Ethics – Now & Then 29 – Avot 2:16-17

Avot 2:16 -17  Rabbi Yehoshua says: (a) An evil eye, (b) the evil
                         inclination, and (c) hatred of other people remove a
                         person from the world.
                         Rabbi Yosei says: (a) Let your fellow man’s money be as
                         dear to you as your own; (b) apply yourself to study
                         Torah, for it is not yours by inheritance; and (c) let all
                         your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.

Rabbi Yehoshua says: (a) An evil eye; (b) the evil inclination; and (c) hatred of other people remove a person from the world.

Although Rabbi Yehoshua originally stated that a good friend was the greatest asset on one’s journey through life and a bad friend was the worst liability, here, in summation, he states that an “evil eye… removes one from the world”. In other words, in agreement with Rabbi Eliezer in Avot 2:14, he says that one who ungenerously views another person’s success with envy, or sees their life as better than his and resents it, is separating himself from God and forfeiting his own peace of mind and joy of life. The tenth commandment tells us not to covet anything, or, in effect ‘to cast an evil eye on anything’ that belongs to a neighbor, whether his wife, his car or any of his assets. To do so, therefore, is considered as serious as stealing from him, or lying against him.

His second point “the evil inclination” can be seen as the bridge that unites the first with the third, “hatred of people.” The evil and good inclinations – yetzer ha’ra and yetzer ha’tov – are terms used in describing the concept that all people have a leaning, or inclination, toward both good and evil and God has given us free will to choose between them. The apostle Paul describes it well in the seventh chapter of Romans: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. …For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

In other words, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” One’s true inner being is in harmony with the Law of God and responds to what is true and good. On the other hand, one also has a fleshly inclination, yetzer ha’ra, that draws one to the rule of sin and to give way to excessive passion or destructive urges such as lustful sexual desires, vicious rivalry or unrighteous anger. The Rabbis recognized, however, that the yetzer ha’ra has a redemptive side if it is controlled and expressed as healthy competition and creative achievement, and not exercised at the expense of another. “But for the yetzer ha’ra no man would build a home, take a wife or start a business. Thus said Solomon, ‘All labor and all excelling in work, that is from man’s rivalry/competition with his neighbor’ (Eccl.4:4).’” [1]

One could say, therefore, that the great challenge of life is the taming of one’s yetzer ha’ra and the strengthening of one’s yetzer ha’tov in accord with the will of God. From all accounts, Rabbi Yehoshua resembled Yeshua in that he was a perfect model of submitted strength. He never compromised his ideals and beliefs and was free of the vices of envy, rivalry and malice towards others. He harbored no hatred of people, which one may consider to be the ultimate outcome of the negative and harmful influences of an evil eye and the evil inclination; instead, he would prove to be the “good friend” he advocated in Avot 2:14. In spite of inevitable conflict and serious incidents of scholarly disagreement, Rabbi Yehoshua, without evidencing jealousy and by avoiding angry rivalry, would remain a friend to all until the end.

Rabbi Yosei says: (a) Let your fellow man’s money be as dear to you as your own…

The pious chasid, Rabbi Yosei, did not view money or personal possessions as private treasure that provide security and power. Rather, he saw them as good gifts that God bestows upon people in order to also bring benefit and blessing to others. All good things indeed are from God, as the Psalmist writes: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! …when you open your hand, [Your creatures] are filled with good things” (104:24,28). “For He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things” (107:9). And as the apostle James beautifully describes: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (1:17). God is the great Giver and, as His children, we should likewise take delight when we are able to give to others. Yeshua proclaims, in a perfect example of the Rabbinic hermeneutic of kal va’chomer, a comparison from lesser to greater, ‘If…, then, how much more…’: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).

Rabbi Yosei, in this verse, views the other side of the coin. While having a light hold on one’s own possessions and being generous with them, one should be considerate and careful with the goods of others, including their business, reputation or family. One should safeguard them against harm or damage in the same way one would protect one’s own. This characteristic would preclude against envy and also against indifference toward the fate of others.

(b)…apply yourself to study Torah, for it is not yours by inheritance;

Although it is written in Scripture, “The Torah which Moses commanded us is the inheritance (morasha) of the community of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4) the Sages comment, “Do not read morasha but m’orasah, betrothed.” [2] What is the difference? When one receives an inheritance one has not worked for, there is a possibility that one might squander it and not esteem it too highly. When one is betrothed, however, it proves loving commitment. It is the first step of a covenant marriage and carries with it the solemn promise of the bridegroom to cherish his bride and to devote himself to caring and providing for her. The evidence of his word is the ketubah, the written and signed marriage document. The bride and groom then apply themselves to studying the “manual” in preparation for the next big step…the wedding and starting life together. In the same way, we should wholeheartedly devote ourselves towards studying the “manual” of the Word of God in the process of becoming one in loving unity with the Author Himself. In Yeshua, His uniquely begotten Son, the Father sent His Word made flesh – the Living Torah – to help us do that and to open the way in the m’orasah, beloved Bridegroom, for all to receive the morasha, the inheritance of an eternal covenant relationship of Love. This involves a sacred, solemn obligation of commitment to apply ourselves in preparation for the final Wedding Feast and for eternal life together in the delight of Echad – Oneness.

As we make the effort to prepare and to persevere in study, the Lord promises, “My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your children… or from your children’s children,” says the Lord, “from now on until eternity” (Isa. 59:21).

…and (c) let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.

The renowned Maimonides said that Rabbi Yosei conveyed more in this one sentence than others can in whole volumes. [3] It expresses a central principle of Jewish faith, which also is described in Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your path.”

The injunction, “…all your deeds,” includes the most menial as well as the most spiritual. Our Father is interested in every facet of our lives and has given mankind much to enjoy and to derive pleasure from, both physically and spiritually. How do we ensure that our actions such as eating and drinking, working, leisure activity and, where applicable, sexual relations with one’s spouse are “for the sake of Heaven”? The heart of the matter again seems to be one’s inner motivation and intention; to do whatever we are doing with the aim and purpose of honoring and pleasing God, and for the sake of His Name. Will what we do and, more importantly, how we do it, bring honor to His Name or will it shame His Name? Is it in line with His Word and a reflection of Yeshua, the Light of the world?

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, [4] refers to the prophecy of Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55;10-11). How does this relate?

The Hebrew word for rain is geshem, and it denotes physical matter in general. As rain falls from heaven, so does our spiritual provision come from Heaven. As rain brings water and life, the Word of God comes from above to bring the spiritual water of life. As we note in the cycle of water in nature, after rain falls it returns in a different and invisible form to the heavens. Once rainfall reaches the sea or a lake, the process of evaporation causes the water molecules to rise as gas and form clouds in the atmosphere. When conditions are right, rain again falls to earth. How, then, does the water of God’s Word, once it is sent to earth to accomplish His gracious purposes, return to Him again?

Rabbi Chaim proposes that, in the cycle of the blessing of God’s Word, a person’s responses and actions produce spiritual blessings that return to Heaven and bless God. Each time we utter words of praise and thanksgiving, acknowledging our gratitude for all our Father has provided and all He has accomplished on our behalf, blessings return to Him. Every physical action, in thought, word or deed, done with the intent to obey His will and to please Him, bestows a spiritual blessing. The Word He spoke is fulfilled and returns to Him – and the cycle of blessing continues.

 

Footnotes:

1. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7
2. T.B. Pesachim 49b
3. Rambam, Shemonah Perakim, Introduction, v
4. Referenced by Irving M. Bunim in Ethics from Sinai Vol 1; 197-198

 

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