Akavia Ben Mehalalel says: Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of sin. Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before whom you will ultimately give judgment and accounting. From where did you come? From a putrefied drop (of semen). To where are you going? To a place of dirt, maggots and worms. And before whom will you ultimately give a judgment and an accounting? Before the King of Kings, The Holy One, Blessed be He.
Why is it necessary for one to contemplate all three things? The awareness that we will ultimately be called upon to give a judgment and an accounting should be sufficient to prevent us from falling into the hands of sin! Why is it also necessary to be aware of our origins and our ultimate demise?
Furthermore, how will the realization that he originates from a putrefied drop prevent a person from sinning? And how does the realization of his ultimate destination (as lowly as it will be) affect his actions? (The previous question whether the last two elements NEED to be included This question challenges whether they are even effective.) The only thing that is important is the recognition that he will held accountable for his actions!
In fact, the realization of his insignificance can cause despair and the loss of hope for any accomplishments, which itself can cause a person to sin. (After questioning whether it is necessary, or even effective, now the Maharal poses the question that it is actually counterproductive!) He will think that his actions make no difference. (People who view themselves as being worthless think that G-d can’t have very high expectations of them.)
The problem of the Tanna mentioning things that are neither necessary nor sufficient for the desired result also arises in Ch. 2, Mishna 1, where Rebbe also teaches that a person should contemplate three things to avoid sin. (Knowledge that one’s actions being recorded in a book would have been sufficient, without mentioning the other two considerations.) But that Mishna can be interpreted to mean that through a seeing eye and a hearing ear, all the actions are able to be recorded in the book. Our Mishna, on the other hand, is truly difficult to understand. What is the necessity of all three things? (Since the fact that we will be held to an accounting for our actions is both necessary and sufficient to distance us from sin, nothing else need be included in our Mishna.)
There are a number of further difficulties.
How will a person be able to give an accounting if he will ultimately return to a place of dirt, maggots and worms!
What is language of “not come to the hands of sin?” Why didn’t it simply say “You won’t sin”!
And why is the lesson of Akavia ben Mehalalel, who was in the generation after Shmaya and Avtalyon, taught here at the beginning of the third chapter? It should have been taught in the first chapter according to the chronological order!
The lesson of Akavia ben Mehalalel opens the chapter due to the great significance of his lesson. This lesson didn’t open the second chapter because the lesson of Rebbe that did open the second chapter (which teaches about superior character traits as the path a person should choose) was a more encompassing lesson, in addition to including a prescription for avoiding sin. Therefore, Rebbe’s lesson opened the earlier chapter, and Akavia ben Mehalalel’s lesson was opened this chapter.
It was also more appropriate to open the second chapter with Rebbe’s lesson in order to have it connected to the lessons of his ancestors. (This is built on the way the Mishnayoth are ordered in the first chapter. of the authors of the Mishnayoth in the first chapter. As the Maharal explained there, the Mishnayoth are ordered according to the lessons of each pair of Tannaim who were responsible for transmission process, up until Hillel and Shammai. From Hillel, the Tanna switches over to presenting lessons taught by the descendants of Hillel. The Maharal will elaborate in this here.) After teaching the lessons of the pairs of Rabbis who were responsible for the transmission of the Oral Torah, the Tanna then continued with the descendants of Hillel. Even though the descendants of Hillel weren’t responsible for the transmission process the way the pairs of Rabbis were, each generation of children did receive the Torah from their fathers. This process was a fulfillment of the blessing “[The Torah] will not depart from the lips of your children, and from the lips of your children’s children forever” (Yeshayahu 59:21). If one is a Talmid Chacham, and his son is a Talmid Chacham, and his grandson is a Talmid Chacham, he is assured that the Torah will never cease from his descendants. Therefore, each of the generations, beginning with Hillel and continuing through the son or Rebbe, was mentioned consecutively, with no generations interrupting the continuity. This kind of transmission (father to son) is comparable to the transmission process of the pairs of Rabbis. We can now understand why Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai wasn’t mentioned after Hillel, who was his teacher and from who he received the transmission. Beginning with Hillel, the Tanna switched over to teaching lessons from each of Hillel’s descendants.
