He (Hillel) would say: A reputation of power is the cause for its demise; one who does not continue (to add to his Torah knowledge) dies before his time; one who does not learn (at all) deserves death; and one who uses the crown (of Torah for his own benefit) will perish.
(From this point, there may be some discrepancies in the way the Mishnayoth are numbered, due to the combining of this Mishna and the following Mishna, all the words of Hillel, into one Mishna. Most versions of the Mishnayoth count them as three separate ones, as does the “Hoenig” version of the Derech Chaim. The footnoted version of the Derech Chaim counts it all as one Mishna. To make it easier for people to locate a specific Mishna, we will follow the convention of most versions of Avoth, and number this as a separate Mishna.
(We have translated this Mishna in line with the way the Maharal understands and explains it. This is not always the standard translation.)
(The questions in the coming paragraph were actually written in the first part of Mishna 12. We have waited to bring them in order to enhance continuity.)
What is the connection of a loss of reputation with the first lessons of the Mishna dealing with being students of Aharon? And how does any of this connect with the lessons of one who does not learn (Torah) being deserving of death?
The Rambam (the Maharal is apparently paraphrasing Peirush HaMishnayoth on this Mishna) explains the first phrase in our Mishna to mean that when you see one whose “name” (reputation) spreads significantly (negad shma), know that his “name” is close to being lost (avad shmay). It seems that the Rambam is basing this on the verse (Mishlei 16:18) “Before a fall — greatness.”
But a better interpretation is based on explaining the word “negad” to mean power (see Shmuel I 13:14) as well as to mean continuity and existence. (See Jastrow Dictionary and Practical Talmud Dictionary on the word “negad.”) The Mishna is teaching us that positions of power and control seem to give one a feeling of stability and endurance. But this is a misconception, since in fact the position of power causes the person to be destroyed, as we explained above. This concept is also taught to us by the Rabbis (Pesachim 87b) when they say “Woe to power, which buries its bearers.”
Why should this be so? Man receives his life and existence from G-d, the dynamic source of all life, the One who bestows life on all beings. One who makes himself a RECIPIENT (“mekabel”), humbling himself, is fitting to receive life from G-d. (An arrogant person does not know how to receive, for it makes him feel weak, as well as beholden. A humble person, one with an inner sense of security, is not threatened by his need to receive. Being a recipient is viewed as an opportunity to serve with the resources received.) However, a person who wants power to control other people, not allowing himself to be a recipient, can’t receive true life. Life (stable and enduring) is given by G-d in an ongoing way to one who knows how to receive it, knowing what to do with it. G-d is called the “source (wellspring) of life.” Just as a wellspring gives out a constant flow of water (in contrast to a well, where the water is collected and sits statically) so, too, does G-d bestow life in a constantly flowing manner. One who humbles himself, recognizing and connecting himself to the source of life, is able to be an ongoing recipient of enduring existence from G-d. (He receives the resources to utilize them in the way they were intended. As he receives them in order to pass them on, he is constantly having them renewed and replenished from the flowing source of those resources.) However, people who strive for power and control want to stand independent from the source of their existence (in line with what has been explained in previous sections) leading to their demise.
One who does not study Torah deserves death, for the Torah is the source of life (Devarim 30:20). (Torah, representing the will of G-d, is the source of His bestowal of existence on all creation.) It is through the study and involvement with Torah that man attaches himself to G-d, through commitment to service. This is the opposite of a person who seeks power and control, which ultimately leads to a person’s demise.
Man (“adam”) is called such because he comes from “adamah,” earth, which is of a material nature. Deterioration and demise are properties of the material and physical world. To ensure true life and continuity, man must transcend this physicality by increasing his involvement with Torah, which is the essence of intellectual, spiritual existence, and is the connection with the Divine.
It is not sufficient to simply study Torah. One must toil and strain in acquiring Torah, for this is how one exerts control of the intellectual, spiritual dimension over the physical one. Without this toil, the physical dimension is dominant, which leads to deterioration, an early death.
One who does not study Torah at all is liable for execution, for in distancing himself from Torah, he places himself as an opponent to it, which is a crime deserving of death.
These three lessons are grouped together, reflecting the underlying theme about the three things which Rav Yehuda teaches that shorten a person’s life. (See Berachoth 55a.) These three are 1) receiving a Torah scroll to read, and not reading it; 2) receiving a cup for making a blessing (for Birkat Hamzon) and not making it; and 3) one who installs himself as a ruler over others (as seen from Yosef, who ruled over his brothers, and died before the rest of them). All three of these things relate to the source of life, and can cause a shortening of life. When one distances oneself from Torah, as evidenced by forgoing the opportunity to read it, one is distanced from G-d, the source of life. Passing up the opportunity to make a blessing is a failure in recognizing G-d, the source of abundance and blessing in the world, and is distanced from that source. Finally, one who makes himself into a leader who controls others does not want to be a recipient, and as such distances himself from the source of life.
(Life is given to us to accomplish, to produce, to give and to serve, which is our imitation of G-d. One who devotes his life to validating his existence, as an opportunity to take and consume, to exert control and power has misused the life G-d has given him.)