Akavya ben Mahalalel said: watch carefully three things and you will not come into the power of sin: Know from where you come, and where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning. From where do you come? From a putrid drop. Where are you going? To a place of dust, of worms and of maggots. Before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He (Avot 3:1).
An Existential Three
As we saw last week, Avot’s second perek begins by quoting Rebbi (Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi) who encourages us to use our cognizance of three aspects of Hashem’s omniscience to keep us far from sin. Avot’s third perek begins by quoting Akavya ben Mahalalel who directs us to accomplish this same goal by focusing on three aspects of 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 scenarios.
Our Fleeting Existence
People often see themselves as worth more than they actually are. Remembering our lowly origins and eventual demise humbles us. Though we know that we emanate from a putrid drop, we can become intoxicated with how much we have grown since then. Akavya teaches us that cognition of the fact that we are headed to a place of dust, worm and maggot reminds us of the fact that our existence and glory are temporary. Knowledge of our eventual demise should humble us. This is how Tosafot (Mesechet Berachot 31a “Aytee”) explains our custom to break a glass at weddings. The breaking of the glass should temper the unbridled celebration by reminding us of the day of death.
In fact, Parshat Bereishit (3:22-24) teaches us that Hashem instituted man’s mortality in order to teach us this lesson. Before man ate from the etz hada’at, when he knew that he depended upon Hashem to give him direction, he was allowed access to the etz hachayim which offered him eternal life. Once man ate from the etz hada’at and thought that he could now make decisions for himself, Hashem made man mortal by exiling him from Gan Eden (so he could no longer eat from the etz hachayim). Mortality was needed to sharpen the gap between man and G-d.
Once decreed by Hashem, our reflection upon our mortality becomes a condition for living our lives properly. Sefer Kohelet – a book that focuses on the meaning of life in light of the reality of death – identifies cognizance of death as the one thing we know for sure and the only advantage the living has over the dead. This knowledge makes the living dog better than the dead lion (Kohelet 9:4-5). The realization that our life eventually ends should inspire us to think beyond the present and be cautious about how we live our lives. This is why Bereishit Rabbah (9:5) explains the word “tov me’od (very good)” (Bereishit 1:31) as referring to death. Death is “very good” because our reflection upon it gives us a proper perspective on our lives.
This cognizance is the best deterrent from sin. It is what Chazal (Berachot 5a) tell us to reflect upon when all other attempts to deter ourselves from sin have failed. Reminding ourselves of our eventual death puts life in perspective.
What We Amount To
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 as long as 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” (Tehillim 8:5). What is man that G-d should take him so seriously – yet He does.
Kohelet ended his sefer by 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 mishna 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 Rebbe complement one another. Living life with the proper perspective is reinforced by reflecting on both 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 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.
Written up by Yedidyah Rosenwasser.