Why We Sin – Commentary

admin Torah 365

by Rabbi Binyamin Lehrfield

Throughout Pirkei Avot, the Rabbis teach about the most appropriate ethical and moral ways to live life. These dictums and teachings form the moral bedrock of Jewish living. Chapter 4 Mishna 28 is no exception. Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar taught that jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor remove a person from this world. Rabbi Elazer HaKappar’s teaching is quite interesting for a few reasons. First and foremost, what is the relationship between jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor? Why does Rabbi Elazer HaKappar teach them and link them together as character traits that remove a person from this world? Secondly, this is the third occasion in which a Rabbi discusses a list of items that remove a person from this world. Back in Chapter 2 Mishna 16 Rabbi Yehoshua taught that the evil eye, Yetzer Hara (evil impulses), and hatred of humanity are “Motziin et HaAdam Min HaOlam” ; “Drive a person from the world.” Similarly in Chapter 3 Mishna 14 Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas taught that sleeping late in the morning, drinking wine in the afternoon, chattering with children, and sitting in gathering of the ignorant can drive a person from this world. Why does each of these Rabbis provide different lists of things that can remove a person from this world? Why is it necessary for Pirkei Avot to include one of these teachings in Chapters 2, 3, and 4 respectively?

In addition, what do these Rabbis mean when they teach that these traits/actions “will remove a person from this world”? Does this mean that someone that is jealous is on a path to death from this world? Perhaps this phrase is referring to the World to Come? In other words, when sharing these teachings are the Rabbis insinuating a formal prohibition? Is it forbidden to sleep late or to hate humanity? What does it mean to “remove a person from this world”?

There are a number of different approaches to understanding these Mishnayot as has been discussed previously (see commentary Chapter 3 Mishna 14 for one approach). Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran, the 15th century commentary known as the Rashbatz offers a unique approach to dealing with the relationship with these three Mishnayot that all teach about what “removes a person from this world.” He writes that in Chapter 2 Rabbi Yehoshua is teaching that the evil eye, evil inclination, and hatred of people remove a person from this world and not merely the World to Come. In other words, someone that is afflicted with these traits lives a “bitter and unenviable inner life.” On the other hand, in Chapter 3 Rabbi Dosa’s is emphasizing exclusively a person that loses his place in the World to Come. One who in this world sleeps late, enjoys the pleasures of a good glass of wine, spends his time with unsavory individuals will realize that in the end he has wasted his time. He will arrive “empty-handed” as he awaits to enter the World to Come. Finally, in Chapter 4 Rabbi Elazer HaKappar is emphasizing that jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor are so bad that they remove a person both from thisworld as well as the World to Come. Such a person that pursues these character traits experiences no comfort in this world and will not inherit the peace of the World to Come.

While there certainly seems to be a link between all three of these Mishnayot, others commentators make a distinction between Rabbi Dosa’s teaching in Chapter 3 Mishna 14 compared to the other two in that Rabbi Dosa focuses on specific actions and not specific character traits. For that reason, many of the commentators find Chapter 4 Mishna 28 and Chapter 2 Mishna 16 to be echoes and mirrors of one another. Rabbi Yehoshua in Chapter 2 teaches of the ‘evil eye’ which corresponds to Rabbi Elazar in Chapter 4’s teaching of ‘jealousy.’ Someone that looks at others with an envious and evil eye will always be jealous of the success of others. Rabbi Yehoshua teaches of the ‘evil inclination’ which resembles and is related to Rabbi Elazar’s teaching of ‘lust.’ The evil inclination entices man with the “pleasures of the flesh.” Finally, the “hatred of people” as taught by Rabbi Yehoshua relates to the “pursuit of honor” of Rabbi Elazar. Those that pursue honor cause those around them to feel hate towards them. A person that focuses on their own personal honor is bound to feel hatred and enmity to those around them that do not meet these (unreasonable) expectations.

All that being said, it seems clear that these character flaws and actions are not formally forbidden by a particular prohibition and perhaps do not carry any formal prohibition. It is important to note that Rabbeinu Yona in his commentary to this Mishna (as well as his commentary to the Gemara in Tractate Berachot 5a) views this concept of “removing a person from this world“ as a reference to the World to Come and by extension a reference to an actual punishment for these traits. On the other hand Maimonides in his commentary on Pirkei Avot suggests that indulging in these traits ruins the Torah experience and as such prevents intellectual and moral development. From that perspective, Rabbi Elazar here in Chapter 4 is speaking about the effects on the intellectual and moral human experience and not to a punishment in response to a transgression.

Rashi (as taught to me by Rabbi Moshe Taragin) takes a more historical approach to understanding Rabbi Elazar’s teaching. Each of the previous teachings of what removes a person from this world can be seen individually, however, Rashi sees an incredible link between the three traits listed by Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Elazar, he suggest, is referencing the three motives that informed the three original parties to original sin in Genesis. While it is impossible to know for sure the actual motives for this sin, Rabbi Elazar attempts to attribute these three traits to the Snake, Eve, and Adam respectively. First, it was the Snake (Nachash) that was motivated by jealousy to cause Eve and Adam to sin. There are many Midrashim that support this idea. For example, Avot D’Rabbi Natan (Chapter 1) teaches that the Snake was envious of Adam’s position and vowed to supplant him. Other Midrashim suggest that the Snake was in fact jealous of Adam’s relationship with Eve and wished her to be his wife.

Following the jealousy of the Snake, Eve desires and lusts after the forbidden fruit. As the Torah teaches in Bereishit (3:6), “VaTera HaIsha Ki Tov HaEtz LiMaachal ViChi Taava Hu LiEinayim” ; “[Eve] saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes.” It was precisely this trait of lust that motivated Eve to eat and encourage Adam to eat as well from the forbidden fruit. Finally, Rabbi Elazar (according to Rash) attributes the trait of pursuing honor to Adam. While it is not quite as clear from the text as it is with the Snake and Eve, there are a number of hints to Adam’s motivation. Rashi himself writes that the Angels bestowed honor on Adam (which only increased the Snake’s jealousy). Perhaps this kavod, this honor, led Adam to feel a sense of invulnerability which lowered his guard to eat from the forbidden fruit.

Rabbi Taragin suggests another possible way in which the reader can see that Adam was one that pursued honor to a fault. He writes:

“Alternatively, [Adam’s inflated sense of honor] 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, [G-d]. First he hides when hearing G-d 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 doesengage 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 other words, Rabbi Taragin explains that Adam’s own inflated sense of himself prevented him from managing and easing this difficult situation.

Seen from Rashi’s perspective, Rabbi Elazar is thus literally teaching how one removes themselves from this world. It was these three traits that led to the original sin. These traits are so harmful that they launched the very history of human sin. These traits then serve as the precursor to the creation of the Yetzer Hara the evil inclination that Rabbi Yehoshua teaches about in Chapter 2. Rabbi Elazar warns us about what lies at the foundation and the source of sin. May we each overcome our own inclinations to do wrong and live the most ethical and moral life that we can.