Excerpted from Worlds Beneath the Word
Worlds Beneath The Word takes a long and careful look at some mishnayos in Pirkei Avos, The Chapters of the Fathers. All deal, more or less directly, with some aspect of chinuch—a Torah upbringing. We care deeply about chinuch, about educating ourselves and our children. We want to be loyal guardians of the world-view that we have inherited from our parents. We want to live lives that are in consonance with the oath that we all took at Sinai. We want, above all, that our children do the same.
It is not by accident that our tractate is called Avos, Fathers. Let us, together, attempt to learn how to feel at home within its loving embrace.
Let us begin at the beginning by focusing upon the word Avos. It is irregular in that the plural of this obviously masculine noun is the feminine …os rather than the anticipated masculine … im. Every language, of course, has its irregularities and we generally take these in stride without making a big fuss about them. Why, then our concern with this seemingly picayune linguistic quirk? It is because in the Holy Tongue we do not expect semantic anarchy. Why, unless for a very good reason, weaken the robust av, father, in its plural form by giving it a feminine ending?
Where there is a father there is a son. That is not only a matter of simple definition but it seems to be expressed in the very structure of the word av. It is spelled as an alef followed by a straggling beis. The magisterial alef, the "one," the unique, the unattached and therefore unattenuated, is downgraded to a “first” that must needs deal with a “second.” We all crave children, finding hope and courage in the intimation of immortality which they allow us. But we also know that children cramp our style, carve inroads into our time and make demands that we dare not deny. Fatherhood is an uneasy amalgam of strength and weakness, of heady freedom and draining servitude. If our Sages teach us that the responsibilities of slave ownership are so heavy that “he who acquires a Hebrew slave is in reality acquiring a master,” then this is doubly true of children. The feminine ending points to the erosion of independence that is an unavoidable part of the blessed state of fatherhood.
Where there is a son there is continuity, because the father’s legacy can now be passed on. The son—ben--is foremost a “number two” (the letter beis, the first letter in ben, has the numerical value of 2) in relation to his father. His independence as a separate human being is attested and confirmed, but only in second place, by the letter nun which closes the word.
The tractate of Avos is in the business of imparting legacies. It looks upon us as children of forefathers who had some very significant things to tell us. There is a world of difference between the relationship of a student to his teacher and that of a son to his father. The first deals with admired, objective truths; the second with cherished family heirlooms. The former engenders wisdom; the latter, self-awareness. The first teaches what we are to know; the second establishes who we are to be.
The name Avos awakens some very special thoughts.
We have used “passed on” intentionally. It is the verb which the Torah uses in BaMidbar 27:3-11 when discussing the laws of inheritance. It is a strong expression which makes us visualize a given point of departure and a given goal for the movement that occurs. It carries exactly the right freight for the concept we are seeking, a legacy as the point of contact between father and son.
The letters hey (numerical value of 5) and nun (numerical value of 50) are the symbols of absolute solitude in the number system worked out by Maharal. This is so because all other numbers can find partners as they strive towards a higher level. The 1 can partner with the 9, the 2 with the 8, the 3 with the 7 and the 4 with the 6, as they make their way towards the “tens.” But 5 and 50 can look to no one but themselves. The nun (50) thus stands alone and can therefore soften the implication of dependence that inheres in the beis (2). It affirms that the son is not only a “number two,” but that he is also a unique, independent individual in his own right.
*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.