Shiur #14: Perek Two - Reconciling Divine Mandate or

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers


Shiur #14: Perek Two - Reconciling Divine Mandate or Breaking Human Will

By Rav Moshe Taragin

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Naomi Zeiger, z"l.

The fourth mishna of the second perek records one of Rabban Gamliel's statements. In an attempt to facilitate retention of this idea, Rabban Gamliel constructed a phonetically and logically symmetrical phrase. His statement 'asei ritzono kirtzonekha, kdei sheya'aseh ritzonkha kirtzono; batel ritzonkha mipnei ritzono, kdei sheyivatel ritzon acheirim mipnei ritzonkha' speaks to various issues relating to 'synchronizing' human will with Divine Command. It may be loosely translated as "fulfill His will as your own so that He implements your will as His; Surrender your will to His so that He will interrupt the will of others on your behalf." Perhaps the stylistic 'palindrome' structure is more than just a mnemonic; perhaps the symmetry of language reflects the desired symmetry between the Divine command and human instinct!!

A. Fulfill His Will as yours….

Most commentators assert that Rabban Gamliel is obliquely referring to financial expenditure on behalf of religious needs. Since the promised reward for such behavior is that Hashem will perform His Will as if it were yours (a seeming reference to abundant material provision), presumably the first half of this statement encourages generosity in the fulfillment of mitzvot. As such, the phrase "fulfill His Will as yours" should be taken as a SIMILE: just as a person would be munificent in spending money on personal needs, similarly he should be liberal in committing funds toward mitzvot. The phrase does not convey an existential attitude in which Divine Will influences personal experience. This popular approach to the mishna seems implicit in the comment of Avot d'Rebbe Natan to this mishna. It cites a pasuk from Divrei Ha-yamim I perek 29 in which David Ha-melekh exclaims "for all emanates from You and from Your hand we receive" – an acknowledgement which should inspire generous dispersal of personal funds for religious needs.

To a degree, this popular reading also stems from the adjacency of this mishna to the previous statement of Rabban Gamliel. In mishna three he discourages political activism based upon a highly pessimistic view of the true intentions of politicians. He asserts that politicians - being predominantly unreliable – should not be pursued or befriended. Dedicating funds for their needs is unwise because such generosity will be betrayed. By contrast, committing to the Heavenly Ruler will yield benefit because, unlike human sovereigns, God will not betray our loyalty. The juxtaposition of these mishnayot caused many commentators to adopt a practical reading of our mishna effectively viewing it as an endorsement of financial commitment toward mitzva performance.

Alternatively, Rashi appears to take a more existential read when he explains that Rabban Gamliel exhorts us to channel our entire experience toward religious worship. Even when attending to personal functions or human endeavors we should perform these tasks for the sake of heaven. Not only does Rashi cast the advice as an emotional charge (rather than merely a fiscal responsibility), but he also broadens the demand from financial obligation to a more extensive lifestyle decision.

Perhaps Rashi adopted this dissenting opinion because of the 'rhythmical' language. The phrase to "fashion your will as His" seems to demand more than just distributing funds generously. The phrase suggests more than just a SIMILE!! It seems to demand a CORRESPONDENCE between experiences which are distinctly religious and those which appear mundane, but which should also be geared toward religious growth. Perhaps, in addition, Rashi was influenced by the conclusion of the mishna which also lodges claims which appear to demand existential or religious conditioning.

B. Break your will on behalf of His….

Whereas the first part of this phrase demanded a synchronization of the Divine Will and human instinct (whether in a practical sense of financial commitment or the broader existential sense of Rashi) the second part of this mishna expects the human will to be defeated on behalf of the Divine Will. Rashi offers an indirect reference to a different mishna in Avot (chapter 2 mishna 1) which encourages the evaluation of the rewards of a mitzva alongside its disadvantages. Every mitzva is accompanied by inconvenience just as it promises fulfillment and reward. This clash of sorts between the human need for convenience and the Divine Will should be resolved in favor of Hashem's Will and enable performance of the mitzva.

In a broader sense, Rabban Gamliel 'tandem statements' highlight an important aspect of religious experience. Should a person attempt to reconcile his will to Torah demands by identifying the logic and sensibility of mitzvot and the harmful and damaging nature of sin? Or should a person avoid this effort, rather performing halakha solely based on a pious dedication to the Divine command. The Sifra in parashat Kedoshim instructs us not to revile prohibited foods but rather to crave for them. (Sifra Kedoshim 10:11) They should be avoided solely because of halakhic prohibition!! This statement certainly parallels the second part of Rabban Gamliel's statement to break human interest on behalf of halakhic guidelines.

By contrast, numerous statements of Chazal do encourage attempts to appreciate the rectitude and morality of the Divine Will and harmonize the halakhic system with the human condition – to effectively view our world and experience through the lenses of halakha. Assuredly, the lofty standard of ahavat Hashem (love of God) can best be attained through this synchronization process. We certainly fulfill Hashem's command because we sense that they are 'right' and not only because He commanded them!!

Ultimately, religion demands both phases of Rabban Gamliel's advice. Ideally, we struggle to appreciate and assimilate, not just the details of halakha, but also its internal spirit. We aim to condition ourselves and our thoughts toward greater understanding, not just greater adherence. However, despite our concentrated efforts, we often reach particular 'alcoves' of halakhic mandate or broader religious experience, which remain impenetrable to the human mind. At those moments we are summoned to suppress human ration, and break the human experience upon the altar of Divine worship.