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Pirke Avot chapter two, verse one: Three (more) things

Rabbi, being a Prince, gets an extra leg to his triple, and turns it into another triple in itself.

Rabbi (Jehudah the Prince) was in the habit of saying: “In choosing the right path, see that it is one which is honorable to thyself and without offence to others. Be as scrupulous about the lightest command as about the weightiest, for no man knoweth the result of his actions. Weigh the present temporal disadvantages of a dutiful course against the reward of the future, and the present desirable fruits of a sinful deed against the injury to thine immortal soul. In general, consider three things and thou wilt never fall into sin: remember that there is above thee an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and a record of all thine actions.

The three things here are shloshah d’vorim another three things on which the world stands. Although here it’s not the world standing, it’s just three legs for you to think about. What are those three holding up? Is it the whole world, again? I find that plausible; without keeping those three things in mind, the world will fall. Or you will destroy the world, if you don’t keep those three things in mind. Or it could just be yourself; the three legs are barriers against the path to sin. I like the echo, anyway.

An Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all your actions in a Book. There’s a certain amount of rabbinic discussion about the metaphor there, too. Of course there is not an actual Ear that hears everything; the Divine doesn’t have a Divine Ear with Divine Earwax, or for that matter an Immaculate Ear. But the rabbis caution against concluding that as the Divine Ear is only metaphorical that there is only metaphoric hearing, that one should act as if there is a Divine Ear. No, the Divine does hear everything, although the mechanism used is presumably Divinely unlike a natural or man-made system. On the other hand, the rabbis want to avoid a pantheist immanence, where the Divine is everything and everything is Divine, and you are part of the Ear that Hears you. That interpretation is awfully tempting, though, isn’t it? As part of the Ear, you know that the Ear will hear whatever you say, because no matter where you go, there you are. So never imagine yourself unexamined; you examine yourself, and thoroughly, too. Except that empirically, there are lots of things you do or say that you don’t remember, later. It’s true that keeping in mind that you are part of the Ear that Hears makes it more likely that you will actually Hear, though, so there is something to that.

Because it seems to me that Rabbi is not only saying that there is an Eye, an Ear and a Book, but saying that if you believe that they exist, or if you behave as if there is an Eye, and Ear and a Book, then you will never fall into sin. Or perhaps you will not go under the power of sin; I think the idiomatic English obscures the verb, which if I am correct is come, in the sense of travel.

Digression: I think most of us who were taught Hebrew as children in religious schools learned to make a sentence with just the first two letters of the alphabet, aleph and bet, and only one vowel as well. The sentence is abba ba. Abba is the familiar form of father, something like papa or daddy. And ba is comes, present tense indicating motion towards. Abba ba, the first sentence in my primer, with a picture of a house and a man walking toward it, with a briefcase in his hand, and probably a fedora or some similar hat indicating 50s suburbia. When I was in college, a certain Professor had her first child, and on the day this Prof returned to teach class, she found her seminar had decorated the room with inflated condoms with abba ba written on them. End Digression.

I like the idea of come under the power of sin, rather than fall into its clutches, as not only does it connote deliberate action under one’s own power, but it puts the speaker as already under the power of sin, telling the listener to come no further. Rather than go, indicating motion away, where the listener would be, so to speak, in between the speaker and the sin.

This version has a little humility, and in fact that’s why I (with the rabbis) prefer to eschew the pantheist interpretation. I think the thread running through this verse is of the danger of relying on your own judgment, and of the aid that outside judgment can provide, whether it is the praise of the community, an artificial and deliberate flattening of mitzvot, an eye to the long term and its uncertainties, or the belief in an Eye, an Ear and a Book.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


By the way, even when I don't comment I do read these commentaries. It's as good as a sermon. :)

I have to admit, when I picture the all-seeing eye and all-hearing ear, the rest of the verse does follow. Would you really want to have to explain to that all-sensing being why you picked this command but not that to follow, and to face up to them about it? That also leads to God as the "little dad who lives in the back of your head" idea, and eventually to Jiminy Cricket, but hey, every metaphor is open to abuse...

I have to say that one of the nice things about this Tohu Bohu is that a Gentle Reader can say It's as good as a sermon and mean it as a compliment, and I take it as a compliment. Even with the smiley face.


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