Moses received the Torah from God at Mt. Sinai and he conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua passed it to the elders; the elders to the Prophets; the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.
I thought to start this blog with selections from Pirke Avot (“The Wisdom of the Fathers” in Hebrew) from the Jewish tradition. I choose this partly because this is unfamiliar territory for most Christians. When we hear or read something we have never encountered before we might react by ignoring it, we might react with openness. I hope you choose openness!
So, Pirke Avot opens with this saying quoted above. WHY? In itself this does not appear to be a profound statement. It does not seem to give us guidance for life today. Or does it?
It makes claims that are very important for our lives and for this blog:
- That there is such a thing as wisdom (AKA Torah, Scripture).
- That it has been faithfully and carefully passed on from generation to generation.
- That, ultimately, it has its source in the divine.
The Jewish and Christian traditions both have enormous respect for the texts of Scripture. We believe the text to have been divinely inspired – in the writing , the collecting, the editing, and even today, in the reading, thinking, preaching, and pondering of them.
We also hold, at least in the Jewish and Catholic faiths, that Divine wisdom and guidance have also been embodied in our traditions – in teachings, writings, ideas, and even the art of our founding and succeeding generations. Doctrinally we speak of a written but also of an oral tradition that come together and support one another. We believe that both our written and oral traditions are rooted in the Divine.
The very first words of Scripture, Genesis chapter 1, tell us that in the beginning God said…. . God spoke: and light, and the sky, and water, and land, and everything else came into being. God’s word was the means of creation and is embodied in creation. For Jews that same word is Torah. For Christians that same word became flesh in the person of Jesus the Christ. For both Jews and Christians God’s word is true wisdom. If we study God’s word (in scripture and our tradition and even in creation) we have the opportunity to understand how we fit into it all, to understand how our lives should be lived, to understand (as best we can) what it all means.
Now, not all the things our ancestors have said are true wisdom! Our ancestors have been wrong about a lot of things – like the idea of the sun going around the world, like slavery being OK, and a lot more.
There is a famous anecdote, perhaps you know it.
A young boy is helping his father cook dinner. He watches his father carefully cut off both ends of a large roast and put it in the pan. He asks his father: “Why do you cut off the ends of the meat?”
The father replies – “Well, I don’t know exactly. It’s what my mother did when she cooked a roast.”
The next time they had a family celebration the father of the young boy asked his mother: “Why do you cut the ends off the roast before you put it in the pan?” His mother replied: “I don’t know, it’s what my mother always did.”
The two of them went out from the kitchen to the living room where HER mother was supervising the holiday meal preparation. “Mom, why do we cut off the ends of a roast before we put it in the pan?”
The elderly woman replied: “I don’t know why YOU do that, I always did it because my pan was too small!”
True wisdom passes the test of time. False wisdom may last for awhile – but then it’s found wanting and gets discarded. Suffice it to say – that young father and son will not be cutting off the ends of the roast any longer!
Time gives us perspective. How much false wisdom is there in our culture that has recently been exposed? (the stock market will just go up and up, housing prices will always go up, whoever dies with the most toys wins … )
Here’s how things have worked in my family:
My grandmother passed things on to Pat.
Pat passed things on to me.
I’m trying to pass them on to my kids.
How has it worked in your family??????
Some questions to get things started:
- What physical things have been passed down in your family that you really treasure?
- What stories or traditions have been passed down in your family that you are hopeful of passing on to future generations?
- What piece of wisdom have you inherited that you really value now – even if you resisted it earlier in life?
- Over your lifetime – where have you been looking for guidance from? Have the scriptures and the teachings of our ancestors in faith been one of your resources? Why? Why not?