Pirke Avot chapter four, verse nineteen

This verse appears to be carrying on from the last bit of the last verse, which quotes Proverbs 3:5, the advice to “lean not unto thine own understanding”. At least, when I say it appears to be doing that, the traditional interpretation is that the verse is about understanding, although there are other ways to read it.

It has been a while since I have passed along a bunch of translations, so:

R. Travers Herford: R. Jannai said: There is not in our hands either the security of the wicked or the chastisements of the righteous.

Jacob Neusner: R. Yannai says, “We do not have in hand [an explanation] either for the prosperity of the wicked or for the suffering of the righteous.”

Irving Bunin: R. Yannai said: It is not within our ability [to understand or explain] the tranquil well-being of the wicked or the afflictions of the righteous.

Judah Goldin: Rabbi Yannai says: Within our reach is neither the tranquility of the wicked nor even the suffering of the righteous.

Herbert Danby: R. Yannai said: It is not in our power to explain the well-being of the wicked or the sorrows of the righteous.

Michael Rodkinson: R. Janai said: “Neither the security of the wicked nor the afflictions of the righteous are within the grasp of our understanding.”

The word in question is b’yadeinu, in our hands. There isn’t, in our hands, not the tranquility (or success or some such) of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous. If you read this as picking up from the last verse, then it makes sense to figure the missing verb has to do with understanding, and that the point of the verse is that the whole issue of theodicy is beyond our human grasp, and that we shouldn’t worry about it.

The Machsor Vitry, in fact, states that this is the received interpretation, but suggests an alternate one: we don’t experience the tranquility that the wicked do, nor do we suffer as the righteous do. That is, unlike the wicked, who give no thought to what is right, we struggle with our shortcomings. And unlike the righteous, who are tested with suffering, our sufferings come as just punishments for our misdeeds. We inhabit the middle ground, subject to the evil inclination but also to the good one, veering between the extremes as our discipline holds. So, according to this view, the advice of R. Janai is to never consider yourself wicked, and thus complaisant about your end, but do consider yourself imperfect rather than wholly righteous, and take what miseries enter into your life as being your deserts. Desserts. What you deserve.

There is another interpretation, of course—it is not in our hands to grant (or to deny) tranquility to the wicked, any more than it is to give suffering to the righteous. My place is not to judge whether the tranquil man is truly wicked, to be responsible for shattering his tranquility. Nor is it good to say that a fellow suffers because he is wicked—perhaps his sufferings are the sufferings of the righteous. The poor are neither all humble wisdom oppressed by The Man nor all lazy parasites on the hardworking successful; the rich are not all wicked tranquility, either. If you think you have a handle on all of that, you are wrong—Rabbi Jannai quite rightly reminds us that is it beyond our grasp.

Another interpretation (suggested by Mr. Herford) is that R. Jannai was talking about the nation of Israel with is first person plural; the people of Israel is not fated to have the tranquil lives of the nations; the Pax Romana is not for us. And yet, our national suffering is not the suffering of the righteous; we suffer because of our failings, not our piety.

As Gentle Readers will guess, I prefer that there be multiple interpretations, and that not only do we need to work to choose one, but that choosing one does not invalidate the others. The question is which interpretation communicates to you at this moment, building on the tradition but not confined to it. And I am wondering about the plurality of it—our hands (plural) are empty of the tranquility of the wicked (plural) and the suffering of the righteous (plural). Who are we; which hands are ours? All Jews? All people? Our community? Is it all of our hands or each of our hands? Are we each trying separately to grasp, but in vain? Is Jannai talking about empty hands as the human condition, or is he talking to his generation—is it just that at the moment we have let slip through our fingers the solace of wickedness without replacing it with the attitude toward suffering that comes from tzaddik, from righteousness, justice and charity? It it, perhaps, a warning to the community not to wash our hands of the righteous sufferer or the wicked prosperous? Is it out of our hands because of Divinely ordained nature, or is it out of our hands because we have failed the Divine opportunity?

At the moment, of course, at probably at any moment, we slew between excoriating the prosperous wicked and shoring up her success; we sympathize with the righteous sufferer and pile on his head more woe. While the ultimate accounting for good and evil, of reward and punishment is certainly beyond our grasp, it is also true that we put our hands to help or harm, and that our hands are not altogether empty. We can afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and we can afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable. And yet, for so much of the world, we each let our opportunities go, and we each look at our hands, so small and inadequate to the task, and think that there isn’t anything in them at all, nothing in them at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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