Pirkei Avot

Rectifying the “You”: Pirkei Avot 3:1

Akavya the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know where you came from, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came—from a putrid drop; where you are going—to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting—before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy blessed, One.

 Rabbi Moshe of Kubrin explained this mishnah in a novel way. Instead of addressing the person reading the mishnah, he explained that the pronoun “you” is actually referring to God. Thus, the mishnah is asking, how is it possible for a human being to address God in the second person, “You?” something that we do every day, multiple times, when we pray the Amidah prayer and when we say blessings. Let us reread the misihnah following Reb Moshe of Kubrin’s interpretation:

To turn to God with the second person pronoun, “You,” without it being considered a sin, you must look and reflect upon these three things. First, know where you came from—what is it that gives you the stature needed to address God in the second person, “You?” Second, know where you are going—you need to understand where this “You” that your mouth is saying will end up. Third, know before [you say] “You” you must give a judgment and an accounting—meaning, you have to reflect and ask yourself, how it is possible to address God as “You” without having experienced love and fear of God.

These are all very good questions that need to be addressed by every person who has a personal relationship with God. The intimate familiarity we have with God as our personal God (and not just as the Creator of all) requires us to dedicate time to properly appreciating this special privilege we have been given.

The three types of consciousness

To encapsulate a lot of the discussion that would commence following these three questions, we can use the model of three types of consciousness found in Torah in general and Chassidic thought, in particular. These have been discussed in length in two books in Hebrew titled, “Natural Consciousness” and “The Jewish Nature.” The three types of consciousness are known as Divine Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, and Natural Consciousness. Man’s first state was one of Divine Consciousness. Adam and Eve were conscious only of their Divinely ordained place in creation and of their special mission, to cultivate and guard creation. Upon eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they fell into a state of self-consciousness, where self-interest and self-centeredness make it almost impossible to see God or for that matter, even other people. To an extent, the entire battle between our good and evil inclinations is rephrased in Chassidic thought as a battle of where our consciousness will be directed—to the Divine or to ourselves. However, there is a third option, which can combine the two states of consciousness. It is a somewhat ideal state that is called natural consciousness. This state of being was elaborated upon especially by Rabbi Issac of Homil, one of the Alter Rebbe’s most important disciples and a candidate for being a rebbe himself. The state of natural consciousness was perhaps best exemplified by the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who combined introspective self-knowledge with an unwavering commitment to God and Godliness every moment of their lives.

In practice, throughout the day, we transition between the different types of consciousness. Since any awareness of the “other,” in this case God, and addressing Him in the second person (You) is an act of consciousness, it follows that the three questions posed by this mishnah based on Reb Moshe of Kubrin’s reading, can be answered by refining the stance of each mode of consciousness. In short, self-consciousness needs to be diminished, Divine consciousness needs to be strengthened, and natural consciousness needs to be purified. Let us see this in more detail.

When we contemplate what has given us the right to address God as “You,” and we realize that it is not by our own merit, but by the merit of our forefathers, it evokes lowliness and immense submission in the soul, which is the rectification of self-consciousness. On this backdrop of understanding how lowly we really are, we can begin to turn to God as “You.” Contemplating where our words, where the address “You” is aimed at, at the Creator who is in and around everything, we are able to strengthen our Divine consciousness by ascending to lofty heights. Contemplating the need for both love and awe of God is what rectifies our natural consciousness. This fear and awe of God is rooted in the fact that the soul is a “literal part of God.”

Natural consciousness is the goal of this three-stage process. The name of this mishnah’s author, Akavya the son of Mahalalel, also alludes to natural consciousness. Akavya derives from the word “heel” (akev), reminding us of the verse, “On the heels of humility comes fear of Heaven” (Proverbs 22:4). His father’s name, Mahalelel literally means “one who praises God.” Thus, his name demonstrates the principle that everything begins with a consciousness of humility and lowliness, which in the mishnah is related to the question of, “where you came from.” Mehalalel refers to the ultimate goal of prayer, to constantly praise God. The word used here for “praise” is cognate to the one used in the very last verse of Psalms, “My entire soul will praise You God…,” which the sages interpret as, “with every breath (neshimah, cognate to neshamah, soul) that we breathe we praise God.”[1] This is the essence of natural consciousness—when our nature, our very breath, is constantly praising God.

God  Conscious of man

The three elements in our mishnah remind us of the words of Rebbi in chapter 2 of Pirkei Avot,

Contemplate three things and you will not sin: know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.

In contrast to our mishnah by Akavya that is written from the perspective of man addressing God, Rebbi’s words are written from the perspective of God addressing man. In other words, Rebbi’s three objects of contemplation—a seeing eye, a listening ear, and a book in which all your deeds are being inscribed—are the elements of Divine Providence, of God’s consciousness of man.

From God’s perspective, the first thing to know is that you are present before God. You matter. We learn this from the way the Ba’al Shem Tov interpreted these words: Know – that what is above is – from you. Meaning that your actions have meaning, your decisions are important, and they are constantly influencing all that is decreed in heaven. Specifically, “a seeing eye” means that God sees how your contemplation of “know from where you came,” and thus He sees the lowliness that this contemplation evokes. “A listening ear” means that God hears your inner intent when you turn to Him and when you contemplate the question of “where you are going,” as above. Finally, “all your deeds are being inscribed in a book” corresponds to the importance lent to the natural consciousness you refine as a result of contemplating “before Whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting” about your love and awe of God.

[1] Bereisheet Rabbah 14:9

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