Pirkei Avot: Know What is Above You

Pirkei Avot 2:1

Know what is Above You

Rebi would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? The path that adds beauty (honor) to the one who adopts it and that accrues him beauty (honor) from others…. Contemplate three things, and you will not sin: Know what is above you—a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds are being inscribed in a book.

 

The first mishnah of every chapter in Pirkei Avot is connected to the chapter’s ordinal number. The first chapter opens with the “one” and singular source of the Torah, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai.” In more detail, Both Moses and Joshua are individuals in this list of the Torah’s transmission. Indeed, in Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah, we find that the number one has two designations. Moses here is “the uncountable one” as he is completely nullified to God, who is the truly uncountable and unfathomable, representing the one that is singular and unique. Moses then transmitted the Torah to Joshua who represents the countable number one, the number one that we are all familiar with.

The second chapter opens with the need to see things from two perspectives. The path you adopt needs to be honorable in your own eyes, but also from the perspective of those around you. The third chapter opens with “Akavya Ben Mahalalel said, look at three things.” The fourth chapter begins with the foursome: “Who is wise, who is mighty, who is wealthy, who is honorable.” The fifth chapter opens with “With ten utterances,” where 10 is of course 2 times 5. The sixth chapter begins with “The sages expounded in the language of the Mishnah,” alluding to the six Orders of Mishnah.

The inception of each of the first three chapters of Pirkei Avot quickly arrives at a list of “three things.” The entire tractate has a complete construct of “three things” that parallels the sefirot (and is discussed elsewhere). The threesome Rebbi addresses in his statement, “Contemplate three things,” corresponds to the sefirah of da’at (knowledge), as is highlighted in the words “Know what is above you. In da’at itself there is an inter-inclusion of the three powers of the intellect: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. “An eye that sees” represents wisdom; “an ear that hears” represents understanding (wisdom and understanding corresponds to sight and hearing, respectively), “and all your deeds are being inscribed in a book” represents knowledge. The book is “The Book of Remembrance.” Memory is an attribute of knowledge.

Chassidut explains that[1] “Know what is above you” means that you should be aware that all that is that happens and that is decreed Above, in the supernal worlds, is all from you—i.e., it is a consequence of your actions here in this world. This is also learnt[2] from the verse, “God is your shadow,”[3] which uses the image of a shadow to explain that like your shadow that follows you, God to follows your movements. Thus, Rebbi’s statement “Know what is above you,” is a general principle—Divine Providence. Rebbi then follows with details—a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a writing hand.”

The expression “Know what” is found twice in Pirkei Avot; in fact, these are the only two instances in the entire six Orders of Mishnah. Both are in our chapter. The second appearance is in the mishnah, “Know what to answer the heretic.” These two statements are inherently connected. By knowing “What is above” you can answer and reprove the heretic. How so?

Everything that is Above is from you (as in the explanation of Chassidut above). Thus, if you find that your faith is riddled with doubt, that it is faltering, and you do not know what to answer the “heretic” inside yourself, you should know that this itself is the result of your actions: You have created a void above, as it were, because of your own lack of faith! It is comfortable for a person who wants to live with no yoke of Heaven to be an heretic—to doubt. This is one of the meanings of the verse, “A fool has no delight in comprehension (תְּבוּנָה), he only wants his heart revealed.” Because all that he is interested in is the revelation of his own heart, he distances the revelation of God from upon himself. Indeed, the value of “heretic” (אֶפִּיקוֹרוֹס) is exactly the same as “comprehension” (תְּבוּנָה), it is either one or the other. We are meant to choose![4]

 

Notes:

[1] Tzava’at Haribash, Or Torah 480, Keter Shem Tov 145, Ba’al Shem Tov on the Torah, Noach 137 (and in Makor Maim Chaim there).

[2] Keter Shem Tov, footnotes 78, Torat Hamaggid Psalms.

[3]. Psalms 121:5.

[4] See Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class from 28 Tishrei 5771 footnote 2.

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