By Rav Noam Himelstein, Orayta Mashgiach Ruchani
Massechet Avot Chaptor 2 Mishna 7 (or 8, in some editions …)
הוא היה אומר, מרבה בשר מרבה רימה, מרבה נכסים מרבה דאגה; מרבה עבדים מרבה גזל, מרבה שפחות מרבה זימה; מרבה נשים מרבה כשפים. מרבה תורה מרבה חיים, מרבה ישיבה מרבה חכמה. קנה שם טוב, קנה לו לעצמו; קנה דברי תורה, קנה חיי העולם הבא.
He (Hillel Hazaken) would also say: One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases possessions, increases worry; one who increases wives, increases witchcraft; one who increases maidservants, increases promiscuity; one who increases man-servants, increases thievery; one who increases Torah, increases life; one who increases study, increases wisdom; one who increases counsel, increases understanding; one who increases charity, increases peace. One who acquires a good name, acquired it for himself; one who acquires the words of Torah, has acquired life in the World to Come.
Massechet Avot contains many Mishnayot which are comprised of several brief sayings grouped together. The Parshan must ask two questions: What is the meaning of each saying – in its own right; and is there a connection between the teachings that are quoted one after the other. Here too, we must explain each separate statement of Hillel – after all, he did not give any explanations. We must also ask if there is any connection between them, or did he simply give general advice about negative and positive excesses, but not in any particular order. We may also ask if there is a parallel between the first half (negative excesses) and the second half (those which are positive).
Rabbi David HaNagid (Cairo, 1212-1300, the Rambam`s grandson) explained that Chazal referred to four types of people who pursue this world`s pleasures, and listed their opposites as well. For example, there is one who eats meat in excess, which leads to unhealthiness and death (“worms”); the opposite is one who increases Torah, increases life. One might run after money which causes stress – the opposite is one who studies in the Bet Midrash, which causes happiness, etc. According to this approach, the Mishna clearly refers to four types of individuals, listing negative excesses and their opposites. However, there does not seem to be any intrinsic order in which these individuals are listed.
Rabbi Moshe Almoshnino (Saloniki, 1518-1581) reads the Mishna as advising to stay away from destructive traits, and to adhere to those which promote growth, in three spheres of man`s life: How the individual conducts himself; how he conducts his home; and how he conducts his state.
The Rashbatz (Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, Algiers, 1361-1441) explains that there is an order in the Mishna: First a man dresses himself up and eats meat and drinks; then he wishes to have many possessions; when he acquires these possessions and realizes that he can support many women, he does so; and when he has many wives, each one needs a maidservant to serve her; and when his household contains so many people, he needs fields and vineyards to provide for them all, and therefore must have many servants …
The emphasis is on stages; each negative move necessarily drives him forward to another negative action.
To this last point I would like to add an important idea that I heard recently from Rabbi Chaim Sabato. He made several distinctions between a Mitzva, something that one is required to do; and a Minhag Chassidut, something that one is not required to do, but one takes it on as an extra spiritual push. One difference is that generally speaking, one does a Mitzva without thinking of long term consequences – he simply does the Mitzva, and that is it. However, the whole essence of Minhag Chassidut is to take into consideration how this extra action of yours will have ramifications. You may think that what you are doing at this moment is incredible and worthwhile, but if it leads to negative results down the line, it is definitely not appropriate.
May we always strive to develop ourselves positively; stay away from negative traits; and think ahead of all consequences of our actions!