Pirke Avot is an anthology of sayings of post-biblical Jewish sages. There is a timeless and universal truth to many of these pithy observations on life. William Berkson has been the director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family since 1994. He is also the author of Learning from Error: Karl Popper's Psychology of Learning. He has designed this book by providing three perspectives on each saying: the insider interpretation from traditional Jewish commentators; a historical take on the material; and a contemporary and comparative slant. These tools lend this classic text a heft missing in other versions of the book.
Just what kind of timeless wisdom can be provided by reading Pirke Avot? We can learn more about the ethical dimensions of the evil tongue, the spiritual rewards of discussing Torah, the necessity of overcoming pride, the importance of friendship, the gravity of insults, the role of manners and morals, the different views within Judaism on why bad things happen to good people, the art of paying heed to the two kinds of love, the value of generosity in our avaricious society, and the lasting power of humility. Of the latter, Berkson writes:
"Humility is the core virtue in the eyes of the Sages, as well as in the Bible. In the Sages' view, human beings have both good and bad impulses. . . . Arrogance unleashes many of the bad impulses whereas humility keeps them in check and enables our good side to flourish. . . . Real humility, then, is not underestimating our strengths or overestimating our weaknesses, but rather honestly assessing ourselves, and using our strengths in a way that benefits others, and not only ourselves."