A Holy People

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

A No-Brainer

One of the key points of the machzor on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is Unesaneh Tokef followed by BeRosh Hashana yekoseivun BeYom Tzom Kippur yechoseimun. Tears flow as we contemplate whether we will be among those who will be written down for life or, chas vesholom, among those who will not survive the year. Some will die at their predestined time, others sooner. We are under no illusions that such things ‘never happen’ because we all know of people who have unexpectedly died of illnesses, in accidents or even at the hand of criminals or terrorists. We daven to be written in the Book of Life but there are no guarantees. However there is a way to ensure that we will be written down in the Book of Life? Do you want to discover the secret? Read on.

I must admit to having a particular interest in cats. I don’t own one but do see them regularly in the streets of Ramat Beit Shemesh. At any time of the day or night you’ll see one crossing the road, emerging from under a parked car or occasionally making an emergency exit from a trash bin after being surprised when someone tosses in a bag. What was the cat doing in there? Presumably looking for some discarded fish or some other edible item which would have kept it going until its next hunger pangs. All in all, cats do not enjoy a particularly intellectually stimulating or satisfying existence.

A dog doesn’t fare much better. If it is not looked after by some friendly human, it roams the streets, usually at the dead of night, looking for discarded bones. And if it gets reported, it might find itself caught by the municipal dog catcher who will take it out of our way to the nearest kennels to be disposed of.

The lives of cows, sheep and goats are much the same. They munch grass and provide us with milk, leather or wool but is this a life? At least cows can be happy that they don’t have to plow anymore but they probably never spoke to their bobbies and zeidies to realize their good fortune. If a person chances on a lion’s den, he might well live to tell the tale according to Yevomos (121a) because lions only go back to their den to sleep, waking when they feel hungry again to look for supper. So lions look for food, eat and sleep, look for food, eat and sleep and so on ad nauseam. Monkeys enjoy swinging from branch to branch –give them a banana and they are happy. But I don’t envy them. I don’t even envy their slightly more advanced cousins, the chimpanzee or gorilla. We see them in the zoo pacing their enclosures. In the wild, I’m told that they sleep about thirteen hours a day and eat for another six hours, after they searched and found some food. What a life! Nebuch for them.

Now let’s think about humans. Hashem gave us a neshomo as well as a body. Our body wants to do exactly the same as the animals – look for food, eat, look for other physical pleasures, enjoy them temporarily and go to sleep until the next day when the same program is repeated — look or work for food, enjoy eating and other physical pleasures and then go to sleep until the next day etc. etc. True, we have a neshomo and can choose to pursue spiritual and other worthwhile pursuits, but our physical urges are strong and it’s tempting to just surrender to them. The problem is that if we do so, our lives become as humdrum and meaningless as that of our animal cousins. Eating, sleeping, eating, sleeping in just a slightly more sophisticated form than that of animals. And at the end of the day our satisfaction with life will be less than that of animals because they are programmed to feel satisfied when they have had enough but we are always looking for even more tasty foods, even more enjoyable physical pleasures. If we would succeed, it would be only a halbe tzara but we don’t succeed; we are never satisfied. We quickly get used to whatever we have and look for more, leaving us dissatisfied. We are never satisfied because the neshama part of us is not interested in physical pleasures. It needs us to be alive, so we have to eat and sleep but it wants so much more. It wants a connection to its spiritual source. A pizza or hot dog just doesn’t achieve that. And forbidden pleasures take us even further from our spiritual source.

Chazal have a strong word for this kind of glorified animal existence, They call it death. “The wicked even during their lifetime are called dead.”(Medresh Tanchuma). The posuk (Yirmiya 2:14) spells it out. “You have deserted Me, your source of fresh water, for broken vessels which can’t even contain water.” A posuk in Tehilim is equally dismissive. “I said that you are gods and the sons of the Most High but you shall die as men do and fall like any prince.” (82:5-6) We could have lived a neshama-centered existence – connecting with Hashem, the source of life, but we lived a life of an overgrown monkey. How sad. What a waste.

The posuk spelled it out: “I have given you a choice – life or death, good or evil.” We have the option and mitzvah of clinging to Hashem (Devarim 10:20) — learning His Torah, keeping His mitzvos, walking in His ways. This is life in the true sense. This provides us with spiritual, meaningful and eternal satisfaction. “The righteous, even in death are called alive.”(Medresh Tanchuma ibid).

We look for inspiration to do teshuva before Yom Kippur. Isn’t it obvious? Do we want to live the life of cats, dogs and other animals whose concern extends no further than satisfying physical urges? Or do we want to live on a more elevated level, looking to Hashem and clinging to Him? Is it even a question? It’s a no-brainer.

Yes, we have the power to inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. No matter how much time we will still be granted in this world, we can write ourselves in the Book of Life, living in the image of Hashem. As the posuk says, “You, who are clinging to the L-rd your G-d, are all alive today.” (Devarim 4:4).