Pirkei Avot 1:13 — Messianic Commentary

Hillel used to say: He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it. He who learns not, forfeits his life. He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.

Rabbi Hillel is one of the most famous rabbis of the Second Temple period. He lived during late first century prior to the common era through the childhood years of Yeshua. He was originally from Babylon, but came to settle in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) around the age of forty. He took up residence in the Galilee and came to establish his own rabbinic school, known as Beit Hillel (The House of Hillel), which became the dominant rabbinic school of thought at the end of the Second Temple period. Since his life briefly overlaps that of Yeshua’s and his ministry being located in the Galilee, as well as the fact that nearly all of his teachings align with Yeshua’s, many have suggested that Hillel could have possibly served as a mentor for Yeshua in his childhood. Another New Testament connection and well known fact is that Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher and the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin during Paul’s life. These are some of the words of this great sage…

“He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name.”

If this is true, then the converse should also be true: “He who loses his name, aggrandizes his name.” When we look at the words of our Master, we see that this is indeed what he taught. He said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). He also taught his disciples that in order to become great, one first had to become a servant:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

“He who does not increase his knowledge [of Torah], decreases it.”

In Irving Bunim’s classic commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, he begins his comments on this section with the following illustration: “A man’s knowledge must keep step with his general development. It is considered an achievement when a one-year-old child begins to speak. But we can hardly continue to admire the child of twelve for his ability to talk. If he has not progressed since one, the child is a case of arrested development.” This may sound harsh, especially to the ears of those who have been under the impression that the serious study of Scripture is reserved for the elect; however, if we believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, then our knowledge of Scripture should be ever increasing, informing our day-to-day living. The author of Hebrews shows his frustration with a group of people who are slow to learn, saying:

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Bunim’s observation is correct. The Word of God is the daily sustenance for our souls. In reference to the Word being spiritual nourishment, even Yeshua himself, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, says that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” We are responsible for the teachings of the Holy Writ, particularly the words of our Master. Yeshua confirms this concept by saying, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). We generally associate these words of Yeshua to that of our spiritual abilities, i.e. our “talents” (from a sub-conscience association with the English homonym of the same name, rather than “talent” being correctly understood as a unit of currency). However, in this instance, Yeshua is clearly connecting this instruction with our responsibility as stewards of his teachings. His words are our very life. Peter came to this realization with his confession, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

“He who learns not, forfeits his life.”

As we stated earlier, the Word of God is life. If man does not “live by bread alone,” his existence, therefore, is sustained by the Word of God. Again, if we think about the reverse, it should bear to reason that without the Word of God in our daily diet, our lives fade from existence.

“He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.” The author of Hebrews says that the Word of God has the ability to discern our motives: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If we are making use of Scripture for personal gain, we will be sorely disappointed in the end.

Anavah – Humility

Humility Visualization

First, let me say that I am no expert in mussar. And in all honesty, I haven’t really even started. Right now I am only exploring the middot (character traits – middah, singular) that ring out to me as I prepare myself for the actual practice of mussar. From there I will pick the thirteen which I feel to be most applicable in my life and begin to focus on them one week at a time, journaling about my journey. However, from what I have read in Everyday Holiness, almost every middah hangs on anavah (humility). According to Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, in his book Duties of the Heart (as quoted by Morinis in Everyday Holiness), “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.” And it makes sense. Once I learned the Jewish perspective on anavah, humility, I became drawn to it, realizing my deep lack of understanding of this character trait, as well as my deficiency of its possession. Here’s why…

When the word humility is mentioned, what comes to mind? Too many times our working definition of humility is self-abasement. My new, working definition of humility comes from Morinis in Everyday Holiness. My paraphrase is as follows:

Humility is occupying our proper space, neither too much, nor too little.

I think this is the best definition I’ve ever heard. It makes sense on so many levels. When we break down a character trait into a definition such as this, we are able to truly define it’s parameters, rather than it being some ethereal, elusive non-tangible. Let’s explore this definition for a moment.

If humility is “occupying our proper space, neither too much, nor too little,” it’s obvious the result when we occupy too much space. At the minimum this is pride, and at its extreme, narcissism. We become so wrapped up in ourselves that the boundaries between us and others is unseen. We quickly overstep those boundaries and invade someone else’s space, whether physically, socially or verbally. One example Morinis gave that I thought was really good was in regard to speech:

“…when someone shares a piece of news with you, do you come right back with your own concerns, filling the space they’ve opened, or do you make room to follow up what the other person has introduced?” 1

I have had this flaw as long as I can remember. I remember when a friend of mine first brought it to my attention. His bringing it to my attention hurt me, but it was a much needed exposure of a flaw in my character that brought it to the surface in order that I could deal with it, and not be oblivious to it. However, since I was only made aware of this, and not given any tools for tikkun (repair / undoing), I still have not overcome in this. Now, I have passed it on to my children. And seeing this blemish magnified in them, it has set off internal alarms that I did not understand until recently. Having a proper definition of this middah with well-defined parameters helps me not only to better identify the breach in our family composition, but gives me a more solid means by which to correct it.

On the opposite extreme is not occupying enough space. If we occupy too little space, we are not fulfilling our God-given role in the world. It is not stepping up to the plate for which you were created. Hillel tells us,

“In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.” (Avot 2:6)

Remember, “Birth is G‑d saying you matter.”2 And you really do. We all do. We all have our special role to play. And if we don’t fill up our alloted space, we are destined to fail others who are relying upon us.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)

In this quote from the Apostle Paul, he reminds us of the exact same thing. We all have our role, and we must not only fill that role, but we must also be content with that role.

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:20)

“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:20-21, ESV).

I believe humility is the starting point for this. Once we realize the space we are supposed to occupy, we can begin filling it properly and neither spilling out onto others, nor shrinking back from our responsibilities. Are you occupying your proper space?

 

  1. Morinis, Alan, (2008). Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar. Trumpeter, 52
  2. Jacobson, Simon, (1995). Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe (a Collection of Teachings By Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson). William Morrow Paperbacks, 14

Life Without Limits

No Limits

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.”

 

  1. Twerski, Abraham, Visions of the Fathers, p. 104.