Shiur #17: Maharal on Avot-- Perek 2, Mishnayot 11-13

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




Without judging them myself, the text of Avot suggests that R. Yehoshua, R. Yosei, and R. Shimon were in some ways less strikingly brilliant than R. Eliezer b. Hurkenos and R. Elazar b. Arakh.  I say that because in the original mishna presenting these five, there were two versions as to which one RYB"Z thought outweighed all the sages of Israel, and these three were not candidates, whereas the other two were.  In examining their statements as recorded in these three mishnayot, we will also not find particularly illuminating insight - rather, well-formulated statements of important principles of religiosity.  We will be even more interested in how Maharal reacts to these relatively simple statements.




Rabbi Yehoshua says: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of other people remove a person from the world.


Maharal notes how odd it is to use the phrase "remove a person from the world" as a way of expressing displeasure with a person's character or actions.  He suggests that an important element of a person's living in this world is to provide him with kiyum (lasting capabilities).  R. Yehoshua, he suggests, is mentioning three aspects of life that take away a person's kiyum.


How do these three elements get chosen?  Maharal notes that there are three elements to this world that verses in the Torah refer to as "ra (evil)," - the eye, the inclination (yetzer), and the heart.  If any of these parts of a person are evil, it will prevent that person from having a lasting presence in the world.  The three elements mentioned in the mishna, then, correspond to these three - the eye and the yetzer are mentioned explicitly, and sin'at ha-beriyot (hatred of others) Maharal reads as an expression of an evil heart.


It is worth noticing that Maharal has changed the focus of the mishna considerably.  Read at its simplest, R. Yehoshua is objecting to these three things themselves, meaning that ayin hara, yetzer hara, and sin'at ha-beriyot each were problems that people needed to be aware of and that could lead to a person's being taken out of the world (whatever that phrase means).  In Maharal's reading, one of those elements has been taken as symbolizing a different problem, the problem of being a "ra lev (having a bad heart)." 


This could be what R. Yehoshua meant, I suppose, but it is an odd way to express oneself - if all three of these underlying problems had been expressed as a manifestation of them, I could have understood, but since only one is, it seems a stretch to me.  In addition, Maharal assumes that the characterization of things as ra in Scripture is a relevant category here, although the mishna does not refer to those verses in any way.  Noticing these kinds of assumptions in a comment seems productive to me, since it highlights where the particular commentator was adding to the simplest reading of the text.





R. Yosei says: Let your fellow's money be as dear to you as your own; apply yourself to study Torah, for it is not yours by inheritance; and let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.




Again, Maharal assumes a context to this mishna that is not in evidence.  He notes that there are three elements to personal perfection:  perfection in oneself, perfection in one's relations with others, and perfection in one's relation with God.  He assumes R. Yosei means to prescribe a strategy to achieve each of these perfections.


For perfection with others, he recommends valuing their money as highly as one's own.  Two mishnayot earlier, Maharal notes, R. Eliezer had urged people to take their friends' honor as seriously as their own.  R. Yosei believes that money is a broader category than just honor, and that in urging people to take others' money seriously, an awareness of their honor will be included as well.


For internal perfection, the study of Torah is the key; as he notes, Maharal explained in the first chapter of Avot that Torah helps people convert themselves from lowly physical beings into the possessors of active and well-functioning intellects, which is the essence of perfecting oneself.  The preparation to which R. Yosei refers, then, is the effort it takes to instill the labor of Torah study and the inculcation of its intellectual bent into oneself.  In doing so, a person can perfect himself.


The final one, perform all your actions for the sake of Heaven, creates a perfection of relationship between a person and God.  Although I will not detail the point here, I would mention that this phrase sums up the perfect life in Rambam's view.  In several places, (Hilkhot Dei'ot is one convenient one), Rambam says that having all of one's actions be coordinated towards the service of God is the highest level of spiritual achievement for which a person can hope.  Maharal simply notes that if all of one's actions are for the sake of Heaven, a person will have perfected his or her relationship with God.





R. Shimon says: Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer; when you pray, do not make your prayer a set routine, but rather [make sure it seeks] compassion and [is a] supplication before God, as it is said, "For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and regrets evil;" and do not be an evildoer in private.


R. Shimon's statement seems understandable enough until we consider the last clause.  Recommending that we be careful about Shema and Tefilla (which really means the Amida, the standing silent prayer) are, on the face of it, worthwhile adjurations, as is the one about not making one's prayers rote.  How do those connect, however, to the issue of "al tehi rasha bifnei atzmekha (do not be an evildoer in private)?"  [Note: the translation of bifnei atzmekha as "in private" is Maharal's.  Others think that bifnei atzmekha means "in your own eyes," so that the phrase becomes, "do not think of yourself as a rasha."]


Maharal, as we may have come to expect, sees Shema and prayer more broadly than just the act of recitation - he sees it as meaning the expression of "Kabbalat Ol Malkhut Shamayim and Avoda (Accepting the Mastery of the Creator and Service, respectively)."  The recommendation to be careful about them is not so much directed at them per se, but at the broader ideals they represent.  Given those broader ideals, it becomes clearer why it is important not to have those activities be done by rote.


Interestingly, in defining keva (prayers by rote), Maharal explicitly prefers praying by heart to praying from a siddur (prayer book).  In his understanding of keva, having all the words laid out simply to be recited by you makes it clear that you are fulfilling an obligation rather than turning to God with your thoughts, hopes, and prayers.  Only at the end of his comment, where he notes that no one manages to focus properly on prayers nowadays, does he grudgingly concede that if there were a worry about remembering the words of the prayer, it would be preferable to use a siddur.



In any case, Maharal still needs to connect the notions of Shema and prayer to the question of private evil.  He says that the essence of evil is the evil we do to others, and Maharal then provides several examples.  Nevertheless, he says, in the context of prayer, when we are turning towards God with our various requests, our personal evil (the sins we do in private) are relevant as well.  It is therefore particularly in this context that R. Shimon stresses avoiding being a rasha (evil person).  Again here, the most interesting element of Maharal's comment is that he bases it on his original question about the grouping of the third statement with the first two.  Had he not assumed they had to be connected, the whole basis of the comment would have disappeared.  This is just another example of how the assumptions that underlie our approach to an issue shape the kinds of answers to which we come.