Shiur #12: Maharal on Avot - Perek 2, Mishna 4

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein

He used to say: Treat His will as if it were your will, so that He will treat your will as if it were His.  Nullify your will before His will, so that He will nullify the will of others before yours.


This mishna, which continues the sayings of Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince begins with the words, "Hu haya omeir (He was wont to say)."  Maharal assumes that these words at the beginning of the mishna indicate that we are to connect this mishna to the previous one thematically, a connection that is not obvious here.  After all, the previous mishna had discussed not relying too much on the government, since they care only about themselves.  This mishna recommends that we fulfill God's will and avoid disobedience, as we will see in a moment.  How do the two connect?




Before seeing how Maharal answers the question, I want to pause to note the question itself.  As noted in previous shiurim, Avot does not make an overt claim to be structured in a careful fashion.  Particularly starting in this chapter, it seems to present various rabbis' statements with no obvious plan or order.  Maharal's assumption that the mishna was carefully structured to reflect certain themes and ideas is therefore not obvious and therefore interesting in and of itself.


Here, actually, Maharal seems to recognize his leap in assuming a connection between the mishnayot, because he explains that the words "Hu haya omeir" come to stress that there is such a connection.  The problem with this claim is that Maharal also has drawn connections between seemingly unrelated mishnayot (such as the previous two and this one), even when they do not start with the phrase "Hu haya omeir."




To see the problem in drawing a connection between the two mishnayot, we note that this week's text, at least superficially about our attitude towards observing God's commandments, does not immediately, intuitively, or obviously relate to a mishna about the government.  Maharal suggests, however, that this mishna comes to tell individuals how to get God to provide for their personal needs.  The community does not need that information, because the community qua community already has God's continuing good will.  In Maharal's eyes, the community can never lose God's favor, only particular individuals in that community.


In Maharal's reading, the words "Hu haya omeir" in our mishna really are telling us about the previous mishna, that the community did not need the techniques we are about to mention.  That means that the later mishna is teaching us about the earlier one rather than building on it, an interesting reversal.




As individuals, Maharal points out we have two types of needs, and the mishna gives us a way of acquiring each.  First, we need to have our various lacks fulfilled - food, clothing, etc.  Second, we need protection from those who would attack us and take away what we have.  Maharal reads the two halves of Rabban Gamliel's statement as showing us how to gain each:  performing God's will actively (through the vehicle of mitzvot) will elicit from Him the concern to give us our needs, while restraining ourselves from sin will elicit from Him protection from others.  There is a parallel here not just in how to achieve results, but in the kinds of results we get.


Maharal also suggests a deeper meaning to this, in that the word "asei" can mean "make" in addition to "perform."  He thinks, therefore, that the mishna may be teaching:  "Make His will into your own," meaning that we should shape ourselves to the point where our desires are only those that God wants.  For the other side, we should nullify all those parts of our will that are not committed to the life God wants.  If we successfully mold our desires and inclinations in that way, then we will certainly earn the reward promised in the mishna.



Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community; do not believe in yourself until the day you die; do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place; do not make a statement that cannot be easily understood on the ground that it will be understood eventually; and do not say, "When I am free, I will study," for you may not become free. [Author's Note: and R. Aaron Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion used to add "vadai lo tipaneh" - you certainly won't find the time].


The first of Hillel's statements clearly relates to the individual qua individual, saying he should not separate from the community.  Maharal interprets this straightforwardly, explaining that the general community is the central focus of life and the individual is simply a part of that.  While this is a view that certainly does not fly too well in modern America, it is not particularly surprising in context.


Maharal refers to the community as the klal, a term that reflects his understanding of the community as a general grouping of people.  That group is unchanging, and while the individuals who compose the klal are subject to constant change, the community as a whole is eternal and unchanging.  That immutable quality gives it a higher importance than the imperfect, component parts.




From recognizing the individual's constantly changing nature, we can understand the warning against believing in oneself prior to death.  Since change is always part of a human being, one never can be sure that he will not sin until he has left this world.  This is the element of personal, internal change.


A full awareness of human's changeability and the effects of circumstances on all of us inherently means that one cannot judge others.  Since one cannot know the various changing factors impact on others, one cannot know how they should have reacted unless one is exactly in their situation.  This argument against judging others should resonate in modern times, when we are intensely alert to the myriad of factors that can mold someone's behavior.  By refusing to judge others, we are not denying that people do wrong, but recognizing the impact of various pressures and our inability to judge how we would react to them if we faced them ourselves.




From recognizing personal changeability and the effect of external factors, the mishna moves to mentioning the complete changeability of the human condition in general.  Maharal uses this concept to interpret an obscure statement in the mishna, which literally reads:  "Do not say something impossible to hear, for in the end it will be heard."  Maharal reads that statement by adding in an "about," so that it reads "Do not say about something, etc."  In that reading, the mishna is saying that we should not rule out any possibilities, no matter how apparently remote, because under the correct conditions they might come true.  Again, in the modern era, those words seem prescient, since we have accomplished so many impossible tasks.


Finally, the statement about Torah learning comes to rule out the expectation that we can control our lives even in the very short term.  Maharal does not think the mishna means to say:  "Don't push off learning until much later."  Rather, he thinks it intends to rule out even pushing off learning until you have a larger block of time available.  Since one cannot control events, Maharal requires that one takes care to learn at every available opportunity, no matter how brief.



In summary, Maharal's scheme shows how the mishna deals with several kinds of changeability in humans:  personal (from sin-free to sinning), situational (not judging others, since we do not know what is happening with them), the world at large (making it impossible to rule out even the most seemingly outlandish possibilities), and short-term change (so we cannot guarantee control over even our short term schedule).  Next time, we will see how Maharal approaches the continuation of Hillel's teachings about personality traits and their effects on fulfilling God's will.