Rebbi said… observe these three things and you will not come into the clutches of sin. Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears and all your deeds are written in a book (Avot 2:1).
Over the past months, we have studied Pirkei Avot’s delineation of the proper view of life. Internalizing and maintaining our consciousness of this view in a way that forges our life’s compass can often be challenging. Rav Ovadia MiBartenura points out that most sins emanate not (just) from desire, but (also) from a (temporary) loss of perspective (See Sotah 3a where chazal attributes sin to a ‘silly spirit’ which enters man). Having the right values and goals is not enough; we need to be conscious of and driven by them (Shemot 9:20-21 reflects the contrast between those who feared Hashem and those who did not pay attention – yirat Shamayim requires consciousness and reflection, not just belief alone).
Pirkei Avot speaks about how to accomplish this as well. Two of Avot’s perakim begin with advice on how to generate the consciousness that helps one avoid sin. The third perek opens by quoting the guidance given on this topic by Akavya ben Mahalalel (a tanna who lived in the first generation of tannaim) while the second quotes similar guidance offered by Rebbi (Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi – a tanna who lived at the end of the period of tannaim).
Both tannaim advise us to focus on three things, but differ on the type of three they recommend. This week we will study Rebbi’s three.
Rebbi encourages reflection upon Hashem’s presence and omniscience. “Look at three things and you will not come to sin: know what is above you – a seeing eye, and a listening ear, a recording of all of your actions” (Avot 2:1).
The type of consciousness Rebbi recommends has earlier sources in Torah and Nach. The Torah (Bamidbar 15:39) commands us to wear tzitzit so that seeing them will help us avoid sin by reminding us of Hashem and His mitzvot (See Rambam Hilchot Mezuzah 6:13 who uses tzizit as a model for the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuzah. All three mitzvot are meant to help us avoid sin by reminding us of Hashem’s presence in our lives). Dovid HaMelech went beyond remembering Hashem and constantly imagined himself in His actual presence (Tehillim 16:8, see Rema O.C 1:1 who bases the great principle of Torah and personal growth on this pasuk).
Rebbi takes the idea a step further by encouraging us to focus upon the omniscient aspects of Hashem’s presence. Consciousness of Hashem’s awareness of our actions not only deters sin, but also inspires us to keep far away from it (See Maharal to Avot 2:1 who explains this language of ‘l’dei aveirah’ to connote the need to keep far away from sin. Once one is caught in the throes of sin, it is hard to separate).
Rebbi specifies three aspects of Hashem’s omniscience.
The Seeing Eye
He begins with “the seeing eye” – the fact that Hashem sees everything in our world.
Our focus on this fact should help us avoid sin.
Many studies have indicated that people are more hesitant to do the wrong thing when they know that others are watching – or even if they see the picture of an eye in front of them.
For example, one study focused on students who were asked to participate in the so-called Dictator Game, in which one is given money together with the opportunity of sharing any or none of it with an anonymous stranger. Beforehand, and without realizing it was part of the experiment, some of the students were briefly shown a pair of eyes as a computer screen saver, while others saw a different image. Those exposed to the eyes gave 55 percent more to the stranger than the others.
In another study researchers placed a coffee maker in a university hallway. Passers-by could take coffee and leave money in the box. On some weeks a poster with watchful eyes was hanging on the wall nearby, on others a picture of flowers. On the weeks where the eyes were displayed, people left on average 2.76(!) times as much money as at other times. Ara Norenzayan, author of the book Big Gods (pp.13-54), from which these studies are taken, concludes that “watched people are nice people.” (see Rabbi Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Shelach 5775 who discusses at length studies where fewer people cheat on tests after being exposed to words related to G-d or being asked to recall the Ten Commandments).
Obviously, our awareness of the constant presence of Hashem’s “eyes” should have an even stronger impact. That is part of what makes religion a force for honest and altruistic behavior and mitzvah observance: the belief that G-d sees what we do. It is no coincidence that, as belief in a personal G-d has waned in the West, surveillance by CCTV and other means has had to be increased.
The Hearing Ear
The “hearing ear” expands Hashem’s omniscience. In addition to seeing our actions, Hashem also hears our words. Many of the commentaries see Hashem’s “eye” and “ear” as capable of knowing our thoughts as well. As Hashem said to Shmuel – “Man sees only (up to) the eyes (of the other) while Hashem sees straight through to the heart” (Shmuel I 15:7, See Abarbanel there).
Rebbi adds a third component – (all of) our actions are also recorded for posterity. What we do is remembered and has long term significance.
We are not always careful about our actions because we see them as lacking significance. The medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9) tells us that, had Reuven known that his saving Yosef would be recorded in the Torah, he would have picked him up on his shoulders and taken him back to Yaakov. Similarly, if Boaz had known that Nach would record the way he cared for Rut, he would have offered her a four-course meal. We should recognize that all of our actions – even those that seem insignificant to us – are, in actuality, recorded and of great significance.
Rebbi’s Mishneh In the Tech Age
The Chofetz Chaim used this mishnah to explain the technological developments of the beginning of the 20th century. He commented on the invention of the phonograph that: “Earlier generations more readily believed that G-d sees, hears and records our actions. Unfortunately, in our generation, people have less faith. Therefore, the phonograph had to be created so people could believe that Hashem is recording our actions and our voices.
One wonders how the Chofetz Chaim would view the explosion of recording technology in the hundred years since then? Maybe we need the reality of knowing that our every move is observed, heard, and recorded by cameras, eyes, and satellites to help us believe that Hashem is doing the same.
May the knowledge of the FBI’s records help us recognize Hashem’s similar capacity and may our focus on this capability keep us far from sin and inspire us to live our lives properly.
We have seen how Rebbi uses awareness of Hashem’s awareness to inspire us to keep our distance from sin. Next week we will iy”h see how Akavya ben Mehalel aims for the same goal through consciousness of the reality of our own existence.
Summarized by Rafi Davis.