Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:8

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ב,ח  [ז] הוא היה אומר, מרבה בשר מרבה רימה, מרבה נכסים מרבה דאגה; מרבה עבדים מרבה גזל, מרבה שפחות מרבה זימה; מרבה נשים מרבה כשפים.  מרבה תורה מרבה חיים, מרבה ישיבה מרבה חכמה.  קנה שם טוב, קנה לו לעצמו; קנה דברי תורה, קנה חיי העולם הבא.

“He [Hillel] used to say: The more flesh [a person possesses], the more worms [decay/will eventually consume him in the grave]; the more property the more worry; the more wives the more witchcraft; the more maidservants the more lewdness; the more slaves the more thievery. The more Torah the more life; the more study the more wisdom; the more advice the more understanding; the more charity the more peace. One who acquires a good name acquires it for himself; one who acquires words of Torah has acquired himself a share in the World to Come.”

<empty>There are 10 clauses in this mishna. The first five deal with excesses and the second set of five present the antidote to those excesses and indulgences.

Our group found so much to discuss in this mishna and we found it particularly interesting that the ideas captured here are so relevant to our world today and the issues which confront us!  The focus of our collective interpretation was that excesses of things can often result in negative consequences and that life is about balance. Our discussion returned to the earlier mishna which dictated that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chassidim. In revisiting this concept in connection to the above mishna we noted the value of each of these three elements – nothing can be neglected, one cannot immerse oneself solely in one aspect of life to the exclusion of all others, rather balance is required in order to ensure that excesses are not over-indulged with negative consequences. Many of us thought that this mishna had a poetic quality about it and we spent quite a bit of time considering the language that was used here.

Some Commentary:

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld:

The theme of our mishna is clear. Many of the things we spend much of our lives attempting to acquire come with a price tag. We often assume that money, status and pleasure will provide us with happiness. The Rabbis tell us that such blessings are mixed at best. They will not last beyond the grave — and may very well take us there much sooner. The more flesh a person accumulates the more food will be provided for the maggots after he goes — and of course, the greater the chance of health problems and heart disease along the way.

Likewise, the more property the more worries. As I once heard R. Yissachar Frand express it, it matters very little to him in which direction the prime lending rate goes. (And for better or worse, here I am faithfully following in his footsteps. If you don’t have it, at least you don’t have to worry about losing it.)

Our mishna continues, “the more wives the more witchcraft” — as each wife will attempt to place hexes (magical or otherwise) on her husband’s affections. In the language of the Mishna and Talmud, co-wives are referred to as enemies or competitors (tsaros). (And of course, this is not limited to co-wives. The more a wife (or a husband) senses her spouse’s affections are not for her alone, the weaker the bond of matrimony and the less harmonious the resulting relationship. Let’s just call it a very uncomfortable situation if a husband appears to have better chemistry with the secretary or the neighbor’s wife — even if nothing serious will ever come of it.) Even though polygamy was not forbidden by the Torah, it was never ordinarily practiced in Israel. It has been under an almost universal ban authored by Rabbeinu Gershom of Germany since the early 11th Century.

To sum, most of the pleasures this world has to offer provide very little by way of long-term satisfaction. King Solomon wrote, “One who loves money will never be satisfied with money” (Koheles 5:9). Pursuit of wealth and pleasure does not ensure happiness. It will only increase a person’s insatiable appetite for gratification. As we know, Judaism does not preach poverty or self-deprivation. We pray to G-d daily for livelihood and physical well-being. Yet one who sees pleasure as an end goal rather than a means will be destined to a life of frustration, aggravation, and unsatisfied cravings.

Our mishna then turns to spiritual pursuits, stating that these are not only worthy and earn us our share in the Hereafter, but they increase life, peace and happiness in this world as well.

It is worthwhile to note the contrast between this list and the previous. One might think many of the examples here would cause much the same aggravation as the earlier examples. The commentator R. Yonah observes that Torah study is in itself a very stressful undertaking, especially for one who insists on full comprehension and clarity in his studies. The Talmud writes that a person acquires the Torah only through suffering (Brachos 5a). Likewise, the Ruach Chayim (commentary) points out that one might feel giving charity will drain his resources, forcing him to deny himself his pleasures and comforts. To such concerns our mishna writes that these will in fact result in just the opposite — increasing life and peace. No harm will befall one who “stresses himself out” in Torah study or who overextends himself just a bit through the giving of charity (both within reason, of course).

Lastly, as R. Yonah observes, a good name one acquires for himself, carrying it with him or her beyond the grave. This stands in direct contrast to wealth which we spend our lifetimes amassing — quite possibly only to have it fall into the hands of others.

