Akavya ben Mahalalel said: Reflect upon three things and you will not come into the hands sin. Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning. (m.Avot 3:1)
In our mishnah, Akavya ben Mahalalel seems to be telling us something similar to what we have already studied. He says, “Reflect upon three things and you will not come into the hands sin.” This seems to be a repeat of what Rabbi (Yehudah HaNasi) has already told us in the previous chapter (Avot 2:1). They both begin identically: “Reflect on three things and you will not come into the hands of sin.” However, the list that follows is different in each case. Akavya’s list says, “Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning.” Rabbi’s list says, “Know what is above you—a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book.” What’s the difference? We need to read the second part of the mishnah in order to understand how Akavya’s point differs from that of Rabbi:
From where have you come?—from a putrid drop. Where are you going?—to the place of dust, worm, and maggot. Before whom are you destined to give account and reckoning?—before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he.
Rabbi’s list involves things that are purely spiritual, the things “above”: a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book. They are precautionary reminders that are intended to keep us free from the entrapments and lures of this life. Akavya’s list, however, is primarily focused on the physical aspects of life: from where you came and where you are going. Whereas Rabbi’s list is focused on the record of the heavenly court, Akavya’s list coarsely reminds us that we are mere flesh and blood. Where did we come from? A putrid drop of semen. Where are we going? Rot and decay; we will one day be food for worms and maggots. Where is is our ultimate destination? To stand trial before the King of the Universe. Isn’t this along the lines of the Prayer of Moses in Psalm 90? He tells us:
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night …
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:3–4, 9–12)
Although Rabbi and Akavya have the same goal in mind—to keep a person free from the clutches of sin—they both come at the idea from different angles. If one perspective is not effective, then we have the other to fall back on. Yeshua, however, comes at it from still different perspective. He says, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Whereas Rabbi and Akavya appealed to the impending judgment alone, Yeshua used this battle cry of repentance coupled with hope of the Messianic Era to persuade his audience to make a commitment to a life of perpetual transformation. Yeshua envisioned brother and sister working together to transform the present in order to create a world over which he could reign.
Yes, we do have an all-seeing eye and an all-hearing ear above us. Yes, all of our deeds are recorded in a book. Yes, we came from a moment of earthly passion and will return to muck and mire. And yes, we will one day be held to account for all that we did or did not do in this life. But if we don’t focus on our purpose in this life—to bring a little bit of Heaven down to earth (“May Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”)—then we are living without purpose and have a purposeless life. Let’s remember our past, anticipate our future, and then take action in the present to make the distance between these two endpoints span one glorious crescendo.