The sayings of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) often capture the ethic of the oral law. They not only offer an insight into the minds of the great rabbis of the Talmud, but provide advice that can be applied to normal life in every era. An excellent example of the universal wisdom of Pirkei Avot is a quotation from Hillel:

“He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it. He who learns not, forfeits his life. He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away” (1:13).

While one might wonder how these statements are connected, most commentators agree that this entire Mishna is discussing the proper attitude toward Torah scholarship. A person should not seek to become great in Torah only to gain fame and respect, nor should one misuse one’s scholarly credentials. Additionally, becoming a respected scholar does not mean that one can rest on one’s laurels. No matter how much one has learned, a person should always make the effort to learn more.

How does such a statement apply to those who are not Torah scholars?

Have you ever noticed how the most miserable characters in the movies are those people whose lives are guided by their pride? They seek fame and fortune before all else. At its most basic, Hillel’s advice can be distilled to serve as a reminder that a person must always continue to develop themselves for themselves, and not because of what other people think.

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