“One who increases study increases wisdom:” My teacher R. Weinberg, may his memory be a blessing, once pointed out to me that some editions of our mishna have a different reading: “One who increases wisdom increases studying” (same words, opposite order). This rather cryptic phrase is understood by R. Yonah to mean that a teacher or yeshiva (rabbinical academy) that provides more advanced and intellectually- stimulating lectures will attract more students. Thus, the higher the level of wisdom, the more students and the more Torah study will result.

R. Weinberg pointed out to me that many yeshivas today base their curricula on this premise. The subject matter taught is generally of the most intellectually-stimulating sort — all in the interests of attracting the most students and the greatest minds. Thus, many beginner yeshivas encourage their students — who have nowhere near mastered Hebrew and more basic Jewish texts — to begin Talmud study (along with its Aramaic vocabulary and its terse, scholarly style). And likewise, in more advanced yeshivas, the students are encouraged to delve into the most intense and intricate topics of a new volume of the Talmud after studying approximately one page of the volume. Rather than having the students first patiently and painstakingly master the entire volume, they jump into the glamorous stuff right away, even venturing to put forth their own novel interpretations of topics they’ve hardly said shalom aleichem to. And lastly, yeshivas generally study the volumes of the Talmud with the greatest scholarly potential, rather than more basic volumes which every Jew must study (such as Tractate Brachos on daily prayer and blessings and Tractate Shabbos on Sabbath observance).

The reason for all this is simple enough: People today lack the patience to really roll up their sleeves and work their way from the bottom up. If they were expected to, they would never go beyond the frustrating earlier stages and grow to appreciate our tradition for what it is. And so, we provide them with the nifty exciting stuff well before they’re really ready — for otherwise they would leave the yeshiva for greener pastures before their education ever got off the ground.

The case can also be made that there is a historical basis for this phenomenon. In the 19th Century many other political, social and intellectual movements were vying for talented Jewish youth (Communism, Socialism, Haskala, Zionism, etc.). It was also a time in which universities began permitting the attendance of Jewish students in number (although quotas generally existed until quite recently). Yeshivas therefore felt a greater need to project a more scholarly, academic image and to demonstrate — quite correctly — that the Torah provides every bit as formidable and challenging an outlet for Jewish creativity.

But R. Weinberg added an important word of advice. Curiously, even an institution so sacred to Judaism as the yeshiva has a reactionary tinge to it. The curriculum has been devised in response to competing outside forces. And although there were valid grounds for this and the system is doing quite well as it is, we should never feel that the current way is one and only, the only true path to salvation. In fact, my teacher mentioned, he’s found that the people who have really made it big were the ones to see through the conventional and stake out their own path. As always, it’s the non-conformists who truly succeed. They are the ones who see through the limitations of an industrial-strength educational system, discover their own star, and pursue it.

And this is something we would all do well to keep in mind. As in many areas of Judaism, there is no one single, correct way. We should not feel we must conform to everyone else and adopt the identical study regimen in order to succeed. Nor should we just follow the beaten path, dressing and acting in ways which appear fashionable without really fathoming just what is right for our own souls. I find so many beginners who just assume that the more uncomfortable the dress of a Jewish group is, the closer to G-d they must be. But our religious practice must not consist of looking over our shoulders, attempting to adopt the customs and practices of those who appear to have made it. Rather, we must know what is most conducive to our own religious growth.

Even in the hallowed study halls of our yeshivas there must be much room for individuality, for each student to find the way most beneficial for him. For no single educational system, no matter how effective, can be tailor-made for the needs of every individual. For we at times must mass- produce education and social standards, but we can never mass-produce the path to greatness.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Jewish tradition teaches that the human being comprises three distinct aspects:nefesh, ruach, and neshama. The nefesh, or “animal soul,” is the part of man seeking survival and physical pleasure. The desires to seek food, shelter, safety, warmth, and reproduction are all functions of the nefesh.

The ruach, or “spirit,” is that part of man that seeks to reach beyond himself, to change the world, to influence the community, to leave his mark upon society. Aesthetic pleasures such as art and music are functions of the ruach, as is the capacity to suspend short term benefits to achieve long term, intangible goals. And although the ruach may resemble altruism by driving one to compose a symphony, build a monument, or search for a cure for cancer, the ruach is ultimately self-serving, merely seeking a more refined level of gratification than the nefesh.

The third component of the human being is the neshama, the supernal soul, the piece of the Divine placed inside every person by the Creator, the part of us that clings to holiness and strives to attach itself to the Almighty. Without the intervention of the neshama, the nefesh and the ruach would be locked in eternal battle, each seeking its own form of self-gratification at the expense of the other. Only through the influence of the neshama can the power of the nefesh and the ruach be channeled into cooperation toward the the fulfillment of a higher purpose.

