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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 20

This is a long one, so I’m going to use Jacob Neusner’s fancy break-it-down style of translation:

A. He would say, “(1) All is handed over as a pledge,
B.“(2)And a net is cast over all the living.
C.“(3)The store is open, (4) the shopkeeper gives credit, (5) the account book is open, and (6) the hand is writing.
D.“(1)Whoever wants to borrow may come and borrow.
E.“(2)The charity collectors go around every day and collect from man whether he knows it or not.
F.“(3)And they have grounds for what they do.
G.“(4)And the judgment is a true judgment.
H.“(5)And everything is prepared for the meal.”

What do we learn from Rabbi Akiva today? That it’s OK to mix metaphors, that’s what we learn.

The main metaphor is that the world is like a store. Ha-Meiri says that this is because of the infinite variety of its goods—“some are bitter, some are sweet; some are hot, some are cold; some are moist, some are dry; some are hard, some are soft; and the choice is left to the purchaser to buy what he wishes, either the bitter or the sweet.” The shop is open, and not only is credit available, but it is available to everyone. On the other hand, the bill does come due, and there is no escaping the collectors.

And everything is prepared for the meal. Or the feast or the banquet, depending. What is this meal? How does that follow from the shopkeeper metaphor?

In the Machsor Vitry, they extend the metaphor: a shopkeeper, with so much on the AR ledger, may keep a sparse table for every day, as he spends his money on the goods and does not get all the income. What happens, though, when the money comes due? He plans a feast. Is the Divine planning a feast, for that moment when we all pay our debt to Creation? Is there a celebration at hand— and we are holding it up by being deadbeats? It’s a thought.

Other commentators have a different interpretation. Rabbi Meshullam bar Kalonymos says that the feast is death. Why is death a feast? Because, like when the dinner bell rings and everybody goes in to the feast, each to sit at an appointed place, at the head of the table or near the foot, so too when our time comes we much depart from the world, to sit at an appointed place in the hereafter. That doesn’t work for me, but the idea seems to be accepted that the feast refers either to death or to the judgment after death. Men are destined for reward in the world to come, says Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin, unless they are driven away from the feast because they have not settled their account with the Divine in this world. Or, perhaps, the word feast is used as a kind of Schenectady for both reward and punishment, with Rabbi Akiva naturally reluctant to even name the possibility of unrighteousness.

Or, perhaps, as the Meiri says, this feast simply refers to the inevitable outcome of the shopping we have done at the store—if you have purchased meat and greens, you have meat and greens for your feast. If you have purchased nothing, you have nothing. Looking from that angle, everything is prepared for the meal seems to warn that whatever your actions have been, they have been a preparation for your meal, your deserts, if you will. It’s a warning that you may not get further preparation time, but have to eat what you already have in your pantry. You never know when it’s too late to go to the store for more.

Which brings us back, thematically, to the warning in the Machsor Vitry. The problem, my problem, is that I don’t like this eschatological End-is-Nigh stuff. And as much as I think it is helpful to keep the metaphor of the world as a shop, the Divine Creator as a provider of infinite splendor that does not demand payment up front but does keep strict accounts, as much as I do think that metaphor can be helpful in appreciating both the rich variety of life and the sometimes disconcerting gap between (perceived) benefits and burdens, I’ll just stretch it a trifle more to fit my own worldview with a very questionable translation of that last bit:


E.“(2)The collectors go around every day and collect from man whether he knows it or not.
F.“(3)And they have grounds for what they do.
G.“(4)And the judgment is a true judgment.
H.“(5)And look—free samples!”

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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