- “Everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in His world He created only for His honor, as it is written, ‘All that is called by My Name, for My honor I have created, formed and made it’ (Isaiah 43:7). It also states, ‘The L-rd shall reign forever and ever’ (Exodus 15:18).”
We have now reached the final mishna of Pirkei Avos. In truth, as we’ve mentioned before, Pirkei Avos really only consists of five chapters. The sixth chapter was an add-on, not formally a part of Pirkei Avos, although authored at about the same time. It consists of a collection of statements written in praise of the Torah and other Jewish values — and it thus fit very nicely with the many themes of Pirkei Avos. It is not clear precisely when it became associated with Pirkei Avos proper — although it dates back to some of the earlier commentators of about a thousand years back. Today this chapter is universally studied as a part of Pirkei Avos.
We are thus left today with the final message of this study — of Chapter Six if not all Pirkei Avos — and the final words of wisdom with which the Sages intended to leave us.
(By the way (before anyone panics) I have one additional class to submit in this series. Also, this entire (4.5 year) course will repeat shortly after it concludes.)
What is this final message?
The theme of this mishna would seem to follow from the previous mishna. Mishna 10 discussed the five “possessions” of G-d — five objects in the universe — such as the Torah, Abraham, and Israel — whose very essence is an expression of G-d’s will. As we explained, a possession of G-d, whether person or object, is something entirely given over to G-d to the extent that it does not have its own independent existence. Most of us serve G-d from our own “space”. We consider ourselves separate entities from G-d who may serve G-d well but who have and enjoy our own lives at the same time. Certain aspects of creation, however, so wholly identify with G-d that they are not considered to possess their own identities at all. They exist solely to fulfill G-d’s desires; there is no separation between G-d’s will and their reality. And so, they become extensions of His very essence — and His very possessions.
This mishna turns to the creation as a whole — and states virtually the same lesson. Everything G-d created ultimately exists for His honor. Certain aspects of creation are possessions of G-d and clearly have no purpose other than the divine. Yet we are taught that everything in existence is ultimately spiritual. Nothing exists in this world for which G-d has no purpose. Everything — all that G-d has willed and continues to will into existence — must be purposeful in the Divine scheme. It will, in some way, ultimately be used for the glorification of G-d’s Name — in order that man recognize and serve his Creator. Thus, all of creation is valuable and possesses spiritual content. If G-d wills it to exist, He must have a reason, and so ultimately it too will function as a possession of G-d.
All the above is logically correct but emotionally is decidedly unsatisfying. We are to believe that the entire universe exists for the sole purpose of glorifying G-d’s name. And further, if any part of creation would no longer be necessary or suited for that purpose, it would instantly cease to exist. Well, we don’t have to look very far to see a world which appears anything but. Is the world — in particular man’s behavior therein — a reflection of G-d’s values? Does it enhance G-d’s name and honor? Has man chosen to follow the dictates of justice, morality and fair play, as set forth in the Torah? Or has he chosen to follow his own greed, lusts and desires, turning the world into a place of darkness and G-dlessness? If the entire purpose of creation is that man recognize his Creator and devote himself and all creation to His service, must we conclude that creation has been an abysmal failure? Have we just so utterly missed the mark — so much so that millennia after having received the Torah, we have hardly gotten any closer?
If, more generally, we examine the story of man’s sojourn on earth, a much more distressing pattern emerges. For the most part man has refused to recognize his Creator, going so far as to oppress and persecute G-d’s emissaries to mankind, the Jewish people. (Alternatively, mankind has accepted the Jew with open arms — provided he assimilate totally, dropping his differing values and abandoning his Divine calling.)
G-d, as a result, has left man to his own destructive devices. G-d has hidden His Divine countenance from the affairs of man, leaving man to pursue his own ruinous folly. The result has been war, disease, famine, natural disasters, manmade tragedies permitted by G-d — all resulting from the concealment of the Divine Presence and the consequent unleashing of the destructive forces of man’s wickedness and the world’s capriciousness.