Both the nefesh and the ruach must be accommodated. The fulfillment of physical, psychological, and emotional needs is prerequisite to spiritual development. The key to psychological and spiritual success, therefore, is to strike the perfect balance between the nefesh and the ruach by harnessing and harmonizing them through the influence of the neshama. The dangers of spiritual imbalance are the subject addressed by Hillel in our mishna.

The more flesh the more worms

The most persistent and elemental desire of the nefesh is food. Without sustenance, the body would wither, leaving the aspirations of the mind and the spirit unattainable. We must eat to live, and so we must indulge the insistent nefesh with a steady supply of nourishment.

One who lives to eat, however, elevating eating from a means of sustaining the body to a vocation or pseudo-religious ritual, investing excessive time, effort, and money in the preparation of delectable meals or the purchase of exotic cuisine, degrades himself to the level of an animal, whose existence is defined solely by the continual search for food.

When a person approaches the end of his life and looks back upon what he has done, he will be able to take pride and satisfaction from his accomplishments only if he has made some contribution to the world, has left behind some legacy testifying that his life was worth living. Similarly will he be able to look forward to a life of eternal reward, where he enjoys the fruits of his labors and the benefits of the good deeds he has done.

But if a person has lived only to eat, what will he see when he looks back across the years as he faces the end of his days? Will he still find pleasure from the delicacies with which he indulged himself? Will all the pleasures of his youth compensate him for the emptiness of his old age? Will he have anything to show for all his excesses except more flesh weighing him down? And will he have anything to hope for except the knowledge that his body will lie beneath the earth, consumed by the worms that ultimately consume all flesh?

And so Hillel warns us: do not live to eat; eat to live!

the more possessions the more worry

The Talmud tells us that, human nature being what it is, the moment a person acquires a 100 he immediately sets his goal upon acquiring 200. Such is the attraction of possessions, that instead of satisfying us they drive us to desire even more. A softer bed, a nicer house, a fancier vacation, a more expensive car, a more diverse stock portfolio. And then, as we hear of so often in our society, a more powerful job, a younger wife, a prettier mistress, a nastier divorce, a more scandalous embezzlement indictment. The more we have, the more protective we become of what we have; the less satisfied we are with what we have, the more obsessed we become with acquiring more.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Almighty promises us that if we keep His Commandments He will reward us with grain, wine, and oil. Hardly an inspiring incentive, compared with the eternal spiritual joy of the World to Come that ultimately awaits us. This promise, however, guarantees that if we stay true to the ideals of our spiritual purpose and our spiritual destiny, the Almighty will provide us with all our material needs — not unbounded luxuries, but basic necessities and reasonable comfort — precisely what we need for continued commitment to the fulfillment of spiritual goals.

Why not give us luxuries as well? Statistics show that a large majority of lottery winners report their lives becoming worse after their windfalls, in many cases tragically so. As much as we may fantasize about limitless wealth, reality proves that we will likely be much happier if we live lives of undistracted moderation.

the more slaves the more thievery

The Talmud teaches that all property of a servant belongs to his master. The Jewish concept of slavery is radically different from our images of slavery in the antebellum south: by Torah law a slave may not be neglected, mistreated, or overworked, and slavery offered a practical option for the destitute, who could sell themselves into circumstances that would provide material well-being.

Nevertheless, to fill one’s house with more slaves than required to perform the tasks at hand is to allow one’s servants to become idle, to dwell upon their lack of independence and their lack of material possessions, to grow bitter and resentful of all that their master has. The inevitable result will be descent into thievery.

A human being cannot exist without indulging the physical needs and desires of his nefesh and the emotional and psychological impulses of his ruach. The danger lies in failing to find the point of balance where attention to the physical does not thwart the influence of the spiritual. Hillel warns us not to attempt to deny the physical aspect of ourselves, but to appease it in moderation by remaining alert to the consequences of overindulgence.

On ‘one who acquires words of Torah has acquired himself a share in the World to Come’:

Rabbi Bogomilsky:

The first ‘lo’ – for himself – seems extra: A story is told of a great scholar who was unfortunately lacking much in his inter-personal relationships. Once, someone praised him to a Chassidic Rebbe, saying, ‘He learned the entire Shas‘ (Talmud). the Rebbe retorted, ‘he may have learned the entire Shas, but what did Shas teach him?” There are people who learn very much, but unfortunately their learning does not have an effect on their character. With the word ‘lo’ the Sage is emphasising, ‘If one has learned Torah and truly internalised it and this has made him into a better person, then he has acquired for himself the world to come.’

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