(The fundamental nature of the transmission process of the Torah is “father to son,” one generation passing it on to the next. Teaching Torah to our children and students is not simply a functional way to ensure that they have the requisite information. It is a continuation of the process of the Divine revelation of the Torah to the Jewish nation at Sinai. The Maharal understands that the principle of Torah transmission forms one of the underlying structures of Pirkei Avoth. As he writes explicitly many times, the arrangement of Rabbinic texts is not compiles in a haphazard or coincidental way, but is written with thought and intention. There can be lessons in the placement and ordering of the texts.)
Since the Tanna could not teach the lesson of Akavia until after the lessons of Rebbe and his children, he held it for the opening of the third chapter, due to the encompassing nature of Akavia’s lesson (which makes it most appropriate for the opening of a chapter).
Akavia ben Mehalalel is teaching the person to remove the cause of sin. As long as the cause of sin is present, a person is bound to fall into the hands of sin. The reason one falls into the hands of sin is due to the yetzer harah which G-d placed in each person. And even if a person knows he will be called to account for his actions before G-d, when the yetzer harah burns within him, a person will sin and not pay attention to what will happen in the future. Therefore, it becomes necessary to neutralize the power of the yetzer harah, the cause of sin, at the source. And what is the source of the yetzer harah’s power? Arrogance. Lust and jealousy, which cause a person to sin, actually originate in the traits of arrogance and egoism. Why is this so? The yetzer harah’s goal is to bring a person to self-destruction through sin. Therefore, its incitement and arousal are directed only at one who feels he is on an elevated level, with the goal of causing his downfall. But when one feels humble and lowly, not perceiving himself as having a significant and independent existence, the yetzer harah does not discern something worthy of destruction. Therefore, the yetzer harah does not bother to seduce the person to self-destruction.
(It is now necessary to elaborate on these ideas, because they are subject to many misunderstandings, and they must be correctly understood as we progress through the rest of this Mishna. The Maharal is not implying that a person should walk around with low self-esteem. This would certainly not be positive and is not a Jewish ideal. A person must appreciate himself, and the Rabbis instruct us to say “For me was the world created” (Sanhedrin 37a). But this source of self-esteem is not a motto of entitlement and arrogance, but one of responsibility and awareness.
(This dichotomy between healthy self-esteem adestructive arrogance is highlighted by the Maharal in his warning against the danger of “metziuth chashuv b’atzmo u’veinav” – “a significant existence/reality in his essence and in his own eyes.” A person must realize that his existence is a conditional one, given to him by G-d only for a limited amount of time and in order serve Him. An arrogant person feels he has a guaranteed and stable existence, dependent only on the person himself. It is exactly such a perspective that is vulnerable to the yetzer harah, whose goal is to attack and undermine this inflated sense of independence.
(Why is the arrogant person so susceptible to the power of the yetzer harah? On a number of occasions, we have used the ideas of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, in discussing arrogance and humility, self awareness and insecurity. Arrogance is the result of insecurity, where a person lacks an inner sense of his own self-worth and seeks outside validation for it. An insecure person can be driven obsessively to acquire that validation. If a person doesn’t realize the true source of his self-worth — that he was created as a reflection of the Divine, endowed with life and resources by G-d to fulfill a Divine mission — then his self-worth is truly in doubt and in constant need of validation. Intuitively and subconsciously, every person realizes that he has no “metziuth chashuv b’atzmo,” that his existence is a temporary and conditional one. But if he refuses to admit to his conditional existence which was given to him by G-d – a very validating and uplifting realization — then he must pursue external confirmation of his self-worth, causing arrogant self-aggrandizement. It is exactly such an existence that the yetzer harah targets. The yetzer harah entices one to pursue immediate gratification and physical pleasure, in order to give man a false sense of existence. It is this artificial sense of being, induced by physical pleasures, money, power, etc., which cover up the feelings of insecurity which are caused by man’s failure to realize the true source and purpose of his existence.
(This is the intent of the Maharal when he writes that arrogance brings about the incitement of the yetzer harah, directed at one who has a feeling of self-importance, leading him to self-destruction. When one recognizes the true source and purpose of his existence, he has no need for the fantasies and false sense of security which are the mechanisms of the yetzer harah. We have often defined the yetzer harah simply as the insecurities of the human being, driving him to actions that give him a false sense of existence and stability.)