A week is a long time in politics, as Theresa May will agree, downsizing from her dream of a super-majority to hoping that the Irish Unionists will keep her afloat. However, whether it will be a soft or hard Brexit, Mrs May or someone else in No 10, the pound is up or down, there is one constant. And this is the subject of this article.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (3:1) says, “Think of three things and you will not come to sin: where we came from – a putrid drop, where we are going to – a place of worms, and in front of Whom we will have to give judgment – before the King of Kings.” All the mefarshim explain that the author of the Mishna, Akavya ben Mehalalel is advising that we need to heavy dose of humility to avoid sin. An arrogant person is very likely to sin because, in his eyes, he is far more important than anyone else, even Hashem. Merely thinking of our humble origins, our inauspicious subterranean future and what might be a very difficult encounter with our Maker is just the right medicine to keep us on the straight and narrow.
Interestingly, Rebbe Akiva, a few mishnas later (3:18) seems to have a different opinion. He encourages us to consider our very privileged situation, created in the image of Hashem, being called Hashem’s children and being the recipients of a very cherished utensil – the heilige Torah. Rather than making us more humble, it is likely to have the opposite effect – boosting our feeling of self-importance. Did Rebbe Akiva not agree with Reb Akavya’s prescription for spiritual health – humility? Did he also not accept Rebbe Levitas’s advice to be “very, very humble.” (Ibid 4:4)? Indeed the Abarbanel sees these different mishnas as offering different avenues to spiritual health. Of course Rebbe Akiva knew of the importance of humility. “Hashem said that He and an arrogant man cannot live in the same world,” (Sotah 5a). But often, reminding a person of his great importance that he is created in the image of Hashem and that he is one of Hashem’s children will have more effect in raising his spiritual behavior than reminding him of his humble origins. It is simply unthinkable for people of our pedigree to sin. As Yirmiyahu (2:1) reminded the people before rebuking them, “I remember your great kindness and love when you followed Me into the barren wilderness.” For people of our yichus, sin should be unthinkable – es passt nisht.
The story is told of a talmid of one of the biggest yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel who was feeling low. He couldn’t find a chavrusa and didn’t even have a fixed place to learn. One morning he sat down, opened his Gemoro and, with little enthusiasm, began studying. Soon someone came up to him and said that he was sitting in his seat and he should move. This was too much for the talmid who decided there and then to leave the yeshiva and join the army. He quickly put on his jacket and left the Beis Hamedrash, ready to jettison the religious life he had lived up until then. On the way out he was spotted by a son of Reb Mechel Yehuda Lefkovitz, who noticed that the talmid’s jacket wasn’t straight. He went up to him, oblivious of the spiritual volcano which had just erupted in the talmid’s mind and pointed out the bent collar. As he gently straightened out the collar, he said to the young man, “Es passt nisht for a talmid chochom like you to walk around with an untidy jacket.” The talmid who at that point was almost outside the Yeshiva stopped in his tracks. “A talmid chochom? No-one has ever called me that before.” He felt very encouraged by this passing comment and decided that his decision to leave the Yeshiva had been rather hasty. With new determination he returned to the Beis Hamedrash and to his Jewish future.
We brought last week the view of the Abarbanel that whereas Akavya ben Mehalalel’s prescription to avoid sin was to remind us of our humble physical origins, Rebbe Akiva’s method was to remind us of our noble spiritual origins, that we are created in the image of Hashem and called Hashem’s children. By this method we feel that it is beneath us to sin.
It is, however, possible to say that there is no argument between the Tana’aim. Akavya ben Mehalalel is addressing an arrogant person, who needs a lesson in humility to avoid sin. We say to the baal ga’ava. “Who do you think you are? You came from a putrid drop. Your future neighbours will be worms and maggots. And, unless you improve you’re going to have to endure a very difficult judgement with the King of Kings.” Rebbe Akiva, on the other hand, is talking to someone who is despondent, with little self-confidence. He sees himself as a failure. He needs a boost. “Remember that Hashem created you in His image. You are one of His children. And Hashem Himself gave us His heilige Torah to learn.” Perhaps this will inject into him some kosher pride which will help him succeed in the future. Or, as my son-law Itzik Fekete suggested, we all need both lessons, using the educational tool of smol doche, yemin mekarev. (the left hand pushes aside, the right hand draws near). We all need to be reminded of our lowly origins to gain the vital tool of humility in our avodas Hashem. But we also need to feel our special connection with Hashem to encourage us to steig, to live in an uplifted way, appropriate for a member of the spiritual aristocracy.
Or perhaps we could suggest yet another approach, different from the classic commentaries. It could be that Akavya ben Mehalalel, rather than promoting humility by reminding a person down of his lowly origins, is in fact doing exactly the opposite, building us up as Rebbe Akiva does. But he uses a slightly different method.
The Chovos Halevovos in Sha’ar Cheshbon Hanefesh teaches the concept of spiritual self-examination. He mentions thirty-two different areas which we have to consider constantly if we are to serve Hashem correctly. The first is whether we are sufficiently thankful to Hashem that He created us from nothing. This was a pure kindness of Hashem in order to provide us with happiness in this world and the next. Secondly we have to thank Hashem constantly for giving us a healthy body to house our neshomo. Thirdly we have to thank Hashem for giving us a brain with a high level of intelligence so that we can do what we need to do. Fourthly we have to thank Hashem that He gave us the heilige Torah which is the key to our success both in this world and the next. Fifthly we have to consider whether we are doing our utmost to learn the Torah etc.
Now, let’s return to Akavya ben Mehalalel. He says that if we want to avoid sin we must follow the advice of the Chovos Halevovos. We have to be supremely happy and grateful that Hashem has seen fit to transform us from a putrid drop to a living person. He has given us a physical body of amazing complexity to house our neshomo and He has endowed us further with a healthy mind without which we could not function at all. And He gave us the holy Torah to help us live in the correct way in this world to gain access to the World to Come. Consideration of Hashem’s great kindness will encourage us to do whatever we can to thank Him and to use what He has given us only for Avodas Hashem. For example, how could we use the amazing blessing of a healthy tongue to speak loshon hora?
At some point our physical ‘clothing’ will be discarded into the ground, a place of worms and maggots, but our neshomo will move on to a great new world, more beautiful than we can imagine. The pleasure of one hour in the World to Come is greater than all the pleasures of this world (Pirkei Ovos 4:22). The more we have achieved in this world, the greater our pleasure will be in the next world. We will be judged. Wonderful! This shows that we have a job to do and assuming we succeed, a beautiful future awaits us. Animal and birds do not have to face judgement because they have no responsibilities and no future beyond their physical death. We, however, have an important task to do and a purpose to our existence. The fact that we will be judged testifies to our eternal destiny — this should be a source of great happiness. Consideration of these three things, says Akivya ben Mehalalel, will surely inspire us to strive to the highest madreigos. He and Rebbe Akiva are giving us the same message in different ways. We must know how special we are. We have been created as Jews which is the key to us earning all the rewards and pleasures of this world and the next. Shevuos may be over but consideration of our amazing destiny will surely enable us to continue our spiritual momentum into Tammuz and beyond.