Shiur #16: Three Vices Which Ruin the Human Experience

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

Shiur #16: Three Vices Which Ruin the Human Experience

By Rav Moshe Taragin

This shiur is in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.

The twenty-first mishna of the fourth perek cites Rebbi Eliezer Ha-kappar who warned against three particularly addictive human interests: jealousy, lust and honor. Though these vices are universally recognized as harmful, Rebbi Eliezer's warning features an interesting message. When alerting us to the consequences of these crimes Rebbi Eliezer does not address them from a purely religious standpoint. By claiming that they 'detach' you from this world he seems to be assessing them from a 'humanist' standpoint. Even if they weren't religious flaws they should be avoided because they will ruin the quality of human experience. Though some commentaries (for example Rabbenu Yonah both in his commentary to the mishna as well as his commentary to Berakhot 5a) view the concept of 'detachment from the world' as a reference to olam haba (the world to come), and, by extension, a reference to actual 'punishment' for these traits, one cannot help but notice the practical consequences in this world to which Rebbi Eliezer Ha-kappar presumably referred.

In addition, as these character flaws are not formally FORBIDDEN by a particular prohibition, one may even question whether they carry formalized issur (prohibition) and formal punishment. Indeed, each trait undoubtedly promotes various actual prohibitions, but, theoretically, the trait may be sustained while the banned action constrained. It is more likely that Rebbi Eliezer Ha-kappar intended the INHERENT damage of these morally diseased traits to the human condition. Rebbi Eliezer's statement further echoes an 'earlier' statement recorded in the name of Rebbi Yehoshua that 'miserliness, an evil inclination and misanthropy' detach a person from this world. As in our mishna, Rebbi Yehoshua likely underscores the debilitating nature of these qualities and not just their moral and religious transgressions.

The Rambam (commentary to Avot) appears to adopt a compromise position when he claims that indulgence in these traits ruins Torah experience, which in turn prevents intellectual and moral development. Indeed Rebbi Eliezer Ha-kappar spoke to the effects upon the intellectual and moral human experience and not to a punishment in response to transgression. However, the deficit to the human experience stems from the pollution of Torah values, which in turn sours and stems human development.

Rashi (according to one version) suggests a more historical read implying that Rebbi Eliezer refers to the three motives informing the three parties to original sin. The actual motives for this sin on the part of the respective parties are a bit enshrouded in mystery - especially as the sin occurred prior to the advent of the yetzer hara (evil inclination). Yet, Rebbi Eliezer imputes the motive of jealousy to the snake – consistent with a midrash which details the snake viewing the angelic service provided Adam (see Avot d'Rebbe Natan perek 1), envying his position and vowing to supplant him. (Rashi does not actually mention the snake, but as this story is taken from the midrash the snake would be the Rashi's likely subject of this jealousy as he is in the midrash. Additionally, the Vilna Gaon poses the snake as the example of jealousy further reinforcing the midrashic view).

Subsequently, Chava desires the actual fruit (which was appealing in sight and taste) flashing the danger of lust and desire. Adom Ha-rishon's motive is less apparent from the text but it appears as if Rashi believes that Rebbi Eliezer is imputing to him the flaw of 'vanity' or 'ego.' Rashi writes that the honor shown him by the angels in heaven (which itself was responsible for the snake's envy) caused his departure from the garden of eden. Interestingly, we have little echo of this flaw's role in Adam's banishment – neither in the verse itself nor in the midrash. Perhaps the honor bestowed him by the angels imbued a sense of invulnerability which reduced his guard against eating the forbidden fruit.

Alternatively, it may have produced an inflated sense of self, preventing a full admission of guilt which may have staved off expulsion. This raises an interesting issue: the Torah records, with much detail, Adam's waffling after being caught by Hakadosh Barukh Hu. First he hides when hearing God descend and subsequently shifts the blame to his wife, rather than shoulder the blame and attempt recovery. His response is especially striking in contrast to his son Kayin's reply to being nabbed. Unlike his father, Kayin DOES engage in some degree of moral accounting and DOES admit guilt and seek penitence. Though Kayin is also banished to a life of wandering, he is afforded some clemency in the form of a 'sign' which would deter his would be assailants. Would Adam's punishment have been as severe had he similarly accepted responsibility rather than evading? This is certainly a novel reading but one which may be supplied by Rashi when he claims that the honor heaped upon Adam was responsible for his banishment.

In any event, Rashi's historical read may merely reinforce my earlier assessment. I claimed that Rebbi Eliezer warns against the inherent damage of these traits and not only a possible Divine retribution. Rashi may have agreed to this reading when he casts Rebbi Eliezer's statement as a profile of original sin and its various motives. Effectively we are seeing the peril of these traits in a pre-fallen world absent of actual evil inclination.

The question of how sin occurred prior to the birth of evil inclination has been exhaustively explored – by both philosophers and Biblical exegetes. Rebbi Eliezer - at least according to this version of Rashi – may have been stressing that these traits are so harmful and also so inherent that they launched the VERY HISTORY of human sin. Even in a world absent of outright evil inclination, these vices possess the capability to 'tempt' man and cause his fall.