Ethics – Now & Then 31 – Avot 2:19

Avot 2:19  Rabbi Elazar says: (a) Be diligent in the study of Torah and
                  know what to answer an Epikuros (a heretic), (b) know before
                  Whom you toil; and (c) know that your Employer can be relied
                  upon to pay you the wage of your labor.

Rabbi Elazar says: (a) Be diligent in the study of Torah and know what to answer an Epikuros…

Rabbi Elazar, who previously was commended by his teacher Yochanan ben Zakkai for his observation that a good heart was the most worthy characteristic to acquire, now, in the first point of his summation, agrees with Rabbi Yossei’s emphasis that one must be diligent to study Torah (Avot 2:17). In the milieu of the God-fearing Sages this almost went without saying. In appreciation of the fact that it was a gift from God and a revelation of Himself and His will for mankind, the regard and reverence of Torah was a given. The desire, out of love for the Giver, to absorb it into one’s very being in order then to live in obedience to God’s will and in accord with the desire of His heart, was the force that motivated the Sages and their students; as it has all who have served and honored Him through the centuries to this very day.

In Rabbi Elazar’s time, Hellenism was a great challenge to faith in the One God of Israel. Together with the occupation of Israel by the Greek and Roman Empires, came the influx of the Hellenistic culture; including idolatry, the inordinate focus on physical prowess and outward beauty, and the powerful influence of Greek philosophy. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher (341 – 270 BCE) who, although he lived three centuries before Yeshua was born, had greatly influenced the philosophies of the time. Elazar therefore adds that a further benefit of being thoroughly versed in Torah was that one would be equipped to answer an Epicurean. Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary written in the 19th century, when most readers might not have been familiar with Epicurus, translates the phrase as, “Be diligent to study the Torah and know what to answer him who treats the Law with scorn.” [1] Other translations read, “…know what you will answer an unbeliever.”

There are many historical records of Rabbis being placed in situations where their faith in God, or the reality of God, is challenged by a king, emperor or a leading figure. As an example: the Sages were instructed to send a representative to Rome to dialog with the Emperor Hadrian and also with the philosophers of Athens. The one chosen was the student who was immersed in Torah even from his mother’s womb, the pious Rabbi Yehoshua. The Emperor Hadrian challenged the belief that there was a God who ruled the world – a greater Ruler than himself! He challenged, “If you do not show Him to me I cannot believe He exists.” Rabbi Yehoshua replied, “It is simple to see God; just look at the sun and you will see Him.” The Emperor tried to do so but quickly looked away. “How can I look into the sun? The light blinds me!” Rabbi Yehoshua responded, “Let Your Majesty hear what your mouth is saying.The sun is but a small fragment of God’s Creation, and its light is minuscule compared to the light of God. If you cannot look into the sun, how can you expect to look at God?” [2]

Among the many streams of Greek philosophy why does Rabbi Elazar specify the Epicureans? Outright idol worship and polytheism had little attraction for the Jewish people. The core belief of Epicureanism, however, was that all matter, including human beings, consisted solely of “atoms and the void.” The world, therefore, had no inherent purpose or meaning. All was governed by chance and human will. As a result, a peaceful, pleasurable existence was the highest good a human could achieve. It was a very amiable philosophy that valued communal life, kindness and friendship; a worthy lifestyle, but an atheistic one. It deduced that there was “no judgment and no judge.” [3] The ethical guideline espoused by Epicurus harmonizes with the teachings of Hillel and Yeshua in regard to doing to others what you would have them to do to you. “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing “neither to harm nor be harmed”), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.” [4] However, to deny that the world was created, exists and is governed according to a Divine purpose and plan is to deny God. Epicureanism, thus, was in direct conflict with faith in the God of Israel and His Word.

Although Epicureanism died out with the rise of Christianity, it has slowly revived since the Renaissance and the further discoveries of science, such as the atomic theory of chemistry. William Berkson points out that Auguste Conte, in the 19th Century, “…reintroduced Epicureanism in a new form as part of Positivism,” a view that “…everything not provable by a mechanistic explanation is to be rejected, including all tribalistic religions.” [5] When we consider Rabbi Yehoshua’s response to the Emperor Hadrian that there exists a Creator and Ruler of all, including the sun, it is little wonder that Darwin’s theory of Evolution, a conjecture in recent generations, which concurs that humanity evolved by chance from chaos, feeds into the Epicurean-based modern altruistic philosophy. If one can eliminate the Creator, the very foundation of the Word of God is undermined and consequently so is faith in Him.

One of the greatest modern scientists, Albert Einstein, observed that there was a realm beyond physics, “…a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds.” Einstein recognized that, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, science cannot answer the “ultimate questions of why there is time, why there is diversity, why there is a world rather than nothing, and why indeed there are laws of nature.” [6]

Heschel also wrote in I Asked for Wonder: “He who seeks an answer to the most piercing question, what is living? will find their answer in the Bible: man’s destiny is to be a partner [with God], rather than a master [over man]. There is a task, a law, a way: the task is very redemptive, the law, to do justice, and the way is the secret of being human and holy.”

(b) know before Whom you toil…

Rabbi Elazar, after emphasizing that once one “knows” the Torah, and becomes intimately bound with the Word of God, then one can “know” in intimate relationship the One through whom all exists and for Whom one toils upon this earth. How deeply grateful we can be that God, our mighty Creator, chose to give further revelation of Himself in His Son, His right hand of Salvation, the embodiment of His Word and His chesed (loving-kindness), that in Yeshua, Emmanuel – God with us, all mankind might come to a knowledge of God and enter an intimate and eternal relationship with Him.

We realize that the fullness of God is far beyond what our human minds can grasp or understand, and yet, through His Son, His Word, and by the gift of His Spirit of Holiness our lives increasingly can be entwined with the Father’s and, as we look to Yeshua, we can walk in harmony and accord with His will and Kingdom purposes. We cannot now fully “look” at Him without being blinded by the radiance of His glory, yet we can eagerly anticipate the promised revelation at the end of Time: “Beloved we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

(c) …know that your Employer can be relied upon to pay you the wage of your labor.

We are encouraged to remember while laboring on earth that our true Employer is our Father in Heaven. He calls us to do His will and to fulfill His purposes for the life He has given us. It is to Him we must ultimately give account. While we labor we have the comfort of knowing that He watches over us, not as a hard taskmaster who gives burdens too difficult to bear and makes great demands with little reward, but as a loving Father who guides and trains us. One who disciplines when necessary for one’s own good and, even when they might not be evident in the material world, stores up great and generous rewards in the world to come.

In His amazing grace, He also is with us in the Shepherding presence of His Son to whom He has given all authority as King of His Kingdom. Through all of life’s journey and toil, the light of His Truth shines with promise and the gift of His Spirit empowers us. The seven flames of the Menorah lit by the High Priest in the Holy Temple, the symbol of His Word, remind us of the seven Hebrew words of the prophet Zechariah, Loh be’chayil ve’loh ve’koach, ki im b’Ruchi; “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord (4:6).

We read an echo of Rabbi Elazar’s exhortation in the testimony of Timothy, a servant of the Lord: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Messiah Yeshua, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and His Kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” [7] Through all his toil and trials he proclaims: “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me. …The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” [8]

1. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers; 37
2. Talmud, Chullin 60b
3. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 96
4. Wikipedia – Epicurus
5. Ibid., 97
6. Ibid., 97-98
7. 2 Tim. 4:1-2
8. 2 Tim. 4:17-18

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