Maharal on Avot - Perek 3, Mishna 1
Akavya ben Mahalalel says - Look at three things and you will not sin: from where you come, to where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an accounting. From where did you come - from a rotten drop (semen); to where are you going - to a place of dirt and worms; and before Whom are you destined to render an accounting - before the King of all kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.
BROAD IS BEST
Maharal notes that Akavya's comments speak very generally and therefore deserve to be at the beginning of a chapter. Although we have seen this notion before, I think it is worth commenting on one more time - Maharal assumes that a broader perspective shows a more lofty spirit. This is at least somewhat interesting, in that we often tend to think (rightly) that mastery of the details of halakha is a necessary part of spiritual greatness (and I do not have any reason to think that Maharal would disagree). Without intimate knowledge of Judaism in its specifics, one cannot reach the same level of fidelity to the religion (with the spiritual growth and accomplishments that come with that) as a person who does have that mastery.
Maharal's point, then, must be that despite (or perhaps by virtue of) acquainting themselves with all of the details of Judaism, the greatest spiritual minds will nonetheless be able to maintain a breadth of perspective that allows them to formulate their religious advice in ways that affect the broadest group possible - people as a whole, something on the scale of the entire world. When we see someone do that, Maharal stops to point it out.
WHY THREE WHEN ONE WOULD SUFFICE?
Maharal then points out that Akavya seems to have engaged in some overkill. If we were to keep in mind only one of these three, namely that we are going to have to render an accounting before God, that should be enough to keep us from sin. After all, if we really kept in mind that all our acts are recorded and that we will be called to account for them, we would all (I am pretty sure) act differently and come much closer to complete piety.
Maharal notes that when one is caught in the grip of sin, the distant notion of an accounting will not be sufficient to help one resist the present urge. That is why Akavya speaks of three ways of not reaching yedeiaveira ("the hands of sin," which most people read simply as "sin"). Maharal, though, says that "the hands of" means those circumstances that will lead one to sin. (For a beautiful rendition of the notion that one should avoid the circumstances of sin rather than just the sin itself, you can read "AlHa-teshuva," where Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Zt"l explains why the mishna in Tractate Sanhedrin requires a gambler to destroy the objects of sin before his teshuva (repentance) is considered complete.) Akavya's strategies, then, are meant to help a person avoid the lead-in to sin, not only the sin itself. For that, all three of the reminders that he mentions are necessary.
PRIDE LEADS TO SIN
To explain the first two - where you came from and where you are going - Maharal notes that pride is the fundamental cause of sin. From his discussion of how to avoid that pride, which we will come to in a moment, it seems that Maharal realized that people sin in order to gratify some desire. Were we to have a proper sense of our place in the world, however, we would see that personal gratification is not our purpose, and that we do not benefit ourselves in any real sense by the sins we commit. Akavya's first two recommendations, therefore, are meant to wipe out two kinds of pride.
Maharal then introduces a discussion of a gemarain Tractate Berakhot that suggests various ways to conquer the yetzerhara (evil inclination). Among those, the gemarasuggests studying Torah and saying Shema, an odd strategy to adopt as protection from sin. Maharal explains, however, that since sin is a question of pride, Torah and Shema remind a person of God's presence and thus help conquer the pride that would have led to sin.
Pride may stem from august origins or an august end. For example, the child of a wealthy family with a long and noble lineage might be proud of his origins even before he accomplished anything himself. On the other hand, pride might depend on one's expected achievements, so that a confident high school student may know (or assume) that he or she would achieve high office (or great wealth, or whatever) one day. Akavya therefore points out that, in physical terms, our ends are also not so august. Regardless of what we might achieve in the future, we will physically end up in the same place as everyone else. [Maharal does not raise the possibility, as do others, that one might take pride in one's current circumstances, regardless of the beginnings or ends]. The first two clauses of Akavya, then, provide two antidotes to the different types of pride a person may develop.
AN EXCUSE FOR SIN?
Some scriptural verses refer to the lowliness of our physical selves and their inevitably leading to sin, and Maharal worries that we may take those as excusing sin. While he believes that pride is the general cause of sin, he also recognizes that the belief that our physical bodies doom us to unworthy lives, in denying us the possibility of being good, will remove any deterrent to sin. When King David, for example, refers to himself (and all of us) as having been conceived in sin ("hen be-avon holalti, u-vechet yehematni imi"), we may erroneously think that he means to justify his sins as a result of his birth. Given that Maharal wrote in a Christian country where the notion of inherent Original Sin was endemic to human beings, Maharal's raising the question is worth noting. Maharal explains that such verses like that of King David are meant as a support ONLY for a penitent. That is, in order to present oneself before God, one can say such things as an expression of one's sorrow at having sinned.
THE ABSENCE OF GOD ALSO LEADS TO SIN
Pride may be the general cause of sin for a believing Jew, but someone who does not think that there is a God - or, more accurately, one who denies that God is aware of our actions and that there is retribution for our sins - will have no reason to avoid sin. Having given us ways to avoid pride, therefore, Akavya now mentions the existence of the Creator and the future judgement to remind us of the importance of our actions.
It turns out that Maharal identifies three causes of sin, even though he names pride as the sole cause. Aside from pride, there is despair, the belief that our physical bodies doom us to sin, which also can lead to our indulging all of our inclinations. Maharal is forced to explain that the verses adopting such a lowly view of humans were meant only for the penitents, but not as an assertion of a general truth. Finally, the third cause, the lack of belief in judgement, reward, and punishment, would be a spur to sin as well. To that end, Akavya reminds us that we are all destined to render an accounting for our actions.
Next week, we will look at a view of human nature and the role of government in society.