Avot 1:11 Av’talyon says: O Sages, be careful with your words, for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters; the disciples who follow you there may drink of them and die, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.
Av’talyon says: O Sages, be careful with your words…
Av’talyon, as Av Beit Din, is directly addressing the Sages, the spiritual leaders and teachers of the Sanhedrin. We can assume, in that context, that he is making a specific reference to the heresies and idolatries of the Hellenistic culture that were exerting a powerful influence at the time.
On a wider scale, the verse addresses the teaching, studying, and discussion of Torah and stresses the great responsibility of leaders to take care with their teaching, the words they share, for they will have influence on those who hear them and will engender consequences.
Again the exhortation here is to be clear in the meaning one intends to convey in order to avoid misinterpretation. Respected scholars and those in positions of authority need to be constantly aware that their words will likely be taken very seriously and applied in the lives of others. Unclear teaching or poorly chosen words could lead to actions that result in chillul HaShem – desecration of the Name of God – rather than kiddush HaShem – a hallowing or honoring of His Holy Name.
No matter one’s position, or the stage of learning one has reached, each one has the responsibility to avoid the profaning of God’s Name. Our aim in life, as ambassadors of our Father’s Kingdom on earth is to represent and honor His Name, in the authority of our great High Priest and soon coming King, Messiah Yeshua. In Hebraic understanding, a name is closely related to the character of a person. As a child learns from and grows in the ways of a good earthly parent, and imitates his and/or her positive character traits, so we, as children of our Father in Heaven, should constantly be learning from His Word by His Spirit of holiness and allowing His character to form and develop in our lives – that His Name may be all the more glorified.
…for you may incur the penalty of exile, and be banished to a place of evil waters;
Historically, a connection can be made with the mention of “exile” in this verse and the persecution the Pharisees had suffered under the Judean kings who had supported the Sadducees. In fact, Yehudah ben Tabbai, the predecessor of Av’talyon, was forced into exile and spent some time in Alexandria, Egypt, where there was a strong and thriving Jewish community.
About a century later, it is likely that Joseph and Mary fled to Alexandria with Jesus, not long after his birth, in order to to escape King Herod’s slaughter of children under two years of age in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, Egypt was viewed as an environment alien to Torah and thus a place of “evil waters.”
…the disciples who follow you there may drink of them and die, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.
The Word of God is described consistently as mayim chayim, living water, or the waters of life. Anything contrary to the Word can therefore be described as “evil waters.” We can recall a clear and striking example of this concept in recent history in the case of those who followed self-proclaimed prophet Jim Jones and who literally drank the toxic Kool Aid flavored water and died as a result.
Yeshua came to earth as the Incarnation of the pure water of the Father’s Word and could proclaim in truth, at the very climactic water-pouring ceremony in the Temple on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, “If anyone is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn. 7:37-38). Yeshua embodied the purity, values and truth of God’s Word and character. We can look to Him in perfect trust and with confidence that, as we follow our Shepherd, He will lead us only to green, nourishing pastures alongside still and life-giving waters.
Although the intent of the verse is associated more commonly with doctrinal heresy that leads to spiritual death, it is considered by scholars that this last section may have been added around one hundred and fifty years later by Yehudah bar Ilai, after one of the worst slaughters of Jews until that time. The Roman armies, under Emperor Hadrian, had defeated the rebellion led by the proclaimed Messianic leader Bar Kochba, who mistakenly had been supported by Rabbi Akiva and other well-respected Sages. Many Sages, including Akiva, were cruelly executed and thousands of their students fell as victims in the Roman reprisals. Once the wide-sweeping retaliations had ceased, Yehudah bar Ilai regrouped the surviving sages and scholars in the Galilee and he was instrumental in re-establishing a Sanhedrin and the preservation of the study and teaching of Torah. He was deeply aware of the responsibility of restoring and securing the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures for the next generation and for those of the future. The lesson had been learned that together with the defense of what one believes to be good and true doctrine come the dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism that inevitably lead to violence and to dishonoring the Name of God.
The ultimate proof that fanatical dogma and misplaced ideals have dire consequences was evidenced in the suffering and death of millions, including the murder of six million Jews, as a result of Nazism and Bolshevism. The sad reality that man has not learned from so great and tragic a travesty is the continued litany of violence and genocide evidenced, for example, in Rwanda, Sudan and other areas influenced by radical Islam.
One of the modern attempts to face and deal with this danger is the credo of tolerance, in particular that of religious tolerance, which had its start in England in reaction to an exhaustion after the protracted centuries of religious wars. Although tolerance has merit, up to a point, it can lead to the opposite danger of a “stand for nothing, fall for anything” mentality. When evil is tolerated it slowly but surely gains ground until it is accepted and even seen as ‘good’.
The prophet Malachi warns: You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord…” (2:17). This is echoed by another prophetic word, which we do well to take note of in our present day:
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
While interaction with and learning from other cultures can be creative and productive, it is wise first to have a clear and solid grounding and a dynamic understanding of one’s own Bible-based values and beliefs.