Photo Credit: Jewish Press

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 deed are written in a book (Avot 2:1).

Over the past months, we have seen 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 (only) from desire, but also from a (temporary) loss of perspective. Having the right values and goals is not enough; we need to be conscious of and driven by them.

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The mishnayot of Avot speak about how to accomplish this. Two of Avot’s chapters begin with advice on how to generate the consciousness that helps one avoid sin. The third chapter opens by quoting the guidance given by Akavya ben Mahalalel (a tanna who lived in the first tannaitic generation), while the second quotes Rebbi (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who lived at the end of the tannaitic period). Rebbi is chosen to open the second chapter of Avot in order to highlight his central role in editing the Mishnah.

Though both tannaim advise us to focus on three things, they each recommend a different set of three, demonstrating how the model is relevant across different time periods. This week we will study Rebbi’s three.

 

What’s Up

Rebbi encourages reflecting 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, and all of your actions are recorded” (Avot 2:1).

The type of consciousness Rebbi recommends has earlier sources in Torah and Nach. In Bamidbar 15:39, the Torah commands us to wear tzitzit so that seeing them will help us avoid sin by reminding us of Hashem and His mitzvot. Dovid HaMelech went beyond remembering G-d, and constantly imagined himself in His actual presence (Tehillim 16:8). Rebbi takes the idea a step further by encouraging us to focus on the omniscient aspects of Hashem’s presence. Consciousness of Hashem’s awareness of our actions motivates people not only to avoid sin but also to keep far away from it.

 

The Seeing Eye

The first aspect is “the seeing eye” – Hashem sees everything in our world. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the seeing eye means more than abstract knowledge; it means that Hashem is always watching. Many studies have indicated that people are more hesitant to do the wrong thing when they know that others are watching – and even if they see the picture of an eye in front of them.

Students were asked to participate in the so-called Dictator Game, in which one is given money together with the opportunity to share some 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 did.

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 more money than at other times. Ara Norenzayan, author of the book Big Gods, from which these studies are taken, concludes that “watched people are nice people.”

Obviously, knowledge of G-d’s eyes being constantly upon us can 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 G-d’s omniscience. In addition to seeing our actions, G-d also hears our words. Many of the commentaries see Hashem’s eye and ear as able to know our thoughts as well. As Hashem said to Shmuel, “Man sees only up till the eyes (of the other) while Hashem sees straight through to the heart” (Shmuel Aleph, 15:7).

 

Running Record

Rebbi adds that our actions are also recorded for posterity. This means that 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 given her a four-course meal. We should recognize that all of our actions – even those that seem insignificant to us – are recorded and have great significance.

 

Rebbi’s Mishnah 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: “Earlier generations more readily believed that G-d sees, hears and records our actions. Unfortunately, in our [his] generation, people have less faith. Therefore, the phonograph had to be created so people could believe that G-d is recording our actions and our voices.

What does this say about 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 capability and may our focus on this capability keep us far from sin and inspire us to live our lives properly.

Adapted by Rafi Davis

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Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and Educational Director of World Mizrachi - RZA. He lives with his wife Shani and their six children in Alon Shvut, Israel.