Asking Why

One of my first and favorite math teachers used to say it’s not about the “x,” it’s about the “y.” I came to a similar assumption last week, whether I articulated it or not, when I began looking at the Pirkei Avot again: It’s something I learned repeatedly in my political theory course, that it doesn’t matter who tells us something or whether it’s true or wise, but that before we accept it, we consider it critically.

If “x” marks the spot, we must then derive “y.”

3.17 Rabbi Akiva taught:

Jesting and levity lead a person to lewdness;
Tradition is a protection for Torah;
Tithing is a protection for wealth;
Vows are a protection for abstinence;
Silence is a protection for wisdom.

This teaching, like so many, posits the most obvious assumptions–at least, they would seem obvious at first (tithing protects wealth? this one might need some extra thought). I do like Rabbi Akiva, though; he’s got a great story: He was raised as a farmer and then fell in love with a woman, and her father would not allow her to marry an illiterate man–so Akiva left for many long years to study and learn, and when he returned, they were united at last. It’s a beautiful and touching story, but his raw pursuit of wisdom is always what I admire most.

Jesting and levity lead a person to lewdness.

Asking why begins here. Jesting is making jokes at another. Levity is a lack of seriousness when it’s appropriate or fickleness and instability in general. Taking this as a general proof, we can move directly, assuming that jesting and levity do lead to lewdness.

Suppose a man jests; this means he enjoy laughter at the expense of others. Suppose he possesses levity and therefore has little stability to his nature, often treating serious things as trivial. This would cause him to jest at serious moments, which can be called indecent and obscene, which is the definition of lewdness. Therefore, by proceeding directly from cause to effect, the claim must be true.

Tradition is a protection for Torah.

I hardly think a formal proof is required for this one–it’s a very common belief, one I’ve spoken before. “Building a fence around the Torah” is essentially following broad traditions (habits) that help us to avoid the small, particular actions that will cause us to violate the commandments. Saying tradition protects the Torah is like saying stretching before exercising prevents injury, not that it’s obvious, but that the one necessitates the other, as if priming the object to receive the outcome.

Whether or not I agree with tradition or believe it should be changed is besides the point; the claim cannot be refuted without changing our definition of the Torah, so we can safely move on from here.

Tithing is a protection for wealth.

Tithing in ancient times was the process of giving a tenth of one’s harvest to God as a sacrifice, and in modern times, it’s equitable to giving a tenth of our income to charity. However, by definition, tithing involves giving away what we own–giving away our wealth. How can we protect something by giving it up? Wouldn’t tithing hurt our wealth, since it requires eliminating our wealth to do it?

Perhaps, in this manner of speaking, tithing harms our monetary supply–but is the sum of our wealth equal only to the money we possess? This is like asking if money is happiness–something I do not believe, although no one can deny that monetary wealth does indeed make happiness easier to come by, since our basic needs can more easily be met without unnecessary stress in doing so. Wealth on its own, however, must mean much more–our contentment with life, with what we have, our possessions both material and otherwise. If this is the wealth we seek to protect, then through giving a portion of our money away, we are enabling ourselves to appreciate what we have and to cherish those things that are worth far more than money–and therefore protecting our wealth.

Alternatively, the distribution of wealth to those less fortunate also assures our own wealth monetarily, for if the lower class falls off, the upper classes will no longer be able to stand as tall–and so they will fall as well. This is not a matter of giving all our wealth to those less fortuned, but by giving a portion, we ensure the wellbeing of others and therefore assure our own wellbeing as well.

Vows are a protection for abstinence.

When I started writing this last night, I got about this far and couldn’t think of any reason why vows would protect abstinence. I was thinking predominantly in terms of marriage vows, but according to traditional Jewish marriage, these vows actually guard against abstinence by stating that spouses cannot withhold sex from each other–so in this context, I couldn’t make sense of it. Earlier this afternoon, however, it occurred to me that the vows mentioned here need not relate to marriage, and abstinence is more than avoiding sex.

Abstinence, at its core, is simply abstaining from anything–avoiding anything, no matter what it is. Vows are promises–to others, ourselves, anybody. If we make a vow to avoid something, we are now obligated by that vow to avoid it. That is, by recognizing the power of pacts, we have demonstrated how vows protect abstinence.

Silence is a protection for wisdom.

This, too, seemed to be the hardest to rationalize–but now I’ve had some time to think about it, it’s quite clear. We’ve spoken many times about the importance of listening and having an open mind to build and fortify and expand our knowledge–and said differently, this can be called silence. Not silence around us, but silence from inside us–a moment when we stop talking and open ourselves to listening, observing without bias or judgment. This silence does indeed protect our wisdom for it guards us from conceit and self-assuredness and delusion. Further, silence provides a moment for reflection, for relaxation, and who can truly be wise when lacking either? So, yes, silence does protect wisdom–although at first it might seem otherwise.

Though a day late, arguably, I think I have shown with enough rigor why each of these statements can be taken as true. Of course, simply because I have answered why for myself does not mean that it should be sufficient for you–after all, it is the nature of critical thought to question everything. Just as I have questioned the rabbis to understand their words, so should you question me to understand mine. It may seem at first a large amount of unnecessary work, but if it’s understanding we’re after, no amount of work is ever unnecessary for it is the coming together of insight and inspiration that truly open our minds to understanding at its greatest.


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