Pirke Avot chapter four, verse thirteen

Another tricky one this week. Here is Judah Goldin’s translation:

Rabbi Johanan Ha-Sandelar says: Every assembly which is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure; but one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure in the end.

The reason this is tricky is that pretty much every significant concept in the verse is ill-defined and vague. What, exactly, constitutes an assembly? What does it mean for an assembly to be for the sake of Heaven? What is Heaven? What does it mean for an assembly to endure? To endure in the end?

This is where I come down on that: Nothing endures in the end. After the Roman Senate endured for a thousand years, it probably looked good to adapt and endure for another thousand. But it didn’t. The Zhou dynasty probably looked good after five hundred years, but that didn’t endure, either. The Egyptian New Kingdom looked back on time uncountable and forward to time even more uncountable; Ozymandius, King of Kings, lies in lone and level sands. Will there be someday a wilderness where London once stood? For how much?

So. Start with that: Nothing will in the end endure. Can we say, then, that there is no assembly that is for the sake of Heaven? We don’t want to reach that conclusion, do we? And yet—what assembly can we name with confidence that exists for the sake of Heaven? As an assembly, mind you. And as we aren’t counting a mere millennium or two on the one side, I don’t think we can count anything less than full and unanimous purity of purpose on the other. Were the sages assembled for the sake of Heaven? All of them? Was there no pride, no worldly purpose? Because the sages warn a lot about the perils of seeking money or fame or respect through scholarship, and I expect that was through experience. No, the stories of bickering and one-upsmanship in the house of the sages are too numerous and frankly too interesting to ignore in order to claim that the assembly maintained its purpose for the sake of Heaven continuously and in consensus.

So. When Rabbi Johanan Ha-Sandelar says that all assemblies which are not for the sake of Heaven do not endure in the end, what has he told us? There are no such assemblies and nothing endures. When he says that all assemblies which are for the sake of Heaven do endure, what has he told us? Not to give up hope.

When you enter into any project with anyone—a business, a marriage, a charitable foundation, a political party, a timeshare, a blog, a college course, a theatrical production, a cruise, a massively multi-player on-line role-playing game, a condominium, a date, a mural, a sex act, a city budget, a board game, a three-county killing spree, a reality show, a shul, a trial, a race, a madrigal, a hug, a nation—you can do it (or in the end choose not to do it) for the sake of Heaven, so that the project will endure. It won’t, of course, not in the end, and you can’t guarantee that the assembly will maintain its purpose, but there is a great deal in the choosing, not the chosen. If you enter into it for the sake of Heaven, if you seek out others to assemble with for the sake of Heaven, if you seek out projects for the sake of Heaven, then, even when they don’t really endure, they have achieved a great deal. Even if it’s just meeting for lunch.

Of course, the real difficulty (note: all the other difficulties are also real) is in knowing what it means for something to be for the sake of Heaven. But here, again, the value is in trying to know, rather than in knowing, yes?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

4 thoughts on “Pirke Avot chapter four, verse thirteen

  1. Michael

    what assembly can we name with confidence that exists for the sake of Heaven?

    The group of college students who gathered during finals to learn shiva call etiquette, so that they could go to be with a Hillel administrator after his father died. They went to his house and sat silently, waiting for him to speak first, because they wanted to be a comfort and that was what they were told was right. That assembly existed for the sake of Heaven, and that assembly will in the end endure.

    I think the verse is difficult, until it isn’t.

  2. Vardibidian

    I have to admit, Michael, that I’m not sure how you are using endure here.

    On the other hand, perhaps I’m just asking for trouble, here—such an assembly is a Good Thing, certainly, and so what if we are using endure simply to mean that it has some lasting effect on its participants. I want these verses to stand up under rigorous scrutiny, and as you point out, it is creating difficulty where there doesn’t have to be any.


  3. Jacob

    It seems to me that you’re reading “endure in the end” to mean “endure from now until forever”, which doesn’t sound right to me. I don’t know the original Hebrew, but… if I said that I’ll be recognized for my brilliance “in the end”, it implies that there’s a (possibly very long) period of my not being recognized before I ultimately am recognized. So I can’t help but wonder if saying a gathering will endure in the end is perhaps a way of saying that, though the gathering will inevitably end in this world, it is so worthy a gathering that it will be reconstituted in the world to come, or when Moshiach comes, or some such. I don’t know a lot about Jewish eschatology, though.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      Well, and there is much in the tradition that takes ‘in the end’ to mean ‘in the endtime’, much as you suggest. To me, it seems like cheating: if we can’t provide evidence for a claim, we shift the claim to the evidence-free afterlife. And yet, of course, the rabbis could legitimately make unverifiable claims about the afterlife in order to encourage proper behavior in this world, where it counts. That’s fair, too.



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