Rabbi Chaninah, deputy to the kohanim, would say: Pray for the integrity of the sovereignty, for were it not for the fear of its authority a man would swallow his neighbor alive. Rabbi Chaninah son of Tradyon would say: ... Two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them...

Ethics of the Fathers, 3:2


The basic meaning of (the first) Rabbi Chaninah's words is that for a society to be civilized its members must submit to the rule of government and law. The need for "fear of authority" may seem an insult to our sophistication and intelligence, but the fact remains that without it there would be nothing to check the worst in man, and the anarchic rule of the jungle would prevail.

There is, however, a deeper meaning implicit in the words and idioms of our mishnah as well. Alive and Well, But Swallowed

Our world, and all creatures and phenomena that inhabit it, is an expression of the all-embracing reality of its Creator. By examining the workings of the human being, his society, and the natural order, we behold a mirror in which is glimpsed ever more spiritual dimensions of existence, and, ultimately, the face of the Supreme Author of reality.

The same is true of the concepts of "government" and "sovereignty." In the words of our sages, "Kingship on earth is a prototype of the Heavenly Kingship." The principles and guidelines that typify human governments and authority structures reflect the nature of the Divine Sovereignty (malchut) of G‑d.

The ego of man is cannibalistic in essence. At worst, it destroys everyone and everything in its path in order to attain its selfish goals. At best, as in the case of a civilized, refined and tolerant individual, it acknowledges its status as one among many, avows its support of the "human rights" of its fellows and concedes the legitimacy of pursuits other than its own. But even the most liberal-minded of men cannot escape the trappings of the ego: he will always see his fellow through the prism of self. His (seemingly) objective mind will point out that he shares the planet with billions of others, that there exist countless perspectives and callings in addition to his own. Deep down, however, the self will remain the gravitational center of reality, its ultimate point of reference. He will see others as necessary, perhaps crucial, but always secondary cogs to the kingpin of self.

This is the deeper significance of Rabbi Chaninah's words. The expression, "a man would swallow his neighbor alive," is meant in the literal sense: his neighbor remains intact and alive, but is swallowed up within his own being. He grants the validity of the other's life and work, but sees his own as the all-inclusive, primary definition of reality.

Praying For Sovereignty

So anyone who views the universe as an ownerless, arbitrary existence will never transcend the moral and intellectual cannibalism of the ego. For without a supreme authority that creates, defines and gives direction to all of creation, the self and its perceptions are the sole judge of right and wrong; inevitably, one's vision of others will be tinted with the color of self.

It is only through the fear of G‑d, only through the acceptance of the sovereignty of the King Of All Kings, that man can grow beyond the prejudice and anarchy of the ego. It is only by sensing an Absolute Truth before which all are equally insignificant, but which grants significance to the countless individual roles that fulfill the Divine purpose in creation, that an individual can genuinely see his fellow as his equal.

And because the naturally self-centered consciousness of man is, by definition, incapable of truly seeing beyond itself, this truth it is not something that one can understand and feel with the contemporary tools of his mind and heart. One must therefore "pray for the integrity of the sovereignty" in his life. One must concede that the transcendence of self is beyond his humanly natural capabilities, and humbly request that he be granted a higher, ego-free vision of his fellow.

Equal Sitting

Each mishnah of the Talmud expresses a single concept; the next concept always warrants a mishnah of its own. Yet the second mishnah of the Ethics' third chapter seems to contain two wholly unrelated ideas: the saying by Rabbi Chaninah (deputy to the kohanim) discussed above, and the saying by Rabbi Chaninah (son of Tradyon) in the latter part of our mishnah, "...Two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them..."

But in the light of the deeper significance of the first Rabbi Chaninah's words, the second saying of our mishnah reiterates the first - this time speaking in terms of one's Torah study.

Torah is G‑d's communication to man, the expression of His wisdom and will in terms digestible to the human mind. Yet there are many levels in man's comprehension of Torah, from the wage earner who manages only the "one chapter in the morning and the one chapter in the evening" to the lifelong round-the-clock scholar. In truth, however, regardless of the scope and depth of one's knowledge in Torah, all who approach G‑d's wisdom are equal: equal in the inability of their human, finite minds to truly grasp anything of an infinite truth, and equal in the fact that they have been granted the inherently unachievable gift of comprehending Torah, each at his own level.

So if two study Torah and one towers over his fellow and "swallows him up" intellectually, seeing his own achievements as being beyond and inclusive of his fellow's, then it is not G‑d's Torah that he is studying but a self-generated, self-colored perception of the Divine truth. But "two who sit" as equals "and exchange words of Torah," acknowledging that they are both but humble recipients of a higher truth, then "the Divine Presence rests amongst them."