Pirkei Avos Lesson- Chapter 3
It is customary to study a chapter from the Tractate Avos, or Pirkei Avos, in the weeks in between Pesach and Shavuos. Pirkei Avos are filled with the ethical teachings and wisdom of the great sages of the Mishnah.
In the first Mishna of this week’s chapter, Akavya ben Mahalalel famously exhorts people to “...know where you are going- to the place of dirt, worms and maggots.” In other words, a person should reflect on how at the end of his life he will pass on from this world and be buried in the ground.
Rabbeinu Yonah, one of the foremost commentators on Pirkei Avos, explains that what this accomplishes is that a person will no longer have a desire for enjoyment and worldly pleasures as he will realize that it is ‘for the worm that he toils.’
Why would this type of reflection spur a person to NOT indulge in worldly pleasure? The famous hedonistic credo of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die” would seem to be MOST applicable to someone who is facing impending doom and rotting in the ground.
Additionally, why does Rabbeinu Yonah assert that a person will realize that his ‘toil is for the worm’? One who toils for pleasure is not interested in the results and after-effects of his action but rather for the pleasurable experience itself!
Rabbeinu Yonah is clueing us in to a very powerful force within every person. That is the force of the Neshama or a person’s real essence, his Soul. Every single person has a powerful life-force inside of him that is derived from the Almighty G-d of the world who is immortal and eternal. A person knows intuitively that there is eternity to his mission, there is a greater, bigger goal here than just what is in front him.
How, therefore, can a person lead a purely physical and pleasure-seeking existence? He must fool himself into thinking that this is really a long-term investment and endeavor. Much like a rat that is racing along on his wheel to nowhere, a person must delude himself into thinking that all of his efforts for physical pleasure are really a worthy long-term investment.
Akavya ben Mahalalel is encouraging us to break this cycle. Focus on how a physical existence leads to- exactly where every man that has ever walked the face of this Earth goes- back to the ground and as food for the worms. There is no great long-term vision of a physical existence.
If a person can accustom himself to thinking MORE long term, to looking into where his actions lead to in the immediate future. This will help a person to begin to see the bigger picture of life.
To be able to really and truly view the world with this proper perspective that, as King Solomon- the wisest of all men- realized, ‘vanity of vanity, all is vain’ takes a life’s work of perfecting one’s vision. ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step’, let’s take this first step.
Wishing you a wonderful Shabbos!
Rabbi Eli Meir Kramer