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

- Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1

[Rabbon Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi] would say... Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His...

Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4


On the surface, Rabbi Judah HaNassi's statement appears to go against the grain of the rest of the Ethics and, indeed, the essence of Judaism itself.

Simply stated, the basis of the Jewish faith is the belief that the Torah is G‑d's blueprint for existence. In the words of the Midrash, ``An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own. He has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G‑d: He looked into the Torah and created the world.''

Furthermore, G‑d did not complete His ``palace'' in the initial six days of creation; all He did was to provide the raw material which man, His ``partner in creation,'' is to develop in accordance with the vision contained in the ``scrolls and notebooks.'' At Sinai, the architect (G‑d) delivered his plans to his contractors (man); He imparted His concept of reality (the Torah) to those whom He had charged to implement it in His creation.

So how can Rabbi Judah say that the ``correct path'' is defined by ``whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind''? Imagine the worker who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect's plan. ``The blueprint calls for a square plank,'' he muses, ``but the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?'' This is what man is doing when he refers to the ``way things are'' in his own nature, in society or in the world at large for guidance as to how to live his life. Indeed, why labor to change the world if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it?

To the Jew, the ``correct path for man to choose'' is determined by the Divine revelation at Sinai, not by what is comfortable or what goes down well in the prevailing moral climate. To be a partner in creation means that one must, at times, contest the opinion polls as well as one's own nature.

This is why the Ethics, which is the Talmud's summarization of the Jew's moral philosophy, opens with the words ``Moses received the Torah at Sinai.'' Morality, for the Jew, is not the product of man's subjective thinking but of Divine revelation.

So how are we to understand the opening words of the Ethics' second chapter?

Within The Line

By understanding its place in the Talmud, which incorporates the entire body of Torah law in its 63 tractates.

Sixty-two of them deal with the dos and don'ts of life, instructing the Jew how to pray and how to study, how to eat and how to marry, how to observe the Shabbos, bury his dead, punish criminals, conduct his business, and so on. The single exception is the Ethics of the Fathers, which discusses not the law (din) but the area defined as ``lifnim mishuras ha-din''---that which is ``within the line of the law.'' ``One who wishes to be a chassid (pious individual),'' says the Talmud, ``should study the Ethics of the Fathers.''

What does it mean to act ``within the line of the law''?

On the most basic level, it means going beyond the law's minimum requirements. If the laws of charity mandate that one set aside 10% of his earnings for the needy, the ``pious individual'' gives more. He has stricter standards of kashrut, dons a higher quality pair of tefillin and devotes more time to Torah study than the laws of the Torah require of him.

On a deeper level, the chassid is one who goes ``within'' the parameters of the law in the literal sense: he strives to perfect not only the externalities of his behavior but also his internal self, his very mind-set and character.

The ``letter'' of Torah law deals primarily with the conduct, rather than the nature, of man. There is no law that obligates us to be of a generous disposition - only that we actually share our resources with the needy. Nowhere does the Torah demand of us to be revolted by the taste of pork - only that we refrain from eating it. The practitioner of the Ethics, however, is one who does not suffice with making his behavior conform to the Torah's directives. He insists that all of him, his outlook, his desires, his feelings—indeed, the very essence of his character—be permeated with the vision contained in the Divine blueprint for life.

Precedent at Sinai

Obviously, this represents a more advanced phase in a person's efforts to realize his partnership with G‑d in creation. His first objective must be to actually fulfill the directives of the Torah.

For man to seek to transform his nature without having first disciplined his behavior is as futile an endeavor as the attempt to train an unbridled horse or to draw energy from an undammed river. First, the ``animal'' in man must be reined in and controlled. Only then can it be refined and sublimated.

The way we originally committed ourselves to our ``partnership'' with the Almighty also included both these stages. When we first arrived at Sinai and were told of G‑d's desire to give us the Torah, ``the entire nation answered together, and said: `All that G‑d has spoken, we will do.' '' Several days later, after a period of intense preparation, we reiterated this commitment; this time we said, ``All that G‑d has spoken, we will do and we will comprehend.''

This is how we are to approach Torah. The foundation of the ``partnership'' must be an unequivocal ``we will do.'' Only then can we proceed to internalize what is already ingrained in our behavior. Only then can we hope to transform the basic drives of our soul so that G‑d's will is not only what we actually do but also what we desire to do with every fiber of our being.

Chapter II

Thus, the first chapter of the Ethics begins with the words ``Moses received the Torah from Sinai.'' Not ``discovered,'' not ``chose,'' not ``learned,'' but ``received''---the basis of Torah being the unequivocal acceptance of and commitment to the Divine plan for life on earth.

Chapter Two, however, opens with a second, deeper realization of G‑d's purpose in creation: that man himself choose the correct path. That his fulfillment of the Torah's commandments be not only an act of submission to the Divine will but also something that is harmoniously consistent with his nature. In the words of Rabbi Judah Hanassi's son, Rabbon Gamliel, quoted further along in the chapter, ``Make that your will should be as His will.''

Furthermore, we are not to suffice with the transformation of self. We must seek to influence our surroundings, so that the very conscience and character of society come to embody the Divine ideal. When the ``correct path'' of Torah is made to be both ``harmonious for the one who does it'' as well as ``harmonious for mankind,'' then G‑d and man's joint project of creation will be complete.