“Akavia ben (son of) Mehalalel said, consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you have come, to where you are heading, and before Whom you will give justification and accounting. From where have you come: from a putrid drop (of semen); to where are you heading: to a place of dirt, worms and maggots; and before Whom will you give justification and accounting: before the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He.”
Whenever I read this Mishna I remember a conversation with my father zt”l about a morning prayer that often left me depressed:
“At all times let a man fear God as well in private as in public, acknowledge the truth, and speak the truth in his heart; and let him rise early and say:
Sovereign of all worlds! Not because of our righteous acts do we lay our supplications before You, but because of Your abundant mercies. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness?
What is our helpfulness? What is our strength? What is our might?
What shall we say before thee, O Lord our God and God of our fathers? Are not all the mighty men as nothing before You, the men of renown as though they had not been, the wise as if without knowledge, and the men of understanding as if without discernment?
For most of their works are void, and the days of their lives are vanity before thee, and the pre-eminence of man over the beast is nothing, for all is vanity.”
I told my father that the prayer depressed me. “Obviously,” he said, “you are not reading the entire text! What is the next sentence?”
“Nevertheless, we are Your people, the children of Your covenant, the children of Abraham, Your beloved, to whom You swore on Mount Moriah; the seed of Isaac, his only son, who was bound upon the altar, the congregation of Jacob, Your first born son, whose name You called Israel and Yeshurun by reason of the love with which You love him, and the joy with which You rejoice in him.”
“Why are you focusing on the negative and not the positive? There is a “Nevertheless! Focus on that and you will not be depressed.”
The Mishna above begins in a similar way: “From where have you come: from a putrid drop.” It continues: “to where are you heading: to a place of dirt, worms and maggots.” As if I didn’t have enough problems in my life!
It’s the third question and answer that transforms the first two: “and before Whom will you give justification and accounting: before the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He.”
We may derive from a putrid drop, and we may end up in a place of dirt, yet we still have the capacity to live a life that will end with facing God and give an accounting!
The first two questions are not meant to portray us as insignificant, but as unlimited despite our physical beginning and end. This Mishna is a celebration of the possibilities of life, not its limitations. We rejoice in the fact that despite our humble beginnings and seemingly horrible physical end, we can transform our lives into one that has ultimate meaning.
It is the celebration of possibility that protects us from sin. It is not the putrid beginning or dusty end that steers us away from sin. In fact, they may actually lead to sin because we can begin to believe that nothing matters. It is the “Nevertheless” that protects us, energizes us, and directs us forward.
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