Hillel would say: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day that you die… (Avot 2:5).
In the second chapter’s fifth mishnah, Hillel lists five things to avoid. The second one is: “Do not believe in yourself until the day that you die (Avot 2:5).” The Rambam explains (Avot 2:4) that even if a person has successfully strengthened himself spiritually, he should realize that he can still lose the level he has reached.
According to Rabbeinu Yonah (Avot 2:4), Hillel refers to both our ability to avoid sin and to our broader faith and religious identity.
Rabbeinu Yonah adds that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is constantly looking for ways to trip us up, utilizing new strategies for each stage of our lives. This is why Rav Chiyya bar Ashi used to daven (even in his old age), “May the All-Merciful save me from the evil inclination.” His wife did not understand why he was still worried at such an old age. She decided to test him by petitioning him while disguised as another woman – and Rav Chiyya succumbed to his yetzer hara (Kiddushin 81b). She learned how true Hillel’s words are.
The Meiri (Beit Habechirah, Avot 2) connects this idea to the mistake made by Shlomo HaMelech, whose overconfidence caused him to ignore the Torah’s prohibition against kings marrying too many wives for fear that the wives might cause a king to sin (Sanhedrin 21). Sadly, Shlomo’s overconfidence was misplaced. His wives swayed him towards idolatry (Melachim I 11).
Our Sages tell us that Shlomo’s father, David, was also a victim of overconfidence. His sin with Batsheva occurred because he challenged G-d to test him (Sanhedrin 107a). Even a lifetime of success does not make one immune.
The Sages (Bava Batra 57) brand a person who chooses an unnecessary nisayon (challenging situation) as a rasha (wicked person). One who cares about avoiding sin avoids situations that can lead to it.
Rabbinically instituted safeguards should also be heeded till the end of our lives. The great Rav Yishmael ben Elisha learned this the hard way. Though the rabbis prohibited reading from an oil lamp on Shabbat in fear that one might come to absentmindedly tilt the lamp to generate more light, Rav Yishmael was confident that he could read without tilting. He read from an oil lamp, and absentmindedly tilted it, causing him to remark, “Kama gedolim divrei chachamim – How great are the words of the wise (Shabbat 12b).”
Faith and Religious Identity
As mentioned, Rabbeinu Yonah says that Hillel’s idea also applies to one’s faith and broader religious identity. Even a person who has lived a full life guided by a strong religious character should avoid exposure to heresy. Rashi (Brachot 29a, D”H Al) references the sad case of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, who became a heretic at the end of his life despite having served as Kohen Gadol for 80 years (Brachot 29b).
It is noteworthy that Hillel does not mention either sin or faith by name. This opens the door to the broader interpretation offered by Rav Yisrael of Vishnitz, who explains the mishnah as referring to positive spiritual growth. One should never be complacent and feel that he has achieved enough. Every moment of our lives can and should be used for continued growth. This is why the Torah commands us to respond to the finding of a corpse (whose murderer is unknown) by killing a calf that has never worked in a ravine that has never been plowed (Devarim 21:4). The waste of the calf and ravine should help us appreciate the potential growth lost through the premature loss of life (Sotah 46a, Maharal Tiferet Yisrael 3).
Though we should be proud of how we resist temptation and the positive things we accomplish, we should avoid allowing overconfidence to cause us to let down our guard or complacency to allow us to be satisfied with less than we can accomplish.
Adapted by Yedidyah Rosenwasser