Ethics – Now & Then 24 – Avot 2:8

Avot 2:8  He [Hillel] used to say: The more flesh, the more worms;
                the more wives the more witchcraft; the more maidservants
                the more lewdness; the more manservants the more thievery.
                [However] the more Torah, the more life; the more study, the
                more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding;
                the more charity, the more peace.
                One who has gained a good reputation, has gained it for his
                own benefit; one who has gained himself Torah knowledge, has
                gained himself the World to Come.

He [Hillel] used to say: The more flesh, the more worms…

Hillel’s graphic litany of excess and overindulgence outlined by Hillel describes the transgressions that too easily can follow in the wake of success and wealth. When food is in abundance and one overindulges, gluttony results. When one accrues many possessions, the need increases to care for them and to keep them secure; resulting in additional worry and stress. It is important to note that Hillel and the Sages, while warning against a life of self-indulgence and status-seeking, did not advocate unnecessary self denial or asceticism. The Talmud, in accord with the Scriptures, sees any form of self-harm as contrary to God’s will and purposes for mankind. God blesses us with good things to enjoy with gratitude whenever possible. When one chooses a lifestyle to pursue, the motivating factors will be one’s definition and perception of what constitues “the good life.”

…the more wives the more witchcraft; the more maidservants the more lewdness; the more manservants the more thievery.

In Hillel’s time polygamy and slavery still existed, particularly in the surrounding cultures. The more wealthy a man was, the greater the likelihood he would have many wives. This did not ascertain a peaceful existence. In a polygamous household the possibility of rivalry abounded and wives could resort to “magic potions” or other forms of sorcery to obtain favors from their husband. We see a hint of this in the incident between Leah and Rebecca and the mandrakes (Gen. 30:14-16).

The larger one’s house the more servants and workers are needed to maintain it. Hillel considers the fact that, especially when the staff and family are living in close quarters, the temptation and opportunity for wrongdoing such as promiscuity, adultery, lashon ha’ra (slander and gossip) and theft, increase exponentially.

[However] the more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom…

The positive and worthwhile use of one’s time and energy is summed up in Hillel’s maxim, Marbeh Torah – marbeh Chaim! More Torah – more Life! That, in four words, is the Sages description of the truly “good life”. Rather than a life focussed on the pursuit of material wealth and status, the life in pursuit of truth and the knowledge of God fulfills one both physically and spiritually. The more one studies Torah, God’s Word, the more wisdom one derives in the application of its truth to one’s life and the more one grows in relationship with Him and with others. In addition, a life of Torah ve’mitzvot, the study of God’s Word and the resultant good deeds performed in loving obedience to His will revealed therein, is not transitory but will continue in the eternal joy and delight of His Presence in Olam ha’Ba, the World to Come.

Yeshua exhorts, “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?…For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness [disclosed in His Word and by His Spirit] and all these things shall be added to you” (Lk. 12:22-31). In the final hours before his arrest and crucifixion, Yeshua shares his last discourse with his disciples during which he utters an impassioned prayer to the Father:
“And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in Your Name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. …But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. …Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (Jn. 17:11, 13-14,17).

…the more counsel, the more understanding;

When a person reaches a high status in life, pride can prevent him from admitting that he needs help or advice. The willingness to seek and heed counsel, and to receive both criticism and encouragement, is a great source of strength. The Scriptures often illustrate how foolish it is for anyone to claim, “My strength and the power of my hand have got me all this wealth” (Deut. 8:17).

Our time on earth is limited and we do well to avoid the long and arduous trail of ‘trial and error’. Far better to learn from the recorded history of those who have gone before and from those still at hand who have gained experience and wisdom from the Word of Truth in relationship with the Author, our Father God, and the Living Word, the Word made flesh in Messiah Yeshua.

…the more charity, the more peace.

A prevailing principle in relationships, as stressed in biblical ethics, is stated by Rabbi Chaim Stern, “Marriage is not a matter of give and take, but give and give.” [1] Every loving relationship requires a generosity of spirit – a giving in faith and trust that will result in peaceful cooperation and blessing for all concerned.

The Hebrew word translated here as ‘charity’ is tzedakah. Tzedakah, as used in the Bible, means ‘righteousness’ and a righteous person is termed a tzaddik. At the time of Yeshua and the Sages, as evident in the Gospels and the Apostolic Writings as well as in Rabbinic literature, the word tzedakah had acquired the additional meaning of ‘charity,’ of giving tangibly as an outward expression of inner righteousness. While being righteous and doing what is right will increase and ensure peace in our own lives, using our material and financial means to help others also will strengthen peaceful coexistence in our congregations and communities, and can even have beneficial influence on the social levels of state and country.

One who has gained a good reputation, has gained it for his own benefit; one who has gained himself Torah knowledge, has gained himself the World to Come.

Our material possessions only exhibit what we have and not who we truly are. Even a ‘good name’ or illustrious reputation is an earthly possession. It is of high value and certainly is of benefit in this life; however, similar to material goods, it is something that can unfairly be robbed from one. As William Shakespeare highlights, “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash: ‘tis something, nothing; …But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which does not enrich him, and makes me poor indeed” (Othello III,3). [2]

On the other hand, Hillel again stresses that the knowledge of God acquired through His Word, and the relationship one deepens more intimately with Him as a result, is the treasure that will endure for eternity.

 

Endnotes:

1. William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 75
2. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol. 1; 165

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