Parashas Balak and Pirkei Avos, Chapter 5

It is the custom in the summer months to study a chapter of Pirkei Avos on Shabbos afternoon. This week we study Chapter 5, and so I present one of the Maggid’s teachings on a Mishnah in this chapter. This teaching appears in Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaDaas, Chapter 2. The teaching ties in with another Mishnah in Chapter 5 of Avos that contrasts the righteous Avraham with the wicked Bilaam, about whom we read in this week’s parashah.
The Mishnah states (Avos 5:20): “Yehudah ben Teima says, ‘Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.’” It is a deer’s nature, as it runs, to look back from time to time to see if it is being chased. Similarly, the Maggid says, as a person goes through life it is advisable to look back regularly to check whether the evil inclination is chasing after him to bring him down.
In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech says (Koheles 2:13): “I saw that the advantage of wisdom over foolishness is like the advantage of light over darkness. A wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness.” Just as a person is able to see only when there is light, so, too, it is only through wisdom that a person can judge his ways. And “a wise man’s eyes are in his head” – that is, the wise man reflects on why his eyes are in his head rather than in some other part of his body, and he recognizes that Hashem, in His wisdom, deliberately created him this way, so that, as he proceeds along, he can turn his head around and look back to see if he is being chased. And then the wise man realizes that, similarly, he must be constantly on guard against the wiles of the evil inclination. The fool, by contrast, walks in darkness – even the hazards that are right in front of him he is unable to see.
Let us now bring out another facet of Shlomo’s statement that “a wise man’s eyes are in his head.” We start with an analogy. Consider a merchant who is traveling for business, with his son tagging along just for the enjoyment of travel. The merchant gains satisfaction from noting how far he has traveled, for this represents his progress toward his destination. The son, on the other hand, gains satisfaction from noting how much further there is to go, for this represents how much further opportunity he has to experience the enjoyment of travel. Similarly, a righteous man gains satisfaction from noting how long he has lived so far and reflecting on how much Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds he has amassed during this time. [In Ohel Yaakov, parashas Emor, in an essay we presented previously, the Maggid uses this idea to explain why the counting of the omer is conducted by counting up and not by counting down.] And he is apprehensive about the time he has left in this world, for he recognizes that he cannot know what the future will bring (see Koheles 8:7) and he is aware of the Sages’ teaching that a person should not believe in himself until the day of his death (Avos 2:5). It is different with the fool who spends his time indulging in temporary worldly enjoyments. For him, the time he has lived up to the present is no longer of any value to him, for the enjoyments he indulged in during this period have passed and are no more. He gains no further satisfaction from them. He gains satisfaction only from noting how much time he has left to indulge in further enjoyments. As Yeshayah puts it (verses 56:11-12): “And the dogs are greedy; they do not know satiety. These are the shepherds who cannot understand; they have all gone off on their own way, each to his own corner, for his own gain. ‘Come, I will fetch wine, and we will guzzle liquor, and tomorrow will also be like this, and even much greater.’” In this vein, the Mishnah in Avos 5:22 describes Bilaam as having an “expansive drive,” meaning that he had a voracious, insatiable desire for physical pleasure.
The contrast described above is reflected in Shlomo’s statement that “a wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness.” The wise man realizes that Hashem put his eyes in his head so that he could turn back and take a look at his past life, to see whether it provides him satisfaction. He thus learns to use his time productively. But regarding the foolish and wicked, Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 12:7, homiletically): “The wicked turn back and are no more.” When the wicked man turns back to take a look at his past, he finds nothing left of it. Accordingly, he is led to focus all his attention on the future. But since he cannot know what the future will bring, he is like a man walking in the dark.

David Zucker, Site Administrator

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