He [Hillel] used to say: The more flesh the more worms; the more possessions the more anxiety; the more women the more witchcraft; the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more manservants the more theft. But the more Torah the more life, the more study the more wisdom; the more counsel the more understanding; the more charity (righteousness) the more peace. (Avot 2:8)
While studying this mishnah (“saying”) from Pirkei Avot, I came across some interesting thoughts in regard to Paul, and how we might understand one of his teachings on an entirely new dimension than before. First, let me give some background.
Less Is More
The more flesh the more worms; the more possessions the more anxiety; the more women the more witchcraft; the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more manservants the more theft.
This maxim can easily stand on its own. We all realize, to some degree or another, that “less” is often “more,” and “more” is often an overdose. The main point Hillel is making here is that just because we think we need “more,” it is not necessarily a good thing. “More” can often lead to our demise.
Our Animal Nature
In Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s excellent commentary on Pirkei Avot, Visions of the Fathers, he expounds upon this saying through a couple of illustrations. He says that if we look at a human being we will find that he is composed of both a physical body, and a spiritual soul. Our bodies are essentially the same as any other animal, and living for our bodies as our main priority (it’s easy to find out if this is true or not, by simply looking at where we invest our time & resources) causes us to be no better than an animal. In actuality, in some ways being an animal would really be better, because animals generally don’t over-indulge. When they have eaten to their fill, they stop. Not so with humans. Too often we eat more for pleasure than for our physical needs. Animals don’t struggle with obesity. Humans do.
So to primarily feed our physical bodies puts us at a level that is actually below the animal kingdom. We miss our calling of truly being human. Therefore, just as this mishnah states, we must attend to our physical needs with limitations.
Our Spiritual Nature
On the other hand, however, our spiritual needs are different than our physical needs. While we must be careful to limit our physical pleasures, our neshamot (our spiritual beings) should be handled with an entirely different approach. Just as God is infinite, the needs of our neshama, made from the spark of the Divine (“…breath deep the breath of God”), are also infinite. Therefore, placing a limit upon our spiritual pursuits (in contrast to our physical pursuits) may actually be detrimental to us, rather than beneficial. Rabbi Twerski sums this thought up with the following:
There are some things for which halachah does not designate an appropriate limit, but for many other spiritual activities — such as helping others or Torah study — there are no limits.1
This immediately brought my mind back to a passage from the Mishna that is recited each morning:
These are the precepts that have no prescribed measure: the corner of the field [which must be left for the poor], the first-fruit offering, the pilgrimage, acts of kindness, and Torah study. (Peah 1:1)
These things “have no limit.” They may be done “to excess.” After all, can we be too kind? Too generous? Too devout? Should we place a limit on godliness?
The Fruits of the Spirit
This brought my mind back to something we hear from the Apostle Paul that has always troubled me in its wording. In his letter to the Galatians he introduces his concept of the “fruit of the Spirit” with the following:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Galatians 5:16,17)
He essentially does the same thing as our mishnah. He warns us against “feeding our flesh,” and contrasts this with being sensitive to the Spirit and living a more spiritual life than a fleshly one. But the curious part about it is when he actually gives us his list for the “fruit of the Spirit”:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22,23, emphasis mine)
Paul could have stopped with “self-control.” However, he concludes his list with the phrase, “Against such things there is no law.” In other words, these are things which “have no limit,” just as the corners of the field, the first-fruit offering, the pilgrimage, acts of kindness and Torah study. There should be no limit to love, nor joy, nor peace, nor kindness, nor goodness, nor faithfulness, nor gentleness, nor self-control.
Have you been limiting yourself unnecessarily? I know I have. Are you ready to live life without limits?
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
This is how we do it. This is how we truly live. To coin a phrase… “Just do it.”
- Twerski, Abraham, Visions of the Fathers, p. 104. ↩
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- Simcha v’Shalom
- Pirkei Avot—Chapter 1, Mishnah 12