Rabbi Yonason Sacks
Moshe Kibail Torah MiSinai
Maseches Avos commences with a detailed delineation of the chain of transmission of the Sinaic mesorah. Noting the fundamental nature of the tenets expressed in this Mishnah, the meforshim raise a basic question: why does R' Yehuda HaNassi, the redactor of the Mishnah, wait until Maseches Avos to present this history? After all, such an axiomatic introduction might seem more appropriately placed at the very beginning of Seder Zeraim, as an introduction to the entire corpus of the Mishnah.
R' Ovadiah MiBartenura explains that R' Yehuda HaNassi deliberately chose to open Maseches Avos with this Mishnah because of the unique content of Maseches Avos. While all other tractates of the Mishnah deal with specific Biblical and Rabbinic precepts, Maseches Avos deals with meta-halachic ethics and mores pertaining to personal conduct. At first glance, one might believe that such mores are in no way unique to the Jewish faith, since philosophers throughout time have established systems of ethics based on moral intuition and empirical reason. In light of this ostensibly universal nature, one might erroneously conclude that the ethics of Maseches Avos are similarly intuitive and rationally derived. To dispel such a notion, R' Yehuda HaNassi commences Maseches Avos with a categorical statement of faith: "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai" - every aspect of the Torah, even the most "rational" of mores and manners described in Maseches Avos, is a product of the immaculate wisdom of HaKadosh Baruch Hu conveyed to us at Har Sinai.
The notion that the ethics and morals of the Torah are an original product of the Sinaic revelation is suggested by the Gemarah itself. The Gemarah in Maseches Sanhedrin (11a) relates that on a particular occasion, Rabban Gamliel instructed his attendant to invite seven Sages to gather in an attic for the purpose of "Ibbur Shannah," intercalation of the Jewish calendrical year. When Rabban Gamliel arrived at the attic, however, he noticed that eight Sages had come to the gathering. Rabban Gamliel promptly demanded, "mi hu she'ala she'lo b'rishus yeireid - whoever has come up without permission should immediately descend!" Upon hearing this declaration, Shmuel HaKattan immediately admitted to having attended the convention without an invitation. The Gemarah relates, however, that in truth, Shmuel HaKattan had been invited to attend. Nonetheless, he chose to single himself out in order to prevent the public humiliation of the true culprit. The Gemarah subsequently records similar acts of piety performed by R' Chiya and R' Meir, who also altered the truth and assumed culpability in order to prevent the embarrassment of a fellow Jew. The Gemarah explains that R' Chiya learned such behavior from R' Meir, who learned such behavior from Shmuel HaKattan. Shmuel HaKattan himself learned such behavior from Shechanya ben Yechiel in Sefer Ezra, who claimed to have taken a foreign wife even though he had not actually done so, in order to minimize the shame of those who had sinned. Shechanya himself learned such pious behavior from HaKadosh Baruch Hu's conversation with Yehoshua bin Nun, in which HaKadosh Baruch Hu refused to divulge the identity of Achan, who expropriated the spoils of Yericho. Alternatively, the Gemarah suggests, Shechanya learned such behavior from HaKadosh Baruch Hu's chastisement of Moshe Rabbeinu, "ad ana mei'antem - until when will you (all) refuse," as if to imply that everyone had sinned, thereby minimizing the shame of the actual sinners.
This anecdotal Gemarah reveals that even individual and non-codified ethical behavior, such as bending the truth in order to prevent another's embarrassment, is a product of direct transmission from Moshe Rabbeinu himself. Ethics are no less "original" to the Torah tradition than matzah, shofar, or monetary laws.
The explanation of R' Ovadia MiBartenura is enhanced by a comment of R' Yitzchok Isaac Shor (Leket Sichos Mussar, Parshas Re'eh) regarding the Biblical prohibition of "Bal Tosif" - adding to the mitzvos. As is well known, the Torah prohibits personal additions to the 613 mitzvos in two distinct locations. In Parshas V'eschanan, the Torah states, "lo sosifu all hadavar asher Anochi mitzaveh eschem v'lo sigre'uh mimenu - Do not add upon the thing that I am commanding you, and do not detract from it;" only a few parshiyos later, in Parshas Re'eh, the Torah reiterates,"lo sosif alav v'lo sigre'uh mimenu - Do not add upon it and do not detract from it." While both verses appear to express the same basic prohibition, a cursory comparison reveals a critical difference: in Parshas V'eschanan, the Torah addresses a plural audience, while in Parshas Re'eh, the Torah addresses a singular audience. The Rambam himself (Hilchos Mamrim 2:9) appears to account for this discrepancy, suggesting that the two formulations may reflect two distinct forms of Bal Tosif. While Bal Tosif is generally applied in a personal and individual sense - for example, an individual Jew electing to wave five species on Sukkos instead of the requisite four, or an individual Jew opting to don five passages of Tefillin instead of the mandatory four - the Rambam derives an additional dimension of Bal Tosif from the Torah's singular formulation in Parshas Re'eh. As opposed to addressing the individual, this prohibition of Bal Tosif specifically addresses the Beis Din - the representative governing body of the nation. Beis Din is thus prohibited from creating new mitzvos (Rabbinic precepts), unless it specifically publicizes that these new mitzvos are of their own creation, and therefore not binding under original Biblical law. Thus, according to the Rambam, the plural and singular formulations of Bal Tosif serve to address the individual as well as the Beis Din, respectively.
R' Shor, however, suggests an alternate explanation for the Torah's dual formulation. While the plural prohibition of Va'eschanan outlaws additions to the mitzvos themselves, the singular prohibition of Re'eh limits our emotions with which we serve HaKadosh Baruch Hu: we are commanded not to innovate in our service of HaKadosh Baruch Hu on the basis of our rational instincts or in an attempt to imitate other nations. Rather, we must fulfill the mitzvos in a pure and unadulterated fashion, exactly as they were commanded by HaKadosh Baruch Hu. R' Shor's explanation thus complements the opinion of R' Ovadiah MiBartenura: Maseches Avos begins with an affirmation that the mores and ethics prescribed throughout the tractate are an original product of the Sinaic transmission, not of our own intellect or reason. As opposed to violating Bal Tosif, these laws represent the most genuine of original Torah values.