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Pirkei Avot: 3:1: Rav Yehoshua Heller Print E-mail

Pirkei AvosThe 23rd of Sivan is the Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yehoshua Heller of Telshe, Lithuania, the author of numerous books, including Divrei Yehoshua. He died on June 2, 1880. One who studies Rav Heller’s writings immediately appreciates how he sees all of Torah as a unity; each area relating to all others, combining in a coherent message of how to strive for Dveikut, attachment to God. His vision is consistent in all he teaches. I offer his introduction to Chossen Yehoshua as my introduction to his Ohel Yehoshua, commentary to Pirkei Avot:


Introduction to Chossen Yehoshua:

The wisdom of healing can be divided into two areas of knowledge: 1) The knowledge and recognition of the illness and its causes. 2) Knowledge of the best way to heal the illness. The second area is simpler than the first because one can learn the rules of medicines and healing from a teacher in a classroom. However, one must develop the first area in order to appreciate the degree of the illness and how it affects the whole body. The person who is ill knows the illness from the inside and looks only for the healing. The doctor must learn to recognize the illness from the perspective of the patient.

We find the same process with those who write books on Mussar and Fear of God. Most are spiritually healthy, distant from the symptoms of spiritual illness and its challenges. They can understand the illness only in its theoretical form. However, they are stirred by the Spirit of God to lay out approaches to healing the illnesses they cannot experience as do the ill.

This is not true of the author of this book, who is too familiar with spiritual illness, how it blocks Torah study and experiencing full passion in one’s service of God. It is with great shame and humiliation that the author speaks of these familiar illnesses, but with hope that perhaps my words can help others and me by virtue of the merit of bringing good to the many.

Ohel Yehoshua: Pirkei Avot 3:1:

Akaviah ben Mehalalel said: Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know whence you came, whither you go, and before Whom you will give justification and reckoning. “Whence you came?” From a putrid drop; “whither you go,” to a place of dust, worms and maggots; “and before Whom you will give justification and reckoning,” before the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He.

In the opening Mishna of the previous chapter, Rebbi (Rabbi Yehudah the Prince) used similar words: “Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you; a watchful eye, an attentive Ear and all your deeds are recorded in a Book.” Why do these two great teachers use different approaches to deal with the same question?

The Yetzer haRah, the Evil Inclination uses two major strategies, one for the person who is not controlled by his destructive desires, whose attributes are not corrupt, and yet sins because his Fear of God is weak and was unable to control a desire. The second strategy is for the person who is strong in his Fear of God and yet is so seized by a powerful desire that he falls into sin.

The first person must focus on strengthening his fear of God, and His punishments for violating His instructions. The latter must focus on recognize the emptiness of fleeting physical pleasures.

Just as we find these two issues in individuals, we find them in Israel as a whole. When we live in Israel in peace and security, and when we wander through the world as strangers, dependent on the other nations. We have to use a different strategy for each situation.

When we lived in Israel with the Beit HaMikdash, going up to Jerusalem three times each year, witnessing the Glory of God hovering over His Home, ten miracles that regularly occurred in the Beit HaMikdash, the devotion of the Kohanim to their service, the might of the Leviim in their songs, the holiness of the prophets, we lived with a great sense of Awe, awareness of the Presence of God that dwelled among us. We saw the greatness of the Sanhedrin, a magnificent King with his army, and throughout the year, the Sanhedrin sent judges and policemen through the land to teach and guide us. We lived as the individual who has a great sense of awe. Unfortunately, our comfort and success led us astray and we sinned.

We, who live in exile, have maintained our connection to God and His Torah, we maintain our character, and yet, lacking in awareness of God, cannot always control our desires.

Akaviah ben Mehalalel lived during the time of the Beit HaMikdash and taught people who were strong in their awe of God. He emphasized the emptiness of the fleeting physical pleasures of this world. Rebbi lived after the destruction, and therefore focused on strengthening our fear of God.

The leaders of a generation must be sensitive to the illness underlying the spiritual symptoms of his time and must address his generation with strategies that are appropriate to the spiritual struggles of his students.

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