On Pirkei Avos

On Shabbos afternoons between Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to study a chapter from Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers). Accordingly, I present here a message from the Maggid based on a teaching in Pirkei Avos.
In Avos 2:5, Hillel advises: “Do not trust yourself until the day you die.” In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar HaYirah, chapter 7, the Maggid discusses this principle. He tells us that, along with being constantly suffused with fear of Hashem, we must also be constantly suffused with fear of the evil inclination, the enemy who seeks to destroy us. We must pour out our hearts like water before Hashem and plead with Him to save us from this cunning foe and prevent it from ensnaring us and casting us into a quagmire of negative thought and behavior patterns. At the same time, we must do everything in our power to guard ourselves against its attacks.
We all must maintain a strong fear of the evil inclination throughout every single day, for everyone is imbued with evil drives, and these drives can rise up within a person at any time. Even if a person is of high spiritual stature, wise and graced with a sterling record of good deeds, he must continue to fear the evil inclination just as much as he did at the start of his spiritual development. The evil inclination will never let up, even when a person reaches old age. It is on this account that Hillel taught that a person should not trust himself until the day of his death. Indeed, the Gemara in Berachos 29a relates that Yochanan the Kohen Gadol served as Kohen Gadol for eighty years, but in the end became a Sadducee (Tzeduki) – a member of a heretical sect that denied the Oral Torah.
Each of us must examine his inner being and make himself aware of the great intensity with which the evil inclination works to deploy its crafty schemes – of how it unrelentingly strives, from the beginning of a person’s life until its end, to unsettle him and bring him to ruin. Your heart may promise you that it will halt the evil inclination’s attacks, saying (Mishlei 16:7), “When Hashem finds favor with a person’s ways, his enemies will also reconcile with him.” Do not rely on this promise; instead, maintain constant vigilance. Indeed, as the Gemara in Berachos 61a relates, the great sage Rava took a cautious attitude, viewing himself as a person of a middling spiritual level. Fear of the evil inclination befits all classes of people: the young, the old, the virtuous, the devout, and the eminent in performing good deeds.
In fact, the greater a person is, the greater is the evil inclination’s efforts are to ensnare him. This point is reflected in a prophecy of Yoel conveying Hashem’s promise to do away with our enemies in the end of days (Yoel 2:20): “I will distance the one of the north (צפוני) from you and banish it to an arid and desolate land … for it has wrought great works of [evil].” The Gemara in Sukkah 52a explains that the term צפוני alludes to the evil inclination, which lies in hiding (צפון) within a person’s heart. And commenting on the statement “it has wrought great works of evil,” Abaye teaches that the evil inclination does greater evil against a Torah scholar than against anyone else. Similarly, the Gemara subsequently quotes an elder as saying: “The greater a man is, the greater is his evil inclination.”
Accordingly, in exhorting us to firm vigilance against the evil inclination, the Maggid offers us advice that enables us to hide from it and protect ourselves from being ambushed by it; borrowing a phrase from Yeshayah 16:3, he likens his guidance toward safety to hiding a person’s shadow at noon as if it were night. And, drawing on Mishlei 3:26, the Maggid concludes with a wish for us that Hashem will help us in securing ourselves from its attacks.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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