In Pirkei Avos (3:1) we learn: Akavya ben Mehalalel says: “Consider three things and you will not come to sin: know where you came from, where you are going to and in front of Whom you will have to give a reckoning. You came from a putrid drop; you are going to a place of dust, worms and maggots and you are going to give a reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He.”
Akavya ben Mehalalel’s sharp directive to consider one’s very inauspicious origins will bring a person to humility, which is a prerequisite to acquiring yiras shomayim and sanctity according to the famous Braisa of Reb Pinchas ben Yair quoted by the Mesilas Yesharim. Likewise the prospect that one’s physical destination will be in a place of dust, worms and maggots should dispel any vestige of pride. And the knowledge that we will have to give a reckoning in front of the King of Kings should make us afraid to sin.
A later mishna (3:18) quotes Rebbe Akiva. ‘He used to say: “Beloved is man because he was created in Hashem’s image. It shows a greater love that he was told that he was created in Hashem’s image. Beloved are the Jewish people who are called the children of the Omnipresent. It shows a greater love that they were told that they are called the children of the Omnipresent. Beloved are the People Israel who were given a precious utensil (the Torah). It shows a greater love that they were told that they were given a precious utensil.”
This Mishna make a person feel his own importance. “I am created in the image of Hashem. I am from a People who are children of Hashem and we were given the Torah, the precious utensil of Hashem. This is strange. Was Rebbe Akiva unaware of the evils of pride, alluded to by Akavya ben Mehalalel in the first mishna? Or that humility is the prerequisite to sanctity? It is even stranger because it was precisely Rebbe Akiva’s humility which enabled him to become so great as a previous essay explained.
In his commentary on Pirkei Avos, the Abarbanel explains that there is a dispute between the two mishnas. Akavya ben Mehalalel felt that the best way to avoid sin is by encouraging extreme humility. We should know our gross origins, our disgraceful physical destination and that each puny man, is going to have to stand up in front of the King of Kings to give a reckoning. Without a shred of pride we should inevitably become obedient and G-d-fearing. This view is borne out by the behaviour of the young nazir from the south, described in Nedarim 9b who defeated his yetzer hora by telling him “Why are you so proud in a world which is not yours; in one who is going to become insects and worms?”
However Rebbe Akiva felt that this approach may work for some people including himself but many other people will respond negatively. They will be unmoved by such a warning and are more likely to say “Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Yeshaya 22:13). He held that it is more effective to show people how great they are and what good stock they come from. ‘Tell them that they are aristocracy, Hashem’s children and then they won’t want to sin.’ And Rebbe Akiva could bring a precedent for this attitude from the words of Yirmiyahu Hanavi, when he had to rebuke the people and tell them to do teshuva. He prefaced his words with the most beautiful praise of the people. “Zocharti lach chesed ne’urayich… I remember the kindness of your youth, and the love you showed to Me by coming after Me into the wilderness, a desolate and unsown land.” (Yirmiyahu 2:1). Yirmiyahu clearly felt that if the people were to improve they must think positively. They come from such good stock ‑‑ it is such a shame that they are sinning. Their sins are only skin deep. Such a great people who showed such faith in Hashem earlier will surely want to reclaim their noble heritage and their loving closeness to Hashem so they will do teshuva without delay. My late rebbe, Reb Moshe Schwab זצ”ל of Gateshead Yeshiva said that today we have to use the approach of Rebbe Akiva.
Yom Kippur is the day for teshuva from all our aveiros bein adam l’Makom and bein adam l’chaveiro. Amongst those who are shomer Torah umitzvos most aveiros are from the bein adam l’chaveiro category – between man and his neighbor. It has been said that most of those aveiros are between spouses. Within a marriage the possibilities of not honoring each other, not being always sensitive to each other abound. Sometimes a facial expression can upset a spouse. We may be tired or pre-occupied and we don’t always listen to each other as well as we should. These are all aveiros bein adam l’chaveiro for which we have to ask forgiveness and do teshuva.
This itself is remarkable and a source of pride. At a time when murder and cruelty are so common that they are not even reported in the newspaper, when even mass murder only gets a few lines on the back pages, we are doing teshuva for a lack of sensitivity to another human being! Who is like Your people, Israel? A unique nation on Earth. But this is our heritage.
The Gemara in Taanis 10b says that a person who goes from a place where they are not fasting to a place where they are fasting, in response to a local danger, has to fast with them. It may not concern him personally but he should empathise and fast with those at risk. Besides, it would show a lack of sensitivity to eat in front of others who are hungry. The Gemara goes on to say that if a resident of a town which was fasting forgot and ate, he should not join the other residents of that town for the rest of the fast. Why not? It is not derech eretz. People who are feeling weak and hungry will feel worse, when they see this one who looks and feels well because he has eaten. The Gemara says that Yaakov Avinu had enough food for his family even during the famine. But if the Canaanites were suffering from hunger and they had to go to Egypt to buy food, it would distress them if Yaakov’s family did not go as well. So he sent his sons to Egypt, even though was no real need, and despite the danger, to prevent any extra anguish to the local population. The Gemara also says that in a famine one should eat the minimum even if one has ample food. We have to feel the pain of others. Even though those other people are unaware of what we are doing, the Torah teaches us to train ourselves to suffer if others are suffering. To do otherwise reflects a lack of concern for another person’s plight and is unacceptable.
Chavivin Yisroel shenikra’u banim l’Makom, shenitan lohem kli chemda – how beloved are the Jewish people that we are called the children of the Omnipresent and that we were given this precious gift of the holy Torah. We have such wonderful sources to learn from and be inspired by. We have such high standards to aspire to. We want to try harder. We want to increase our bein adam l’chaveiro and the place to start is in our own homes with those nearest and dearest to us. This will inevitably lead to greater sensitivity to others, even strangers.
Rebbe Akiva said, “Ashreichem Yisroel …In front of whom are you becoming pure and who is purifying you? Our Father in heaven, as it says, “And I will sprinkle on you pure water and you will become pure.” (Yechezkel 36:25) and it says, “Hashem is the mikve of the Jewish people. Just as a mikve purifies the impure, so does Hashem purify the Jewish People.
This essay is printed in Rabbi Fletcher’s sefer From Strength to Strength.