Atomic Power

from a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe adapted by Rabbi Israel Rubin 

Personal Matters

The final chapter of Pirkay Avot, known as "Ethics of our Fathers," is traditionally read on the Shabbos before Shavuot.

Unlike the five original chapters which are identified only by number, Perek Rishon (first Chapter), Perek Sheni (second Chapter), etc., this last Avot addendum is also known by the specific name of "Kinyan Torah," -Acquiring Torah.

The preceding chapters of Avot discuss matters of personal behavior and inter-human relationships. They recommend good ethics, self-improvement and positive attitudes toward life and people.

But the sixth chapter's focus is not on personal relationships, but on the Torah itself. As its name "Kinyan Torah" implies, Torah study is the theme of this chapter, so timely before Shavuot, when we receive the Torah.

A General Overview of "Kinyan Torah"

The sixth chapter begins by listing the highest levels of piety and purity that one can attain through selfless learning for its own sake, Torah Lishma. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi echoes the Heavenly call from Sinai that admonishes those who disgrace Torah, for only Torah represents true freedom and liberation.

Further on, we read how the Torah reigns supreme, superseding priesthood and royalty. Also discussed are the 48 good qualities and study habits conducive to Torah study.

We learn about the physical self sacrifice necessary to study Torah, as well as scriptural references to the rewarding endowments of Torah. Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma's refusal to leave his city of Torah demonstrates that the value of Torah surpasses all the world's gold, diamonds and precious stones. The chapter concludes that Torah is first among G‑d's acquisitions,- the purpose of creation.

Focus on One Mishna

After reading a general overview of the chapter, let us study at least one mishna on a deeper level. As Shavuot marks the Yartzeit of King David, let us research the third mishna, which highlights David's exemplary behavior.

It states: "He who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single rule, a single verse, a single expression, or even a single letter, ought to render him honor; as we find with David, King of Israel, who learned ONLY two things from Achitophel, and yet called him his master, his guide and his dear friend."

Just a Matter of Good Manners?

At first glance, this mishna teaches us that proper student-teacher etiquette is not restricted only to a scholarly master with volumes of knowledge. We should also address a minimal non-professional teacher respectfully.

A closer look, however, will show us how this concept touches on the essence of Torah.

The King David Precedent

To prove its point, the mishna uses the precedent of King David, who expressed reverence to his advisor Achitophel, although he learned from him only two things.

"If David, the King of Israel who learnt ONLY two things from Achitophel, regarded him as his teacher, his companion and his dear friend, then how much more should one who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single verse, or a single expression, or even a single letter, pay him honor!"

A "Kal Vachomer"?

To argue its case, the mishna invokes the classic talmudic method known as Kal Vachomer (a minor fortiori). This reasoning assumes that a strictness which we find on a lower level, would certainly apply to a higher level. But here it is in reverse. It stretches the principle too far in contradiction of the rule of Dayo L'ba Min Hadin, which limits and defines the extent of a Kal V'chomer.

As logically convincing as a Kal V'chomer may be, it cannot expand a new law beyond its origin. Simply put: How can the mishna extrapolate respect for a teacher of `even one letter,' when King David, the source of this idea, had learned two whole things?!


The inconsistent phraseology of this mishna also presents a problem. And this pattern is repeated twice, so it can't be dismissed as a mere oversight or omission.

Indeed, now that we learned the importance of a single word, let us carefully examine the mishna's wording.

We find that our mishna selectively adds the word Bilvad in one sentence, while omitting it in the next sentence, where it would seem more appropriate! The word Bilvad, meaning `only,' emphasizes the limitation of a small quantity. But strangely, our Mishna uses the term 'only' when referring to the (larger amount of) `two things,' but not regarding (the smaller quantity of) `even one letter!'

The Whole Torah

Actually, our mishna chooses its words wisely and carefully. The Baal Shem Tov, whose Yartzeit is also on Shavuot, explains that the mishna could not say `only one letter,' because a Torah letter is not limited.

The Holy Torah is not merely a collection of separate, random letters, which spell out words, which then develop into paragraphs and chapters. The Torah is one indivisible essence, and each part of it is a microcosm that reflects the whole.

The value of a Torah letter is not limited to its face value. As an intrinsic part of the Divine essence, each letter is infinite in itself, as the Baal Shem Tov taught: "When you hold part of the essence, you are really holding all of it."

Indeed, the Talmud and the Zohar explain that each Torah letter is full of meaning and deep insights on many levels, encompassing wider relationships and references that represent whole worlds unto themselves.

Power of The Small Atom

The significance of Torah's smallest component can be compared to the smallest component of physical matter, the atom. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, `everything that we see or hear carries a message that can be useful in our service to G‑d.'

While the world was once assumed to be made of a multitude of different elements, the examination of substances at the sub-atomic level shows that they are all built of the same matter, demonstrating the common unity throughout creation.

Small as an atom may be, it is certainly not insignificant. Seen under the microscope, we discover how the smallest atom is teeming with energy and action, that can burst forth with the greatest force, hopefully for a peaceful purpose. An atom contains within it a whole planetary system of its own, complete with nuclei, electrons and protons that revolve around each other.

Who Was Achitophel?

The focus of our mishna is not only on King David, but also on Achitophel; the teacher who taught him only two things. Unfortunately, Achitophel had a one- dimensional appreciation of the Torah, so his teaching was very limited.

History shows that Achitophel was a brilliant, but sinister person with a dark and dangerous side. Devious and conspiratory, he had encouraged a rebellion to topple the House of David. A tragic figure who committed suicide, Achitophel was a sad exception to the fine tradition of genuine Torah scholars (Talmud, Sanhedrin 90).

Achitophel's appreciation of Torah was only superficial, so it did not fully penetrate inwardly into his heart and mind. Caring only for the letter of the law he had no appreciation for its inner soul and spiritual dimension.

Achitophel taught King David only two things, for that was all he could offer. Devoid of G‑dliness, his study was an intellectual exercise that lacked a spiritual dimension.

It Takes The Right Teacher

The infinity of Torah is inherent in every letter. Respect is also due to a minimal teacher, but only the inspired teacher imbued with the fear and love of G‑d, can bring out the best in every Torah letter.

The Divine spirit of Torah helps us appreciate the depth of wisdom that lies beneath the surface, as Moshiach will reveal the inner secrets of Torah presently concealed from us.