Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not crave honor. Do more than you have studied and do not desire the ‘table’ of kings. For your table is greater than their table, and your crown is greater than their crown. And your Employer can be trusted to pay you the reward for your efforts.
Last week we began to discuss the progression from the previous mishna to the current. The previous mishna promised that those who study Torah will (or at least can) endure lives of physical hardship, yet live contentedly in this world — being sated with the pleasure of the World to Come. As we explained, that mishna related to one level on which Judaism challenges us — the level of physical versus spiritual — a battle over which the spiritual person can readily prevail. This mishna, however, touches on a much loftier struggle we face as human beings — the spiritual battle raging within man. Let us back up a little and explain.
The first level on which we are challenged is that of physical versus spiritual. Our flesh is sluggish — we don’t want to get up in the morning, study, keep kosher, etc. — but G-d tells us to live spiritual rather than physical lives. As we explained last time, however, this is not the real message of Judaism. The Torah does not tell us to deny our physical wants. It does not preach celibacy, poverty or self-denial — even if it does limit and restrict somewhat. Judaism in fact sees a sense of harmony between the physical and spiritual worlds, promising that a Torah lifestyle brings true contentment in this world as well as the next. Thus, the true challenge of the Torah is not one of physical versus spiritual. Even though much of our daily focus is on keeping the animal within in check, the truly spiritual person — the person of Mishna 4 — will hardly prefer shellfish to a page of the Talmud.
Rather, the true and greatest challenge of Judaism is within the realm of the spiritual itself. To explain, we began examining the primordial Sin of Adam and Eve. As poorly as we understand the true meaning of this episode, a few key points are worth dwelling upon. Before the Sin, man had no evil inclination. (I use the term ‘man’ to refer to Adam and Eve together, since the Sages consider them two halves of a single entity — as all couples ideally are) He had no inherent desire for sin or evil, as we do today. Evil existed as an outside force — embodied in the Serpent — whose mission was to tempt man to sin. Man was essentially an entirely spiritual being, and although cloaked in flesh and blood, the flesh was wholly subservient to the spirit, with the single function of bringing man’s great spiritual potential to physical reality.
(The Sages likewise depict Adam and Eve physically in superhuman terms, as their bodies — in complete consonance with their souls — served as reflections of their great spiritual strength. The Talmud states that before he sinned, Adam’s height spanned from earth to Heaven (Chagigah 12a). The Sages likewise state that Sarah, though one of the most beautiful women ever created, would have appeared as a monkey before Eve (Bava Basra 58a). (This, by the way, is not unlike the giant fruit of the spiritually-charged Land of Israel — but too many tangents for one week…))
After man ate from the Tree of Knowledge, however, he acquired the intimate knowledge of and desire for evil. The evil inclination was no longer an external force, represented by the Serpent. It was within. Our physical flesh was now a confused mixture of good and evil. Death was introduced into the world: human flesh, separated from the spirit, was a creature of the finite, physical realm — one which must ultimately decay and die. Man would now face a much greater challenge than before. He would no longer battle a Serpent from without. He would have to battle his own sluggish yet desirous flesh within.
Thus, clothing became a necessary part of man’s social makeup, becoming one of the bare necessities of civilized human existence. It seems almost strange that in spite of man’s lofty stature before the Sin, all the Torah has to say about Adam and Eve is that they were naked (Genesis 2:25). Is that the only description the Torah has of such spiritual giants?
The idea, however, is that man’s physical essence was so sublimated as to serve as no more than a vehicle for serving G-d. There was no temptation to use his body in any other way; it was thoroughly holy. Only after the Sin did the temptation to misuse our bodies and live for the physical come into existence. Man instinctively knew that he would come to look at others — and be seen himself — as a sex object. Man had to cover his physical flesh to subdue it — and as well to remind himself that it was not an ends. The physical body could not be mistaken for the value of humanity. It was only a servant of the soul that gave life to it. It — as clothing — was no more than a covering for the greater holiness within. (Combination of thoughts from Rabbis Aryeh Kaplan and Zev Leff.)
Finally, returning to last week’s discussion, we asked how was the Serpent able to convince man to sin? If man was truly wholly spiritual, possessing no internal desire for evil, how could the serpent “tempt” man to sin? Did not man recognize that spirituality and godliness are the purpose of existence? Could he possibly have been tempted by a fruit, no matter how tasty it appeared?
Let us look more closely at the Serpent’s ploy. The Serpent promised that the Tree would make them “as gods knowing good and evil” (3:5). Why would that convince a man, not interested in physical pleasure, to sin? What is so tempting about being as a god who knows evil? Is that the greatness of a god? And of course, man didn’t become much of a god after he sinned: he fell dramatically from his previous level. Was the Serpent just deluding man with nonsense?
Jewish thinkers explain that man wanted to sin in order that life become more challenging. He realized that the true purpose of existence was to overcome temptation and to struggle to get closer to G-d. When man was created, he was given a single mitzvah (commandment) alone — not eating from the Tree. He recognized that the struggle of mankind could be so much greater — and he desired such a challenge. He wanted life to be more difficult for himself and for all human beings to come. By becoming a more physical being — by knowing evil — man would have to overcome much greater temptations in order to make himself spiritual. His challenge would be much more difficult, and by rising to it he would grow infinitely more.
We are only beginning to understand. What then does it mean that man would become more “godlike”? Isn’t he making himself more physical and more *distant* from G-d? And why to begin with would man defy G-d’s will — supposedly in order to get closer to Him?
I apologize but we’ll have to break this one up once more. This is one big topic. In fact I’m almost surprised we’ve gotten this far along Pirkei Avos without ever touching it (to my memory). Till then!
Text Copyright © 2015 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.