And man, as a natural result, has slipped even further from G-d, being unable to discern G-d’s concealed but ever-present guiding hand in the world. Man has instead been forced to contend with his own evil and the destruction he has wrought upon the world. And as man has slipped further from G-d, G-d has in turn moved ever further from man, retreating, as it were, into the uppermost Heavens. The world has thus been experiencing an ongoing and tragic vicious cycle of evil, destruction, and Divine concealment. It is in truth a cycle which spans from Adam’s primordial sin and fall from the Garden of Eden — and a cycle which has continued with little respite since man’s first day on earth.
And so again, we are left with the frustrating reality that man has slipped far from G-d, and the world drifts ever further from its true purpose. Must we thus conclude that creation has basically been a failure? Perhaps G-d has promised not to flood the earth again (melting polar icecaps aside — yet another manmade disaster), but is man doing very much to justify his existence? And if not, are we just doomed to live in a universe of emptiness and falsehood, in which G-d’s name is eternally concealed and desecrated? Is there any hope for mankind?
To this our mishna suggests an answer. In a way, of course, there is no answer — and the Sages do not attempt to hide that fact (see for example earlier 4:19. Anyone — or any religion — that claims to know all the answers is fooling himself as much as he is attempting to fool others. G-d’s wisdom is inscrutable. He has a plan for mankind — creation was not in vain and will ultimately achieve its final purpose — but it may well be beyond man’s ability to ever truly fathom the many details of G-d’s Master Plan. We can comfort ourselves knowing that a plan does exist and we, in our own small way, are doing our part. But to make sense of it all in this world? We will simply have to wait.
Our mishna, however, concludes with a verse from Exodus, one which at first glance seems to have little relevance to our discussion: “The L-rd shall reign forever and ever.” What does our mishna intend to tell us with that?
I have heard R. Zev Leff explain. The world doesn’t make sense? It seems a place which obscures rather than enhances G-d’s glory? Stick around; G-d rules forever. The world will get there, regardless of the direction it seems to be heading today. One of Judaism’s most fundamental beliefs is that G-d runs the world — as concealed as His presence ordinarily seems to be. He has a Master Plan. He is slowly but inexorably bringing the world to its ultimate fulfillment. And though all of the visible indicators of the past two thousand years tell us we are slipping ever further from G-d, G-d knows what He is doing. He will bring the world back when the time is ripe. And further, throughout the entire time G-d has been bringing the pieces together, orchestrating history in such a way that man will ultimately be led back to his Creator — so that man will ultimately recognize that G-d’s reign is forever and ever.
This is perhaps the final message the Sages intended to leave us with in Pirkei Avos. Pirkei Avos has provided us with so much sound wisdom and advice. We have fathomed so many “answers” — making sense of the world around us and our place within. The Torah makes sense, Israel’s place in the world makes sense, our personal fulfillment is realizable. We have gained an understanding of reward and punishment, of free will, and to some extent even why the good suffer. The Sages have touched upon so many fundamental issues of faith — and provided us with so much day-to-day, practical advice in the process. Judaism begins to fit together and form a perfect, unified whole.
Yet, at the same time, there is so much left unsaid and unanswered. We are left with so many questions, so many unsatisfied whys. Personal tragedies, national tragedies, tribulations and disappointments which we must all contend with in life. We may be full of general approaches and understandings, yet no one in existence can truly stand up and proclaim he understands everything G-d has dealt him on this earth. Try as we may, there is so much we will never truly be able to understand or come to grips with.
And to this our mishna concludes: G-d rules forever.
We have answered so much over our past four years studying Pirkei Avos. We have explored many fundamental issues of Judaism, but we will never answer it all. And to that, as we are about to conclude our studies, our mishna tells us: have faith and wait. One day, perhaps in our lifetimes, the Messiah will arrive, and all such questions and difficulties will once and for all be resolved.
A familiar term in the Talmud, when faced with a question it cannot answer, is the word “taiku”. The literal meaning is something like “let it stand,” the question remains and is valid. Jews have invented an expression out of the four letters of this Hebrew word: “[Elijah the] Tishbite will answer all questions and difficulties.” Elijah the Prophet, who will one day herald the Messiah’s arrival (Malachi 3:23), will come to us with the final answers to all of our unanswered — sometimes even unexpressed — questions. And the Sages here tell us exactly this: We have written so much, but we can answer no more. The time will come, please G-d, when all the answers — to all the whys of all past generations until this day — will be forthcoming. We wait and silently hope for such a time. And until then, we cannot and need not write any more.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.