Internal and External

ומלבשתו ענוה ויראה, ומכשרתו להיות צדיק וחסיד וישר ונאמן

He is clothed in humility and awe, and it prepares him to be righteous, loving-kind, upright and trustworthy…

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 6:1)

Every time I dig deeply into a text in Hebrew I find shades of meaning that bring the potential for rich complexity and deep insight into human relationships with one another and the divine. This quote from Pirkei Avot is no exception – it follows initial sentences which describe the value of studying Torah for its own sake (Torah Lishmah), and goes on to begin to describe the impact of such study on someone who engages in this way with our core texts.

The words in this quote are each filled with connotation, and I’d like to look carefully at a few of them. First, it is slightly odd to consider someone clothed with humility and fear/awe, as these traits are clearly internal states, and clothing is an external artifact. What could it mean? While these are clearly internal states, they also manifest themselves on our exteriors in attitudes, words, actions, and relationships. It is not hard to judge whether someone else feels humility or not, and similarly if one has a sense of awe they move through the world in noticeably distinct ways.

The next verb in the quote is also important – the translation is prepares, but the connotation is also training or practice. The message is that study of Torah for its own sake offers us the opportunity to practice moving towards these goals. No human is ever completely righteous, upright, etc. We all have flaws, but the Rabbinic attitude is that studying Torah offers each of us our own unique path, and if we are engaged in moving forward on that path, we are headed in the right direction.

I also love the last words in this quote. Yashar (upright) also includes the concept of honesty, directness, and straight, all of which indicate someone who is comfortable enough in their own sense of self to deal honestly with themselves and others. Ne’eman (trustworthy), the last word of the sentence, extends this further to shades that incorporate the ideas of loyalty, faith, and reliability.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to speak with your loved ones about your own internal values, and how they become your external clothing. Ask your children what actions indicate that someone is wearing “kindness” clothing, or “loyalty” clothing, and see what they come up with.

Shabbat Shalom,