Pirke Avot, chapter four, verse twelve

This week we are looking at a fairly innocuous verse, so that’s a break. Here’s the translation by Herbert Danby:

R. Elizer b Jacob says: He that performs one precept gets for himself one advocate; but he that commits one transgression gets for himself one accuser. Repentance and good works are as a shield against retribution.

So, the question that comes immediately to YHB’s mind is what the advocate and the accuser do. I mean, there is a traditional representation that at the End of Days, when we are Judged, the Divine brings you before the Throne with an Angelic Prosecutor and an Angelic Defendant (and, presumably, an Angelic Stenographer and an Angelic Bailiff, and maybe other Angelic Officers of the Court—Oyes! Oyes! Oyes!), and presumably this verse is meant to bring to mind that final judgment, with an eye toward building up a good team of counsel on your side.

On the other hand, if the Divine is omniscient, if there is (as we are told) an Eye that sees, and Ear that hears, and all your actions in a book, then what purpose do the Prosecutor and Defendant serve? This is not a judge, this is a Judge, and all the evidence is presented to him the moment it happens. A mitzvah does not need an advocate to plead before the Divine if the Divine knows all about it already. No, I would rather think of the advocates and the accusers as being of this world, not the next.

There is a discussion of repentance in the Talmud that talks about these accusers and advocates as being angelic, but of this world: the pious man studies surrounded by invisible bodyguards, that sort of thing. They talk about the specifics of the angelic advocates and accusers as being affected by the spirit in which the person commits the act. A mitzvah performed slowly produces an advocate who moves slowly; a transgression performed with abandon produces an accuser with a loud voice. And so on. They point out that it is possible to have a whole crew of half-assed advocates defeated by a couple of kick-ass accusers, and thus we should make sure to do our good deeds with our whole attention and will, lest we produce deaf, halt, and blind advocates.

On the other hand, the sages go on to say, repentance (we are moving to the last bit of the verse now) not only makes the accusers no longer accuse, but turns them into advocates. The ba’al t’shuvah, the one who returns to the fold, is surrounded by hulking great muscular loud advocates, the transformed accusers of his sinful life. The meek man who has never sinned, but has put little effort into anything, may have a comparatively weak bench of counsel. The point, of course, not being to sin as much as possible before repenting, but ideally to have hulking great muscular loud advocates directly by doing a mitzvah in a manner that will produce them.

Now, see, YHB has gotten all distracted by the angels again. I could go on with this stuff all day, you know. Imagine the idea of the psychomachia applied to this verse, indicating that the more transgressions you do, more devils sit on your shoulder, while your good deeds produce a chorus of angels. But I didn’t want to talk about this verse as being in the realm of the supernatural anyway, invisible gremlins and guardian angels. I wanted to talk about accusations and advocates in this world.

While it is proverbial that no good deed goes unpunished, in fact a reputation for mitvot does advocate for a person. If you hear a rumor that somebody has done something bad, the good things they have done weigh in on your likelihood of believing it. No, there isn’t, empirically, a one-to-one relationship between actions and reputation, but we do carry with us, all our lives, the residue of our past actions, our advocates and accusers. My laziness and lateness, my kindness and cheerfulness, my study and my silences and my silliness, they all show up again. And if they aren’t in my actual reputation—if the employer or patron or acquaintance doesn’t actually know my history in detail—they are in my sense of my reputation, my worries about what people might know, which is more important than what they actually do know.

The Sages say that we should imagine that our past deeds, good and ill, are always at a moment of perfect balance on the Scales of Judgment, and that our next action will tip the scale to one side or the other. At that moment, performing one precept or committing one transgression carries with it the fate of the world. We always have that choice presented to us: life and death, blessing and curse. This is a powerful image, yes, and perhaps we ought to live like that, but I can’t. It’s too big, too much, too strenuous. Like the dieter who imagines that any variation from the daily regimen is a catastrophic failure, and so figures that once started on the ice cream, he may as well finish the quart. But this image of accumulated accusers and advocates may be more like it.

In fact, while not every mistake you make will be caught out and form the heavy foundation for a vile reputation, any mistake you make may be caught out, and you can’t tell which one. And while not every good deed you do will be lauded and loved, any good deed may precede you into a job interview or blind date, and you can’t tell which one. You are surrounded by your accusers and advocates, and you can’t see them—not because they are invisible angels with flaming swords, but because they are in the minds of the people around you, and the people you used to know, and their friends and acquaintances, and theirs, and theirs, to a distance where you can’t make out the details.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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