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‘Sages’ ‘Ethics’ Opens Doors for Spiritual Growth

By Chana Dovberg

Downtrodden by betrayal and reversals of fortune, Alex Winner never imagined a 2,000-year-old Jewish book would bolster his spirits.

Two years ago, a concerned friend lugged Winner to Lubavitch World Headquarters for the High Holidays.

“He said I could pray, put on tefillin, give charity and maybe I’d feel better,” said Winner.

In the cavernous space filled with the hum of scholars and a polyglot of visitors, the Kiev-born Winner, a Moscow conservatory-trained oboist, met Rabbi David Okunov, associate program director of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, known as FREE.

“I cannot say I was looking for religion, but I was looking for support,” related Winner.

When Okunov offered him a slim volume entitled Ethics of the Fathers, Winner accepted it out of curiosity.

Between the covers, Winner found a wealth of Jewish wisdom, ethical guidance and moral instructions. Age-old teachings like, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it,” and “Who is wise? He who learns from all men,” made their mark.

“I discovered my understanding of Judaism was primitive,” explained Winner. “I now see it is complex, full of ideas that will take me years to fully understand, and that is the biggest gift because it pushed me to seek more knowledge.”

Changing the Dynamic

Just as Ethics of the Fathers – the compendium of Mishnaic sayings is also known by its Hebrew title, Pirkei Avot – opened Winner’s eyes to the richness of his heritage.

Notable members of the FREE Alumni Association, Mikhail Filimonov, Greg Raykher and Vadim Iosilevich, sponsored the first printing run.

The current volume is published in collaboration between FREE and SHAMIR. With more than 100 other publications, the new volume is a word-for-word translation by Rabbi N.Z. Rapoport. It features nuggets of salient commentaries from classical – Rashi and Rav Ovadiah M’Bartenura – to contemporary sources, especially those of the Lubavitcher RebbeRabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

“This book is geared for all Jews, no matter what their educational or observance level,” said Rabbi Mayer Okunov, FREE’s chairman. “The ethical teachings within Pirkei Avot are a breath of fresh air in a world that has grown increasingly muddled and complacent with the lowest common denominator of behavior.”

A study group of 30 regulars, which has been meeting for years to delve into Jewish texts, turned its attention to the ethical text in keeping with the tradition of studying Pirkei Avot between Passover and the High Holidays. Predictably, the new book’s highly readable insights have sparked many thought-provoking discussions during class, according to group leader Rabbi Yoseph Volovik.

Volovik, a mainstay of FREE’s Adult Education Division, explained that having a Russian translation in hand changes the dynamic between him and the class participants.

“They look at the text and take it apart on their own,” said Volovik. Instead of a teacher-student atmosphere, the class is like “learning together among friends, and everyone takes part.”

For Winner, Ethics of the Fathers was just the beginning. A year ago, he approached Okunov and told him he completed studying the text. Next on his list was studying the Torah, line by line, chapter by chapter.

Stated Winner: “I felt myself in a position to appreciate that my nation has been given a gift of Torah, and I needed to dedicate time to study its wisdom.”

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