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הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמִין בְּעַצְמְךָ עַד יוֹם מוֹתְךָ… (אבות 2:5)

In the second perek’s fifth mishna, Hillel lists five things to avoid. The second one is: “Do not believe in yourself until the day that you die.”1 The Rambam explains that even if a person has successfully strengthened himself spiritually, he should realize that he can still lose the level he has reached.2

According to Rabbeinu Yonah,3 Hillel refers to both our ability to avoid sin and to our broader faith and religious identity.

Avoiding Sin

Rabbeinu Yonah adds that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is constantly looking for ways to trip us up, utilizing new strategies for each stage of our lives. This is why Rav Chiya bar Ashi used to daven (even in his old age), “Harachaman Hu yatzileinu mi’yetzer hara, May the All-Merciful save me from the evil inclination.” His wife did not understand why he was still worried at such an old age. She decided to test him by petitioning him while disguised as another woman — and Rav Chiya succumbed to his yetzer hara.4 She learned how true Hillel’s words are.

The Meiri5 connects this idea to the mistake made by Shlomo HaMelech, whose overconfidence caused him to ignore the Torah’s prohibition against kings marrying too many wives for fear that the wives might cause kings to sin.6 Sadly, Shlomo’s overconfidence was misplaced. His wives swayed him towards idolatry.7

Chazal tell us that Shlomo’s father, David, was also a victim of overconfidence. His sin with Batsheva occurred because he challenged God to test him.8 Even a lifetime of success does not make one immune.

Chazal brand a person who chooses an unnecessary nisayon (challenging situation) as a rasha (wicked person).9 One who cares about avoiding sin avoids situations that can lead to it.

Rabbinically instituted safeguards should also be heeded till the end of our lives. The great Rav Yishmael ben Elisha learned this the hard way. Though the rabbis prohibited reading from an oil lamp on Shabbat in fear that one might come to absentmindedly tilt the lamp to generate more light, Rav Yishmael was confident that he could read without tilting. He read from an oil lamp, and absentmindedly tilted it, causing him to remark, “Kama gedolim divrei chachamim, How great are the words of the wise.”10

Faith and Religious Identity

As mentioned, Rabbeinu Yonah says that Hillel’s idea also applies to one’s faith and broader religious identity. Even a person who has lived a full life guided by a strong religious character should avoid exposure to heresy.11 Rashi12 references the sad case of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, who became a heretic at the end of his life despite having served as Kohen Gadol for eighty (!) years.13

Maximizing Potential

It is noteworthy that Hillel does not mention either sin or faith by name. This opens the door to the broader interpretation offered by Rav Yisrael of Vishnitz,14 who explains the mishna as referring to positive spiritual growth. One should never be complacent and feel that he has achieved enough.15 Every moment of our lives is one that can and should be used for continued growth. This is why the Torah commands us to respond to the finding of a corpse (whose murderer is unknown) by killing of a calf that has never worked in a ravine that has never been ploughed.16 The waste of the calf and ravine should help us appreciate the potential growth lost through the premature loss of life.17

Though we should be proud of how we resist temptation and the positive things we accomplish,18 we should avoid allowing overconfidence to cause us to let down our guard or complacency to allow us to be satisfied with less than we can accomplish.

*Written up by Yedidyah Rosenwasser

Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

1 Avot 2:5. Hillel’s first caution states: “Do not separate yourself from the tzibbur (community).” The Rashbatz explains the connection between these two statements. Being part of the tzibbur helps a person maintain his religious identity. One should not allow overconfidence to cause him to separate from the community with the assumption that he does not need their support.

2 Rambam, Avot 2:4.

3 Peirush Rabbeinu Yonah, Avot 2:4.

4 Kiddushin 81b.

5 Meiri, Beit Habechirah, Avot 2.

6 Sanhedrin 21.

7 Melachim I 11.

8 Sanhedrin 107a.

9 Bava Batra 57.

10 Shabbat 12b.

11 Rabbeinu Yonah adds that although Rebbi Meir was able to successfully continue learning from his rebbi, Rav Elisha ben Avuyah, even after the latter became a heretic (Talmud Bavli, Chagiga 15b), we should not  assume that we will be able to do the same.

12 Rashi, Brachot 29a, D”H Al. See also Rav Ovadya Mi’Bartenura’s commentary to our mishnah.

13 Brachot 29b.

The Medrash Tanchuma (Toldot 7) uses this idea to explain why Hashem avoids associating himself with a tzaddik until the tzaddik passes away. As long as he is living, it’s still possible that the tzaddik will sin.

The Medrash Rabbah (Shemot 6:1) uses this idea to explain why some tzaddikim die at an early age. Hashem takes the tzaddik early because He is afraid that the tzaddik might falter and sin.

14 Rav Yisrael’s interpretation aims to answer the question asked by many from the gemara (Yoma 38b) that says that once a person has lived most of their life without sin (or even avoided it twice), they can assume that they will no longer sin.

15 Rabbeinu Yonah himself (Avot 2:8) tells us that though Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai knew an amazing amount of Torah (see Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 28a for a full list), he still felt that he had not yet reached half of the amount he needed to learn.

16 Devarim 21:4.

17 Sotah 46a. See also Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael 3).

18 The mishna later in Avot’s second perek (mishneh 13) teaches us “Al tehi rasha bifnei atzmecha (Be not wicked in your own eyes).” A person should appreciate their righteousness and success.

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