent
Must make us to our kind the more beneficent.

Yet reason should not make us overbold
To heed some orders and neglect the rest:
All are the will of G‑d, and of one mold.
Weigh for what price is wrong advantage sold,
With what rewards is our compliance blest,
Think on the book wherein your tale is told
As from the vantage of the loftiest
Eye, and the deepest ear, that always watch your test.

Then comes Rabban Gamliel, his son, and trains
His searchlight on our pathway “on the ground,”
Showing us that the scholar only gains
By wedding study to world-work: the strains
Of both make sin forgotten. But, unbound
To the world’s common round of cares and pains,
The highest learning can become unsound
And lead to sin, where means to live cannot be found.

He then addresses those who would apply
Their energies to help the congregation,
That they should act for heaven’s sake, not that I
Should have my name engraved in memory,
And bear in mind that always for this nation
Ancestral merit pleads; their vindication
And righteousness forever stand on high.
Then whatsoever they bring to consummation,
Or not, shall as your deed receive full compensation.

Moreover, as to the authorities—
The rulers, and our own external powers—
He’d have us not too closely cling to these
Ministers who well know how to please
For their own ends, but when the need is ours,
Their friendship falters, their foundation flees;
Feeling, even thought, fail us in crisis hours
When choose we must. Will solely in all seasons flowers.

He says that if entirely we align
Our will with that of Heaven, we can make
A new will manifest in the divine,
Can move G‑d’s providence to redesign
Itself, and adversary counsels break;
G‑d’s depth of goodwill toward us we can mine
To swell our strength and portion for the sake
Of greater service, which for Him we undertake.

And now we hear again our friend Hillel
Cautioning us not to dissociate
From the community, nor trust the spell
Of our self-confidence, nor judge too ill
One who has failed a test we’ve not yet met,
Since help of heaven is needful to us all,
Nor should we utter words that must await
Interpreters, nor put off study till too late.

The dullard fears not sin; the ignorant
Will never give his Maker much delight;
The teacher should not be impatient,
Nor modesty keep silent the student
When he must ask, to understand aright;
Travel and trade are not known to augment
Wisdom; be always conscious that you might
Be called to lead, no better leaders being in sight.

It’s said that he who said these had a spark
Of Moses, and so recognized the skull
Which he saw floating on the waves (weird ark!)
As Pharaoh’s, and to it made this remark:
“You, drowner, have been drowned; your drowners will
Themselves be drowned; G‑d’s justice finds its mark,”
To give the skull its rest, and to instill
Courage in Israel’s heart for the galut [exile]’s long pull.

He said: if you should crave more properties,
Think of the cares they’d bring you; if more flesh,
Think of the worms; more wives, of sorceries;
If more maidservants, of their lecheries,
If more manservants, they are prone to filch.
But to get more Torah is to increase
Life; more study makes one wisdom-rich;
More consultation widens understanding’s reach.

If you’ve gained a good name, it is your own;
You cannot sell, nor leave it to an heir;
If you have gained Torah, then you have grown
Into a life that lasts past breath and bone.
The teacher who persuaded Rome to spare
The seed that then in Yavneh’s plot was sown
Was pupil to Hillel and to his peer
Shammai. He said: If you have studied much, beware

Of taking credit to yourself, for you
Were formed, that knowledge of the Torah’s law
You should not gain and rest content, but to
Unlimited horizons should pursue
And toward the Infinite your furrow draw.
And from his fountain, amongst those who drew
Five men of special eminence he saw.
Of Rabbi Eliezer, “Cistern without flaw,”

His master said, for not a droplet’s worth
Of learning did he lose, but all retained.
Of Rabbi Yehoshua, “She who gave him birth
Be blessed.” Of Rabbi Yose, “He is immersed
In pious zeal, befitting a kohen [priest].”
Of Rabbi Shimon: “One who fears sin’s dearth
Of G‑dliness, by punishment less pained.”
Of Rabbi Elazar: “Fountain that cannot be drained.”

And these with those five volumes are compared
Which serve the people Israel as guides:
Rabbi Eliezer with Bereishis [Genesis] is paired
For his great scope; Rabbi Yehoshua shared
With Exodus the theme of birth; there bides
In Vayikra [Leviticus] the priest’s code, for which cared
Rabbi Yose; while in Bamidbar [Numbers] hides
The secret of accounting, which ’gainst sin provides.

Then Rabbi Elazar must represent
Devarim [Deuteronomy], which Moses uttered on his own
After he had absorbed the aliment
Of the first four books, and fathomed their intent,
When through long pupilage his soul had grown
Its master-wings, and strength to him was lent
To give a new dimension to the known
And breathe new life into the writing on the stone.

And Rabbi Yochanan was heard to say
That Eliezer with his vast recall—
They dubbed him “Mount Sinai,” the strength and stay
Of the entire tradition—would outweigh
All Israel’s sages. But one Abba Saul
Remembered that upon another day
He weighed Rabbi Elazar against them all,
The “mountain-mover,” whose heft the rest aloft did haul.

He gave a test unto his chosen five:
Go forth, observe and tell me then what trait
Best helps one who would well and justly live.
Then Rabbi Eliezer, first to give
His answer, said, “A good eye, satiate
With its own, glad of what others receive.”
(For such contentment makes the mind a slate
For teachings, which it grasps and holds inviolate.)

Said Rabbi Yehoshua, “A good friend.”
He, who his natal promise realized,
Knew that we learn from those whose needs we tend.
But “a good neighbor,” who does not offend
Those whom he daily sees, Rabbi Yose prized.
And Rabbi Shimon: “He who sees the end
Implicit in the start, and so apprised,
Abstains from sin, nor by its fruit can be surprised.”

But Rabbi Elazar said, “A good heart.”
And Rabbi Yochanan approved his say,
For it includes all, as the whole the part,
And is the seat from which all virtues start.
He put the question, then, the other way:
“What’s worst,” and as before each cast his dart
(Save Shimon’s “borrower who does not repay”);
But when the heart is bad, the rest will fall away.

Of each of these, three sayings are repeated,
Which they most wished upon us to impress.
“Sinai” said: “Others’ honor should be treated
As dearly as your own; grow not soon heated;
Repent the day before (you cannot guess
Its date) the day your span will be completed;
Bask in the scholars’ glow, but do not mess
With them, for they know well how to inflict distress.”

And Rabbi Yehoshua said: “Beware
An evil eye, an evil inclination,
And hate of human beings, for these tear
The soul out of the world.” That we should care
For friend’s belongings as for our own ration
Was Rabbi Yose’s charge, and to prepare
To learn Torah: your ancestors and nation
Reserved your place, but you must climb to claim that station.

He said, moreover, “All your acts be done
For the sake of heaven.” “Be not negligent
In saying Shema and prayer,” said Rabbi Shimon,
“And let not prayer become habitual drone,
Rather implorings, earnest and urgent,
To the great mercy on which we are thrown.
Do not yourself as wicked represent
In your thoughts’ mirror, lest your course that way be bent.

And the innovator, Rabbi Elazar,
Had these to offer: “Learn with diligence,
That understanding may not rove too far
From wisdom’s point, and lose its guiding star;
Know what to answer those who look askance
At Heaven’s truth and wage a quibble-war;
But first and always know, with deepest sense,
Your Master, who Himself your toil will recompense.”

And last, the chapter cites Rabbi Tarfon:
“The day is fleeting,” he was heard to say,
“The workers lag, and much is to be done
For great reward; the master urges on
Against cold nature’s indolent delay,
And though unfinished at the set of sun,
Still you are bound to labor while you may,
Till in the Coming World you shall receive full pay.”