“Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do,” Simon Sinek writes in his bestselling book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Action. Unfortunately, it is too easy to just go through the motions, traversing life without knowing our purpose, cause, and what drives us to get out of bed every morning. The greatest companies and leaders clearly articulate their WHY and that informs WHAT they do and HOW they follow through. As Sinek describes through examples such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Apple, and Southwest Airlines, starting with WHY is the best recipe for success, as it boosts passion, motivation, and inspires others to follow.

Writing in the 16th century, Rabbi Moshe Almosnino, begins his Pirkei Avot commentary, Pirkei Moshe, with his own suggestion as to why starting with WHY is important. Addressing why there is a custom to proclaim, “All Israel have a portion in the world to come” before learning Pirkei Avot, he writes:

Every act that a person does should be preceded by an awareness of the purpose of that act… for otherwise it will likely be unsuccessful. More so, if one wants to influence his friend in a certain direction, if he does not first explain the purpose of following in that path, the friend will not follow with happiness and goodness of heart, but will be anxious and downhearted, not knowing the purpose of the actions.

Thus, according to Rabbi Almosnino, “All Israel have a portion in the world to come” serves as a motivational framing technique, reminding the reader the WHY of Pirkei Avot—i.e., to provide spiritual and ethical guidance to prepare the reader for eternal life in the World to Come.

Abarbanel articulates the WHY of Pirkei Avot slightly differently in his commentary, Nachalat Avot, with more of an emphasis on the benefits learning Pirkei Avot can have even in this world. He writes that “all of the commentaries agree” that the purpose of Pirkei Avot is to “teach the praiseworthy character traits a person should acquire, in order that he interacts effectively with himself, his household, his state, and his nation.” The commentaries differ, in his view, concerning the source of these ethical and moral teachings. Some, like Rambam, understand the advice in Pirkei Avot to be primarily rooted in logic and empirical investigation. Consequently, there is overlap between the ethics of Pirkei Avot and the philosophical and psychological ideas found within the works of Aristotle and Plato. Others emphasize that the teachings contained within Pirkei Avot are firmly rooted in tradition, making explicit connections to the Divinely-inspired wisdom found in Tehillim, Mishlei, and other books of the Torah.

Our new series, Psyched for Avot, will combine the two approaches outlined in Abarbanel. We will explore themes within Pirkei Avot, analyzing them both through a traditional lens rooted in Torah commentaries and through the empirical investigations from the field of modern psychology. Our WHY of Psyched for Avot is to converge the traditional wisdom of Pirkei Avot with the best practices of modern psychology to help us flourish in this world and the next. Each week we will explore topics that will aim to increase our self-awareness, help us manage our emotions and behaviors to help us reach our goals, understand and relate better to others, and develop a better connection to God.

While each article will be valuable if read in isolation, there will be compounded benefits for reading them weekly and in the proper order. Additionally, since the goal is personal growth, the ideas presented would be enhanced through the personalized, reflective work of each individual. To address both points, the interested reader is encouraged to explore the full archives, as well as supplemental materials, on www.psychedfortorah.com. In this week’s additional materials, there are links with questions and activities to help everyone find their own personal WHY.