pirkei avot 2:8 Choose Life

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for                                                            her neshama. 
Elisheva Maline

He [Hillel] used to say, "The more flesh one acquires, the more worms will eat his flesh [after death]; more wealth brings an increase in anxiety; more wives brings an increase in witchcraft; more maidservants brings an increase in lewdness; more manservants brings an increase in thievery. On the other hand, an increase in Torah learning brings an increase in life; more schooling brings more wisdom; an increase in counsel brings more understanding; the more tz'dakah (charity and/or righteousness) the more peace. If one has acquired a good name, he has done so for himself. If one has acquired for himself a knowledge of Torah, he has acquired for himself a life in the World To Come. 

Hillel makes a dichotomy between the act of accumulating materialism and the pursuit of knowledge in Torah. He explains that while both are unquenchable, worldly pursuits for their own sake lead one to a dead end. On the other hand, toil over Torah study and mitzvot (commandments) will always yield to an increase in life, either here on earth or in the world to come. Underlying motivation is always taken into account. While it is not far fetched to presume that a man who involves himself in transcendent activities is not doing so for honor and glory, there is the possibility that s/he might be. Moreover, if one also argues the likelihood that any fool can toil over Torah, I would retort, "Better to be doing good things for the wrong reasons than involved in bad things for the wrong reasons [i.e. chasing materialism for its own sake]."      

Regarding the beginning of Hillel's quote: since I've got Fiddler on the roof's soundtrack running through my head the words "The more flesh one acquires, the more worms will eat his flesh [after death]" bring the song "If I were a rich man," to mind. Tevye, the protagonist in Shalom Alechem's play, complains to G-d about his economic hardship. "You made many many poor people... what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune? Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a rich man?" The argument makes sense. After all, studies have shown a higher ratio of contentedness among the well off segments of society as opposed to their poverty stricken brethren who frequently suffer from a wide range of ailments. Yet, even so, Tevye does not ask to simply make ends meet. His requests are mostly flagrant or glory bound. He warbles about building a big house in the center of town with more bedrooms than family members, a staircase leading nowhere "just for show and a wife who looks well fed, "She should have a proper double chin." He does express a desire to learn, "that it would be the sweetest thing of all" yet afterward, repeatedly says "Rav Tevye, Rav Tevye" because he loves the sound. For the most part, he isn't looking to replace the time eaten up by commonplace chores with worthier pursuits. Hillel must have been referring to Tevye when he mentioned that some people have no problem shooting themselves in the foot, for it says in a Midrash in Ecclesiastes, "No man departs from this world with even half his desires satiated. This is why Hillel wrote  "The more flesh one acquires, the more worms will eat his flesh [after death]." 

Hillel goes on to say, "But an increase in Torah learning brings an increase in life." Which sort of life is Hillel referring to: this life or the after life? Irving M. Bunim, in his Ethics from Sinai, states, "Only through Torah can a person truly become alive and everything in his environment spring to life for him. There is significance added to every event, every object, for through Torah one becomes a vital part, an instrument of good in the world of the Creator." Also, life is too short for trial and error. Therefore, when a person learns about how to live properly, how to avoid the pitfalls of the evil inclination, he has a better chance at increasing his years in this world and the next. 

"If one has acquired a good name, he has done so for himself." A name represents the essence of a person. When someone manages to acquire a good name for himself, it can be assumed that he worked hard for it. His money, good looks and royal blood had nothing to do with it. Moreover, the bridge to moral living [i.e. Torah] makes these two the only things worth holding onto in this world. Since one's toil over Torah, his collection of mitzvot, and good name are all that he can bring with him to the next life Hillel recommends working toward making each an integral part of his life. 

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