"You are the way God writes symphonies and bad checks. You are the way God cries over newborns and last breaths. You are the way God is God as you," writes Rabbi Rami Shapiro in one of his commentaries on the words of the early Rabbis (250 BCE to 250 CE) gathered together in Pirke Avot, "a compendium of pithy, insightful, and engaging sayings on what matters in life, and how to live it with dignity." This paperback is a more elaborate volume than Shapiro's Zen-like interpretive version Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot (1995). It contains biographical sketches of the Rabbis, the ethical teachings of these sages, and notes and commentaries on the teachings' meaning and relevance to the contemporary scene.
One of the things that is crystal clear in the eyes of these spiritual teachers is that each and every person has a special destiny and calling. As Shapiro puts it: "You are an extension of God as a branch is an extension of a tree. You are the way God manifests in your place and time." Armed with this perspective, the day takes on a brighter tint and meaning. The sages had little respect for "the narrow mind" which is animated by fear, violence and greed. Instead, they lifted up "the spacious mind" which is fueled by love, justice, compassion, and humility. No wonder Shapiro writes: "There is only one question you need to ask to judge yourself: Have you made the world a better place for your having been born into it?"
The sages from yesteryear saw learning as "a holy enterprise" and saluted the art of asking the right questions as "the master tool of wisdom." They honored spiritual teachers but advised those on the spiritual path to find their own way for "wisdom cannot be secondhand." Shapiro's high regard for all religions comes across in the sagacious ways he interprets the Jewish sages and their openness to others. For example, he observes: "What is the right path? One that honors the senses, celebrates love, promotes reason, affirms diversity, and recognizes unity." And even more radical: "Do not imagine your home as a castle, a defense against the world. Rather, live without defenses, seeing everyone as family, sons and daughters of the Only One we call God." Taken together, Shapiro's commentaries provide a path of holiness that encourages us to become more human.