Pirkei Avot is a collection of the ethical teachings of the Sages of the Mishna. The first Mishna begins with a recitation of the order of transmission of the Oral law from Moses until the Sages of the Great Assembly. It states as follows:
משה קבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע, ויהושע לזקנים, וזקנים לנביאים, ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.
The question is: how is this preface related to the substance of the teachings to follow? What is the connection between this historical reiteration and the teachings stated afterward?
Before presenting an answer to this question we must first ask another even more fundamental one: why does the Torah instruct mankind in ethics readily understandable to the human mind? What possible addition comes about by imposing the basic laws between one human being and another by Divine decree?
The simple answer is of course that not every human being would necessarily conclude that they must love their neighbor, and not rob, steal, and murder.
However, the answer goes deeper than that. There is an infinite sea of difference between a person who keeps his own personal ethical principles and a person who keeps the laws between man and his fellow as commanded by G-d.
First, from a practical standpoint, if the person himself is the sole arbiter of what is the ethical path, he will generally not choose the right when it comes in direct conflict with his own self-interest, especially if such need is very important to him. Instead, he or she will rationalize and justify their poor behavior to soothe their ego.
Further, and most importantly, an ethical teaching directed at mankind by the Divine Pedagogue plants a deep bond between the Divine Law Giver and those commanded. The directive is no longer a human construct limited by human shortcomings, it becomes linked with the eternal and the infinite. Now, the human being practicing acts of kindness to his or her fellow does not simply promote peace (which is wonderful!), and build stronger social bonds, he touches the infinite, feeds the soul, and, to some degree, rises above the petty and smallness of the material world. In short, he has, in some way, cleaved to his Creator.
Also, the “Holy One Blessed be He, does not trick his creations with pretexts in order to bring them hardship” (Talmud). In other words, the mitzvot (commandments) are within man’s reach to observe if he truly wants to. When G-d commanded the Jewish People and mankind to fulfill His commandments, it came the heavenly aid to fulfill those laws. When a person seeks to perform a mitzva, he or she is not alone; the Almighty stands with him or her and assists against all the forces blocking their way. “One who comes to purify receives heavenly aid”. (Talmud).
Back to our original question: why does the Ethics of the Fathers begin with the chain of transmission of the Oral law? In order for the student realize that the ethical teachings stated here in Pirkei Avot are not of human construction but are a part of the Divinely transmitted Torah with all that comes with it, as stated above.
Thus, it is not simply nice advice or even rabbinic wisdom alone, it is instruction flowing from the prophetic wellspring of Moses our teacher who received this wisdom from G-d “mouth to mouth” with all the clarity which that embodies. It is timeless and it is boundless, and it is obligatory, and it raises a person above this world a bit closer to his Creator. (The same is, of course, true of all the Oral law.)
Someone might ask: my character is so poor. I have this or that poor character trait. How can I fulfill the Ethics of the Fathers? I would have to become a different person. These habits are too entrenched in me for me to expunge them from my being.
However, the answer has already been provided here in the first Mishna. Character improvement is a part of the Torah and is thus a command of G-d, and He does not forsake those who come to do His will. To the contrary, he brings them close to him “on the wings of eagles” (Exodus) with His Divine protection and providence. Moses’s prophecy applies – “it is within your mouths and hearts to do it” (Deuteronomy).
Chassidic teaching explains that the seven Canaanite nations represented, or paralleled, the seven negative character traits opposed to serving G-d. G-d instructs the Children of Israel not to fear these seven nations and promises that He will help Israel defeat them (Deuteronomy). So it is in the service of G-d: we need not fear the seven negative tendencies within the physical world. G-d is with us and we will overcome.