He [Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Everything is given against a pledge, and a trap is spread out over all the living; the store is open, the storekeeper gives credit, the book is open, the hand records, and whoever wishes to borrow may come and take a loan; but the collectors constantly exact payment from man [with or without his cognizance], their actions have what to rely upon, and the judgment is truthful, and everything is prepared for the banquet.” (Avot 3:19)
We often take our lives, resources and opportunities for granted. We use the term “G-d given” to refer to something to which we see ourselves as having natural, unalienable rights. Rabbi Akiva teaches us that Hashem gives us our lives and opportunities on loan: “Hakol natun b’eiravon – Everything is given as a trust.” The source of this idea is in Kohelet (8:15), which describes how everything we eat, drink and celebrate is loaned to us by Hashem. The word eiravon (which appears in Bereishit 38:17) means collateral. Taken literally, its usage in the Mishnah may imply that what we receive from Hashem is in our hands only temporarily, like collateral. As stated above, Rabbi Akiva teaches that “the store is open, the storekeeper gives credit, the book is open, the hand records, and whoever wishes to borrow may come and take a loan.” Hashem generously offers us life and everything in our world free for the taking, but they are given as a loan. Like any other loan, the lender has a right to call for it all to be returned.
Hashem aims, of course, to gift it all to us, but only if we use these gifts in a meaningful way. If we do not, Hashem reclaims them from us (see the Gemara in Bava Kamma (50a), which describes the severity of the mistaken belief that Hashem is willing to overlook His expectations). And it is not hard for Him to do so because, as the Mishnah continues, “a trap is spread out over all of the living.” (This imagery is taken from Kohelet 9:11-12.) Life may seem automatic; but, in truth, we live with a false sense of security. Like the net that suddenly swoops up the unassuming prey, we can be swept up out of this world without a moment’s notice.
The Mishnah continues: “The collectors constantly exact payment from man (with or without his cognizance), their actions have what to rely upon, and the judgment is truthful.” Even if our misdeeds do not warrant our complete removal from the world, Hashem’s agents exact the dues our missteps generate.
The Rambam explains that Hashem collects through the yisurin (suffering) He brings upon people. When people use their lives and the world’s resources incorrectly, the debt is collected in the form of personal suffering. The agents who inflict pain are essentially collecting on Hashem’s behalf. The Medrash portrays the snake who bites and the other animals who attack as acting at Hashem’s behest (Medrash Tanchuma Chukat 1). The Gemara (Arachin 16b) explains how even the minor nuisance of pulling the wrong coin out of our pocket is an example of suffering caused by Hashem. We tend to see suffering as coincidental and unrelated to our actions; our Mishnah and these sources teach us that it is Hashem’s way of reclaiming the loan we have used inappropriately.
The collection can be “with or without our cognizance” – with or without our understanding, appreciation and acceptance of why we are suffering. The Gemara (Brachot 5a) explains that when a person suffers, he is meant to realize that it is because he has not been using the resources he was given correctly (Iyov discusses this in several places; see 33:13-14). Ideally, people learn from their suffering to focus on using their lives and opportunities properly.
Preparing For the Seudah
The Mishnah concludes that “everything is prepared for the ultimate seudah (banquet).” Rashi (Avot 3:1) explains that “the seudah” refers to the next world. (Chazal often use the imagery of a seudah to represent the rewards of Olam Haba’ah. See, for example, Kohelet Rabba 9:8, Evel Rabati 8). The Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 8:2) writes that this imagery, while not literal, gives us an image of the World to Come with which we can identify. This imagery is meant to teach us that Olam Haba’ah is the ultimate goal. The loan of life in this world aims to give us the chance to earn a seat at the table in the next one.
The Mishnah is unclear about what we receive at the seudah. One could understand that we are merely allowed to keep what we used properly in this world. As our life is given to us on loan, we might think that we do not deserve any special additional reward for using it properly.
The Mishnah at the end of Avot’s second chapter teaches us that we receive much more than this. “Your employer is faithful to pay you the reward for your labor… in the coming future” (Avot 2:16). This is based on Shemot 22:30 – “. . . and you shall cast it to the dogs,” teaching that dogs, along with everything else Hashem created, are rewarded by Hashem for the role they play in the world. When we properly live the life Hashem loans us, He rewards us for our efforts. Hashem does so, not only by not reclaiming the loan but also by rewarding us with interest.
Our belief that Hashem gives just rewards is one of our principles of faith, and it helps motivate us to live our lives properly. This is why it is part of the first words we say to Hashem when we wake up – “rabbah emunatecha (You are very reliable).” Hashem’s daily return of our soul to us strengthens our belief in Him as a reliable giver of rewards.
We build off of this the second time we refer to Hashem as reliable in our tefillah: “v’ne’eman atah l’hachayot metim (You are reliable to revive the dead).” We learn from Hashem’s daily restoration of our lives to rely upon Him to do so again even after our life in this world ends.
In addition (as we have seen), Avot teaches us that when He gifts us with life in the World to Come, He also rewards us for having taken full advantage of His first gift – our lives in this world.
May waking each morning give us the faith to use the loan of each day of life properly.