The Pirke Avot Project Continues…Reflect Upon Three Things

The fighting in Gaza rages on, and Orayta continues to stand together as a yeshiva and learn Torah with our holy soldiers and Am Yisrael in mind,

We continue this week in Pirke Avot with Chapter 3 and a thoughtful essay by Orayta Alumni Levi Morrow; we’ll have more pieces from Rav Keith and myself later this week.

Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came—from a putrid drop; where you are going—to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting—before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. (Mishna Avot 3:1)


In the first mishna of Chapter 3 of Pirkei Avot, Akavia Ben-Mehalel presents a meditation intended to keep a person free from misdeeds. The meditation consists of three statements, one about a persons past, which is putridity, one about their future, surrounded by worms and maggots, and one about before whom they will in the future need to justify their actions, the King of Kings, ‘א himself. Upon superficial examination, this reflection might be summarized as “You’ve alway been crummy and you’ll always be crummy, so you better try really hard not to screw up. And if you do screw up, you’ll pay big time.” This is far from encouraging, to say the least. However, reading the text a little closer demonstrates that this mishna actually intends the an almost opposite message, about the great potential of our deeds.

The mishna makes a statement about a person’s past, and then about their future, and we would naturally expect the last statement to be about a person’s present. Instead, the third statement is about “before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting”, and the answer is, “before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” This statement is seemingly also about the future. However, the accounting that will be given is for actions done in the present. Thus this third statement is about the present, but only inferred from the future. Specifically, it’s about the lasting effects and ramifications of the present in the future. And not only do a person’s actions matter for the future, they matter to the King of Kings, the loftiest of judges. By casting the tense into the future, Akaviah Ben-Mehalel takes this from being a statement about a person’s actions right now, and focuses it on the ripples and waves those actions create.

In addition to breaking the pattern of the tenses, the third statement of this mishna also breaks with the first two in how it depicts the quality of humanity in the statement. The first two statements are very clear, people come from grossness, and to grossness they will return. The third statement, however, says no such thing. In fact, it does not say anything about the positive or negative content of Mankind or their actions. All it says is that their actions are important before the Creator of the World. This is in line with the nature of Man as depicted in Tanakh, where Man is created in the Image of ‘א (Bereishit 1:27), but his first great act is the violation of ‘א’s command (Bereishit 3). Man has the potential to be great, but the greatness can be manifest in benevolence or tyranny.

The final way in which the third statement breaks from the first two is in what exactly it speaks about. The first two statements speak about the innate quality of a person, in their origins and in their ultimate fate. People come from grossness, and to grossness they will return. In contrast, the third statements speaks of the giving an accounting for actions, not for a person’s nature. While a person came from nothing and goes to nothing, their actions right now are not determined, and thus the mishna leaves open the possibility of greatness, stating only the seriousness of a person’s actions.

Upon reflection, the mishna is not a making a negative statement about man at all. Rather, taken as a unified conception of man’s place in the world, these three statements depict the possibility of greatness, but greatness found in a person’s actions, not in a person’s inborn nature. People are not born great, and no one is great after they are dead. What is important is not where we come from, nor where we are going. What is important is what we do here in the present. And it is important not because it gives us personal glory in the here and now, but because our actions reverberate before the God of History, in whose eyes we can be the very pinnacle of creation (Bereishit 1:31), or its undoing (Bereishit 6:5-6). We are not control of who we are born, nor of what happens to us at the end of the day. What we can control is our actions, and what this mishna is telling us is that it is those actions that count. Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression: It is not where you come from that makes you great, nor where you end up, but that your actions matter before ‘א. So make sure they’re great ones.

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