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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Third Mishna

By Rabbi Sender Haber

Antigonus Ish Socho was a student of Shimon Hatzaddik. Whereas Shimon Hatzaddik had been the last remnant of the Anshei Knesses Hagedola, Antigonus was charged with leading a generation that had no remnant at all. Despite the instructions and encouragement given by the Anshei Kenesses Hagedola, life was far from idyllic. Heresy, poverty, and persecution reigned. Even as the people focused on Torah, Prayer, and kindness, their world continued to crumble before their eyes. One of Shimon Hatzakik’s own children went to Alexander the Great and obtained permission to build a Temple on Mount Grizim. The struggle of those on Mount Grizim was, in part a question of why those who abided the word of G-d were not rewarded in kind.

Rather than rule with platitudes, Antigonus chose to challenge his remaining followers. “Don’t concern yourselves with reward”, he said, “Focus on your love of G-d”. Unlike the previous generations who had held up Jewish continuity as an incentive, Antigonus preached no incentive at all.  He enjoined the people to enhance their love of G-d.

Some of the students couldn’t handle it. Tzadok and Beitus left and formed their own groups called the Sadducees and the Beitusim. Antigonus held his ground. It wasn’t forbidden to look for reward, but it wasn’t recommended either.

In keeping with his approach to Pirkei Avos, the Bnei Yissoschar explains Antigonus with a discussion about our forefather Avraham.

Avraham Avinu was only commanded to keep seven mitzvos. One of those was the prohibition against bloodshed. G-d told Noach that he and his children were not permitted to take any life, including their own. When Avraham was commanded to either bow to an idol or jump into a fiery furnace, he should have bowed to the idol. It is only Jewish people who are commanded toi give up their lives rather than worship idols. We see this from Elisha’s ruling to Na’aman in the book of Melachim: Although Naaman hand pledged his loyalty to G-d, Elisha allowed him to bow before an idol when he was accompanying the king on his yearly pilgrimage. The seven Noahide laws don’t allow a person to risk his life in order to avoid idolatry.

Avraham lived prior to the giving of the Torah. He was bound by the Seven Noahide laws. When Avraham jumped into the furnace, he didn’t do it because he would be rewarded or because he was supposed to. He did it not knowing if he was making the right choice. Nonetheless, out of sheer love for G-d, Avraham didn’t see any option other than jumping into the furnace, even knowing full well that he might be forfeiting both this world and the next.

This was Avraham’s first test, and it was a test of his love. It was not included in the Torah because he did not act to fulfill G-d’s command. He acted out of pure emotion.

Acting solely based on love is a slippery slope and not a recommended one, but Antigonus suggested that we use the model of Avraham in our motivation to fulfill the commandments.

Antigonus told his generation to stop concentrating on reward and consequence. Instead, we should allow our motivation to be sheer love for G-d. Some couldn’t handle that and indeed later generations pointed out that Antigonus should have been more careful with his words. The human being needs to have some framework of reward and satisfaction.

Antigonus did end by reminding us of Morah Shomayim. Morah Shamayim is an awareness of G-d’s existence and His constant presence in our life.

If we can recognize G-d’s hand in our life and minor miracles that take place daily, we will be better able to love and serve G-d with enthusiasm. Human nature doesn’t produce love spontaneously, we need inspiring consequences and reminders from G-d to awaken our love and set us on the proper path.

Rav Z’eira used to sit down when he knew a scholar was coming so that he could stand up and receive reward. We can understand that he channeled his weakness into a mitzvah, but why the fixation on reward?

Perhaps this is related to the end of the verse, “Rise for the wise and you will fear G-d”. The true reward is fear of G-d and that is a worthwhile fixation. Rav Zeira understood that he would need to think about actions and even his potential reward if he was to grow in his love of G-d.  We find a similar concept in Nazir 66 where Rav encourages his son to say Amein in order to gain reward. The ultimate reward was the fear of G-d.

This too is learned from the forefathers, each of whom was meticulous about tithing. In Devarim 14:22-23 we are told that tithing leads to fear of G-d. In the book of Malachi G-d asks us to test him with tithing. He wants to show us His reward so that we can grow in our awareness of G-d and through that in our love.

Even at the pinnacle of his love for G-d, when he was willing to slaughter His son Yitzchak, G-d said “Now I know that you are a man who fears G-d”. Fear and Love must work together. No human can operate on Love alone.

Antigonus deliberately instructed his generation with a mix of love and fear. One cannot exist without the other. Fear or, more accurately, awareness of G-d’s presence, allows us to make our love of G-d relevant in this world.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on the first five Mishnayos of Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber, Shlita.

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