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.

Jesus Loves Me

Jesus Loves Me

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him… (Mark 10:17-21)

When we read this account of the rich young man who approaches Yeshua, we tend to completely gloss over one little statement. After responding to Yeshua that he had been diligent in keeping the mitzvot throughout his life, it says that Yeshua “loved him.” He “loved him” because he knew that this young man was sincere in his service to Hashem. He “loved him” in that he was faithful in walking in obedience to the God of Israel. But he also “loved him” enough to speak to him with the gut-level truth when he told him the one thing he still lacked: to be radically sold out to the Messiah.

When we are faithful in the small things, we will be “tested” by with the reward of being given even greater responsibilities. C.S. Lewis, in The Horse and His Boy, from his Narnia series, tells the story of a boy named Shasta who had to experience very difficult things in his life. And just when he thought it couldn’t become any more difficult, the challenges increased exponentially. Here is an excerpt, which I posted previously, that illustrates what I am trying to say:

“‘If you run now, without a moment’s rest, you will still be in time to warn King Lune.’ Shasta’s heart fainted at these words for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.”

The Mishna puts has an aphorism from Ben Azzai which states,

“Be eager to fulfill the smallest mitzvah and flee from transgression; for one mitzvah induces another and one transgression leads to another transgression. The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, the reward of one transgression is another transgression” (Avot 4:2).

Yeshua said it this way:

“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

But the good news is that if we step up to the plate and meet the challenge, his response will be:

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ (Matthew 25:21)

I see myself in this young man to which Yeshua addresses in that I have been faithfully diligent in many things, but sometimes am not ready for the “reward.” I would like to sit back and rest, rather than meet another challenge. However, in regard to this young man, Yeshua “loved him.” Maybe this young man overlooked this just as I had. He didn’t realize the love Yeshua had for him and how the challenge was actually the reward. Yeshua “loved him” just as he “loves us.” Yes, Jesus love me… But he expects a radical commitment to himself. Are we up for the challenge, or are we walking away with our heads to the ground?