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The Object

The Object

Ethics 3:1


First, there was only G‑d.

Then, at a finite time-point within His timeless infinity, G‑d created man.

For thousands of years, there was only G‑d and man. Man lived in "a world," but that was just scenery, a backdrop painted with matter — patches of withheld light — against which the G‑d / man saga played. Man was evil and righteous; he turned away from G‑d, searched for G‑d, found G‑d, discovered goodness and truth, attained spirituality and holiness. The physical world played no significant part in this saga — it was just there to provide the context.

Then, one bright and stormy Shabbat morning, the world became real.

On the 6th of Sivan of the year the year 2,448 from creation, G‑d descended upon Mount Sinai and instituted the "mitzvah," the divine commandment. An act that unites three elements — commanded by G‑d, enacted by man, utilizing a physical object.

After Sinai, the physical world is a partner in the G‑d / man saga: the leather that becomes a pair of tefillin, the wool that becomes the strings for tzitzit, the ink that becomes the letters in a Torah scroll, the wheat that becomes the matzah eaten on Passover eve, the copper that becomes the coin given to charity. These objects become "holy," which means that they become connected to G‑d, which means that they become something real.

The Tzaddik's Sin

In the third chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, the mishnaic sage Akavia ben Mahalalel teaches:

Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment 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 judgment and accounting — before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

The Mishnah is known for its concise wording — every extra word or phrase is interpreted by the Talmud to enfold many layers of meaning and instruction. On the face of it, the above-quoted Mishnah is just using lengthy, repetitious wording to convey a single idea. Upon closer examination, however, the Mishnah includes three sentences, which can be interpreted as three separate messages:

1) "Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression."

2) "Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting."

3) "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 judgment and accounting — before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Akavia ben Mahalalel is in fact speaking to three different types of people: the materialist, the spiritualist, and the tzaddik.

The third and last part of our Mishnah is addressed to the materialist, who sees nothing higher — indeed nothing other — than the body and its needs, wants and desires. It's all but useless to speak to the materialist about his soul. So we talk to him about his body — about the fact that it's nothing more than a bag of flesh with a slimy beginning and a maggoty end, and that there's a higher authority before which it will one day be taken to task for all it did during its earthly life.

The second and middle part of the Mishnah is addressed to the spiritual person. To him, we need not speak of the lowliness of the body; instead, we extol the virtues of the soul: "Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting." We speak of the soul's life origins as "a very part of G‑d above," of the "World to Come" to which it is propelled by the good deeds of a virtuous life, and of the day it will merit to give "a judgment and accounting" before the Source from which it came and to which it shall return.

And then there is the tzaddik, the perfectly righteous individual. To the tzaddik we don't speak of the lowliness of the body, for the tzaddik's body is refined and rarified, as holy, perhaps even holier, than his soul. Nor do we speak to the tzaddik about his soul — the tzaddik doesn't care about his soul. He's not interested in spiritual development. He's not interested in the World to Come. All he desires is to lose himself within the all-embracing reality of G‑d, like a tiny candle-flame absorbed and nullified within a great fire.

Still, the tzaddik, too, can "come to the hands of transgression." The tzaddik, too, can sin — not in forgetting about G‑d, but in forgetting about the world. The tzaddik may backslide to the pre-Sinai reality, when there were only two things — only G‑d and man, and their quest for each other.

So the tzaddik is admonished: "Reflect upon three things." Remember that Shabbat morning at Sinai when G‑d descended upon the mountain and decreed that the world shall henceforth be made real. Remember the day on which G‑d decreed that your purpose in life is not to lose yourself within Him, but to bring Him into the world and uplift the world to Him.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous Israel May 4, 2014

thanks What a beautiful article, with such a lofty though, expressed in such crystal-clear terms. Reply

Boruch Ben Labe Sumner, WA/USA via June 16, 2012

The Object...this is enlightening Thank you for this in an area where Jews are not abundant to learn and discuss this teaching and a desire to get a better relationship with G-d and purpose in life this is a vital part of the Torah - even though I do believe that more of Torah is necessary- the reading - study and understanding through the Rebbe's. Today I am grateful that I am reading this portion. I struggle with living in an area where non-Jewish gets in the way with the Jewish part of life...or should I say I struggle most often putting the Sabbath before work because of my wife's unrealsitic demands. Reply

Chava G. Boston, MA June 24, 2011

Wow, beautiful.
Right to the point and very clear.

Every single time the Rebbe completely transforms one's views in an incredible way. Now it's so relatable to our lives. Of course the Torah has to relate to every person, but we don't always see it so clearly. Thank Gd for giving us the Rebbe to give us such clarity!

I will definitely iyH share this beautiful vort by our women's shabbos shiur.

Thanks so much! Reply

Yacov May 15, 2011

Absolute We forget the wisdom which has gone before and need reminding of it.

We think that life sometime owes us, however we owe it to life to lift G-d.

What a fantastic reminder of where we should be in our life long journey, that is at the point of "Lifting G-d. Reply

Daniel Los Angeles May 10, 2011

Why the divide between pre-/post-Sinai? One positive commandment was given to Adam/Noah: to establish courts of justice. I wonder if that obligation entails any physical acts. If so, all humanity has a role to play in redeeming the physical world, and the Tzaddik's "sin" should not be compared to the pre-Sinai (i.e., gentilic) world. Rather, it would be comparable to a world where G-d only related to man through prohibitions, where no physical act could be a fulfillment of divine will. It would, in essence, be saying that G-d has no positive role for man to play. Reply

john smith fort lauderdale, fl May 8, 2011

???? this is what i have NEVER understood. i understand the materialist and i understand the spiritualist but the tzaddik? maybe i am wrong but according to Torah there has only been one in history and he led the jews out of exhile.
to me the tzaddik although honorable for trying cant come close to this but only to mimic short bursts of spirit only falling to the inner depths of the soul he was born with and G-d created within him. it only goes so far and maybe as close as any have ever purposely tried to emulate but can only go as far as what they were born with.
i realize although many earthly distractions that the earth has not changed AT ALL since the beginning but through decendants and a family tree my thoughts and my inner being has. it is my job to get back to the days of eternal salvation and to retrain myself, if you will, as if were me escaping exile which these days seems a not so easy task. there is no place left to escape to other than Israel, but i am not jewish, lucky me! Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.