Rav Kook Torah

Pirkei Avot: Hillel's Healthy Suspicion

Starting from the Sabbath after Passover, it is customary to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) every Sabbath afternoon. In the second chapter we read:

“Hillel would say:

  • Do not separate yourself from the community.
  • Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.
  • Do not judge your friend until you reach his place.
  • Do not say something which cannot be understood right away, in the hope that it will be eventually be understood.
  • Do not say: When I have free time, I will study. Perhaps this free time will never come.”

  • The overall message of Hillel’s five warnings is: be careful! Don’t store too much trust in the goodness of anyone — including yourself. No one is perfect, not even the greatest prophet or religious leader. When the Talmud wished to illustrate this idea of not placing too much confidence in one’s own righteousness, it gave the example of Yochanan, the High Priest. Despite eighty years of service in the holy Temple, Yochanan became a heretic in his old age.

    Part of our self-complacency stems from the inevitable comparisons that we make between others and ourselves. Here, too, we need to tread carefully. Are we fully aware of the pressures and challenges that others undergo? Can we ever truly know how we would act were we in their place?

    In a similar vein, Hillel cautioned against assuming that vague or ambiguous statements that we make will be properly understood in the end. And finally, he warned against leaving Torah study to chance. We must consciously set aside time for study and spiritual growth.

    Connecting to the Community

    Hillel’s first statement, however, appears out of place. What is the connection between all of his other warnings and his counsel not to separate from the community? Why is the community so important?

    Rav Kook explained that it is the nature of individuals to change. People do not remain forever in the same state. Some advance in spiritual stature and holiness, while others (like Yochanan, the High Priest), regress. Thus, we should always have a healthy suspicion regarding an individual’s goodness and motivations — even our own.

    Our community, on the other hand, is a community of faith. The purpose of its very existence is to be faithful to our collective aspirations. While individuals may change, the community never changes. Therefore, we should always strive to be connected to this absolute goodness. We should be circumspect of ourselves and others; but the entire community, Hillel taught, can always be trusted.

    This idea of connecting with the soul of the Jewish people is a central concept in Rav Kook’s thought. It has an interesting ramification when compared to the Hasidic institution of the Tzaddik - a central righteous leader (a Rebbe), whose every move and utterance is closely followed and emulated.

    As Rav Kook wrote in Orot (Orot Yisrael 3:3, p. 146):

    “Bonding with a Tzaddik, in order that the force of being of the Tzaddik’s soul should influence the imperfect soul [of the follower] is a very respectable matter in the process of spiritual growth. However, it requires great caution. If the follower should err regarding a Tzaddik and cling to his inner essence, he will also be adhering to his faults. These blemishes may sometimes be more detrimental to the follower than to the original soul [of the Tzaddik].

    “Happy are those who cleave to the national soul of Israel, which is the absolute good. Through it, they are able to draw from God’s good light.”

    (Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, p. 164)