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Pirkei Avot 2:6: The End of Doubt

He [Hillel the Elder] also saw a skull floating upon the water. He said to it: “Because you drowned others, you were drowned; and those who drowned you, will themselves be drowned.

(Pirkei Avot 2:6)

This mishnah[1] is in the name of Hillel the Elder quotes Hillel the Elder. The Holy Ari says that this is an allusion to Hillel being a reincarnation of Moses. Hillel actually has other important soul roots, such as Aaron the High Priest, King David, and King Solomon. Indeed, in the tractate of Avot, we can find a number of Hillel’s teachings that can be associated with each of these important soul roots.

In the tractate’s first chapter, we find him mentioned in the following mishnah: “Hillel says, be counted among the disciples of Aaron,” a clear expression of his soul’s root in Aaron the High Priest. Later in that chapter, he is quoted, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”[2] associating him with his root in King David whose Psalms center on the rectification of the “I,” the sefirah of kingdom. Later, in the 2nd chapter, Hillel says, “The more flesh one has, the more worms [i.e., decay, he will suffer from]”[3]—which is similar to many statements found in Ecclesiastes, and thus a clear allusion to its author, King Solomon.

In his book, Notzer Chesed, the Komarna Rebbe presents a wondrous teaching on our mishnah. The skull (pronounced: gulgolet) is an allusion to the level of gulgalta (i.e., skull) in the Supernal Crown referring particularly to the highest “head” in the crown, known as the Unknowable Head (Radla). The structure of the Unknowable Head incorporates essential doubts known as the “five doubts in the crown.” In the future, however, when prophecy returns to Israel,[4] the Unknowable Head will be revealed. This is hinted at in the words, “Because you drowned others, you were drowned” (עַל דַּאֲטֵפְתְּ, אַטְפוּךְ), which can also mean, “Because you were the source of prophecy, you will give more prophecy [in the future].”[5]

When this state is reached in the future, freedom of choice will not figure prominently in the human condition because the freedom of choice is a byproduct of these essential doubts found in the Unknowable Head. As long as there are doubts or questions that cannot be satisfactorily addressed, we human beings are forced to choose between the various possibilities. When there are no doubts, however, there is no free choice and everything is clear, as it is currently before God.

When we experience the fulfillment of the prophecies, “All will know Me”[6] and “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of God,”[7] then (says the Notzer Chessed), “It will be known, that which is in this ‘head,’” referring to the Unknowable Head in the sefirah of crown. Hence, the term “the Unknowable Head” is temporary. Ultimately it will be known as “the Knowable Head.” There is a beautiful gematria hiding here: the value of “the Knowable Head” (רֵישָׁא דְּאִתְיְדַע) is 1000, the secret of the thousand lights that were given to Moses (of whom Hillel is a reincarnation) at Mt. Sinai, and then taken away after the Israelites sinned with the Golden Calf. It is also the secret of the soul of Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov (יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּעַל שֵׁם טוֹב), who began to reveal the thousand lights.

Image by Andreas Glöckner from Pixabay

[1]. For more on this mishnah, see Wonders, Issue 22, pp. 2-4 or our website https://inner.org/the-skull-floating-on-the-water-pirkei-avot-26/.

[2]. Avot 1:14.

[3]. Ibid. 2:7.

[4]. Joel 3:1.

[5]. See Ezekiel 21:2 where prophecy is denoted by a word that is cognate with the twice repeating verb in our mishnah.

[6] Jeremiah 31:33.

[7] Isaiah 11:9.

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