Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty-eight

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Rabbi Eliezer Ha-Kappar says: Envy, lust and hankering for glory put a man out of the world.

That’s Judah Goldin’s translation of today’s verse, and I chose it because I like the world hankering so much in this context. The Hebrew actually just says glory as far as I can tell, but the triple pretty clearly demands an attitude rather than an aspect.

Although, I must say, since Rabbi Eliezer Ha-Kapper doesn’t specify which man is taken out of the world, there might be some reason to go the other way. That is, envy might take out of the world the envious person, or might take out the envied person. Neither is a good position. It depends, I suppose, on how literally you want to interpret the taking-out. Feeling envy may put a man from his rightful attitude, taking him from the world he should be in and placing him in a nightmare world of endless onedownsmanship, but then feeling envy might put a man from the world because the envious man puts a shiv in his ribs. That’ll take you out of the world, it will.

As for lust, if we are willing to interpret this as the negative aspect of lust, lust separated from love or affection or even empathy, then while it is a feeling that certainly takes the person who feels it out of the world of comfort, virtue and serenity, it sometimes takes the object of the lust out of their world in a white van, and that object doesn’t always so much come back.

Digression, I suppose, although it isn’t really digressing from the text: Your Humble Blogger is uncomfortable with the purely negative interpretation of lust that turns up in homilies and sage sayings so frequently. I happen to enjoy sexual desire, I think lust can be a pretty terrific thing, and I don’t think that it usually takes me out of the world, nor does it take the objects of my desire out of the world. On the contrary, I think that lust can root a person plumb smack in the world, for a lot of good things. Furthermore (and I want to emphasize this), I think that lust that is not brought to fruition, desire that is not met, an appreciative glance at a pretty body or a teasing flirtation over years of friendship, the frustration of a married couple with kids unable to make enough time or save enough energy, or the solitary consumption of erotica and pornography—I think all those can be wonderful things that bring a person into the world, in the good sense. And I think that a lot of people hear this sort of verse as denying the positive aspects of lust, rather than singling out the negative ones—and even if it is just singling out the negative ones, that in itself tends to put more emphasis on those, as if they were the most frequent and most intense aspects. This, it seems to me, tends to decrease people’s ability to enjoy those aspects, thus putting them out of the world.

On the other hand (still within this Digression, if it is one) the negative aspects of lust, the ones that are not connected to affection and empathy, much less love, are occasionally discussed as if they had nothing to do with sexual desire at all. Rape, for instance, is of course about much more than sex, but I have heard people say it isn’t about sex at all, which seems to me to be, well, wrong. I think it’s important to emphasize the difference between positive and negative experiences of lust, but I also think it’s wrong to deny that there’s a connection between them. Much as I might want to deny it, there is such a connection. Which, to me, makes it all the more important to celebrate the positive kind—people experiencing desire of any kind need to know that there is a positive kind, and that the positive kind is better. Does this seem obvious? I hope it does, but I’m not looking forward to explaining it all to my children. End Digression.

As for glory, it is true that the desire for glory takes a person out of the world, but it is also, alas, true that the achievement of glory, wanted or not, takes a person out of the world. The path to glory is often over the bodies of other people, whether those other people also wanted glory or whether they were just in the wrong place. Or in the wrong army.

Taken as a lecture to individuals, Rabbi Eliezer Ha-Kapper is clearly saying avoid envy, avoid lust, avoid glory. And that’s fine; I think that’s a great reminder. But I think that we can take it as a criticism of a culture. There is a lot in our culture that supports and celebrates envy; there is a lot in our culture that supports and celebrates lust detached from affection; there is a lot in our culture that supports and celebrates glory. That all comes at a cost. You, as one person, can take Rabbi Eliezer’s advice and avoid those feelings in yourself (although the Sage doesn’t provide a technique for doing so while living in such a culture), but that does not make you secure and safe in your world. You can be taken out of the world by envy, by lust or by glory even while following this verse for yourself. Being good is never enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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