“Rebbe says…Consider three things, and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you – a watchful eye, an attentive ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a book” (Avot 2:1).
“Akavya Ben Mahalalel says: Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know from where you come, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning. ‘From where you come?’ – from a putrid drop; ‘Where you are going?’ – to a place of dust, worms and maggots; ‘and before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning?’ – before the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He” (Avot 3:1).
Over the past months, we have learned about Jewish beliefs and perspectives on life. Internalizing and maintaining consciousness of these beliefs and perspectives in a way that facilitates living by them can often be challenging. The mishnayot of Avot speak about how to generate this consciousness.
Two different mishnayot encourage us to reflect upon three things in order to avoid sin. One mishnah quotes Akavya Ben Mahalalel, a Tanna who lived in the first generation of the Tanaim. The other quotes Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi (known as Rebbi), a Tanna who lived in the last generation. (Evidently, the concept of focusing on three things in order to avoid sin threaded the entire Tannaitic period.) The two Tannaim recommend focusing on two sets of three ideas.
Rebbi: G-d Consciousness
Rebbi encourages us to focus on Hashem’s existence, His knowledge of our actions, and the implications of that knowledge. He taught: “Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and a book that records all of your actions” (Avot 2:1). Cognizance of Hashem’s awareness and recording of our actions should ensure that we are careful to behave properly.
Similarly, the Rema begins his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch by identifying the verse, “I set Hashem before me always (Tehillim 16:8)” as “the great principle that helps man walk before Hashem.” G-d-consciousness inspires us to keep halacha and live our lives properly.
Akavya Ben Mahalalel: Our Existence
Akavya Ben Mahalalel’s “three things” focus on another topic: the nature of our existence. “Know from where you come, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning” (Avot 3:1). Sin can emanate from either high or low self-esteem. Akavya’s teaching aims to help us avoid both conditions.
People often see themselves as worth more than they actually are. Remembering our meager origins and eventual demise humbles us. Similarly, the Gemara in Brachot (5a) tells us that when we feel drawn to sin, we should remind ourselves of our eventual death. The reality of death puts life in perspective.
Lest this reflection cause us to think that our lives do not matter (which can itself lead to sin) Akavya also reminds us of the ultimate reckoning we will eventually need to give for our lives. Though our existence emanates from and ultimately ends in nothingness, we are expected to maximize our existence while we can. The final reckoning shows how significant our life is meant to be, as Tehillim teaches: “What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him” (8:5). What is man that G-d should take him so seriously – yet G-d does.
The Book of Kohelet ends with linking our need to fear Hashem and keep His mitzvot to the fact that Hashem judges all His creations (Kohelet 12:14). The gift of life comes with the expectation that we use it properly. Another mishnah in Avot (4:22) teaches that this account is unavoidable: “Just as we are born against our will, so we will die and appear before G-d for this accounting.” Our knowledge of our inevitable responsibility to account for our life should inspire us to fully maximize it.
The statements of Akavya and Rebbi complement one another. Living life with the proper perspective is reinforced by reflecting on G-d’s presence as well as the meaning of our existence. We need to appreciate our existence in order to maximize it; we need to sustain an awareness of G-d’s presence in order to ensure yirat Shamayim.
May our sustaining consciousness of both G-d’s presence and the significance of our own existence protect us from sin and inspire us to live our lives properly.