Rabbi Israel Chait
From the Pirkei Avos Shiurim 1983 (Mishna 2:4)
“Do not trust yourself until the day of your death” (avos 2:4)
If one has acquired a virtuous characteristic and it has become strengthened in his nature, he should not abandon the performance of good actions in order to add strength [to this characteristic]. And he should not feel secure and say to himself, “I have already attained this worthy virtue and it is wrong to assume that this trait will ever leave me.” For it is possible that this trait will in fact leave him.
The statement is not as important as the philosophical attitude behind it. The one who describes it best is Rabbeinu Yona:
This refers to one’s outlook and to his virtuous actions—piety and faith—that even though you have been fitted with a faithful and proper spirit, you should not be righteous in your [own] eyes. And you should not say, “How many days have I not done any iniquity—I have defeated my impulse [evil instincts] and I am able [to overcome] it—it is beaten, already broken, and we have escaped and it cannot divert [me] from the straight path.” But it is an enemy and seeks to ambush you when it finds you sometimes involved in your work and not studying and not thinking about metaphysics and ideas about God. It will then dance in front of you and speak to your heart to divert you to roam in the earth and to walk in a path that no good man has trodden or sat there. And maybe it can [thus overcome you] and your soul will be taken in its hand. And so guard yourself and guard your soul much, and do not distance its fear from you, and act with your wisdom; if you are a wise man always place your eyes and your heart upon the ways of your instinctual drive [study yourself], until it is not able to come close to you all the days of your life. And about this is it said, “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death.”
Why is the statement “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death” so important that Chazal quote it often? It is important because, as usual, Judaism goes against people’s natural instincts and desires. Man searches for a certain plateau where he can finally be free and where he can coast and no longer need to battle between his intellect and his emotions. Here, Chazal teach that there is no such plateau; it does not exist. Thus, on one’s path of a religious life, one might equate his commencement of this path to his state long in the future; he finds no moment, either at the beginning of his journey or long into it, where is he is at ease; he must constantly be on guard. One never escapes the lure of the instincts.
However, the progress seems to offer no benefit (one is ensnared by his drives even after years of following a Torah lifestyle). But this cannot be true, for the Gemara tells us that Torah and perfection is a far better life. For if one follows the plan for the soul’s harmony, he must enjoy a far greater existence. And if he does not follow the Torah, his life will not be harmonious. Judaism promises a much more enjoyable life. This being the case, the mishna’s words “Don’t trust in yourself until your death” conflict with this promise. It seems that one never progresses.
Additionally, we learn of people who are oveid me’ahava—those who serve God based on love—who naturally love the Torah life. In Chapter 4 of his Introduction to the Eight Chapters, Maimonides says that this personality type has no conflicts. In his medical writings, Maimonides discusses the perfect man as an even-keeled individual with no extreme highs or lows. As this is an achievable personality type, why are we told not to trust in ourselves? It would seem the oveid me’ahava personality has in fact progressed to a point where there is no danger, and he can trust in himself.
The answer is as follows. An oveid me’ahava is one who naturally follows the good life. However, the source of his energies is instinctual. He converts those instinctual energies in application to higher ideals of Torah study. But he is not protected from his instincts overpowering him. As Rabbeinu Yona said, when he is not channeling his instinctual energies toward wisdom and metaphysics, his energies immediately return to his lower part and he can succumb to an instinctual act.
This explains why Judaism rejects the idea of a saint. This personality is a fantasy and does not partake of what is real. It is not within human nature to be free of the instincts. If this is so, that even the oveid me’ahava must be on guard, and though he is the most perfected personality, it would appear that no personality ever attains happiness!
The answer is that Chazal refer to a different type of happiness. In today’s society, people are driven by success. And most people feel this success equates to happiness. This applies not only to business, but also to religion. To attain happiness, some people don’t pursue business, but they pursue religion. They feel that by being a devout Christian or pious Jew, this “success” will yield true happiness. But Chazal say that this is false. Success in business, religion, or any other area will not lead to a happy life.
Who then is the happy person? One who enjoys reality, which is God’s wisdom. The perfect person seeks an “experience,” while others seek the “person”; they seek personal success in the pursuit of establishing themselves as certain types of people. But Chazal sought to experience God’s wisdom, and in it they found tremendous enjoyment. In Judaism, the person never strives for “success.” The goal is not the self. The talmid chocham rises each morning anticipating a beautiful day of enjoying God’s wisdom, living properly, and enjoying the happiness that his soul’s harmony brings. But he recognizes that this depends upon his psyche and how he disperses his energies. This is why one tanna (author of a Mishna) structured a blessing asking God to prevent any emotional disruption; the wise man never feels the security in the self. And this insecurity does not make him unhappy. On the contrary, he is a free individual. He is free from the need for success that society has told him is so important. He recognizes this is false and he simply doesn’t have that need. As he does not chase success and other fantasies, he can spend his energies involved in the real world.
In addition to praying for protection against harm, a wise man also studies himself. Wisdom straddles all areas, including the study of one’s emotional makeup. Rabbeinu Yona said “If you are a wise man, always place your eyes and your heart upon its ways [study yourself].” The perfected person will enjoy understanding how he works psychologically. The engagement in wisdom provides the truly enjoyable existence.
Socrates asked, “What is perfection? Is it knowledge or something else?” This is not a simple question, as we find knowledgeable people who are crazy when it comes to practical life. Pascal was one of the greatest mathematicians, and yet his personal life was insane and had no harmony. Thus, wisdom does not seem to provide happiness. And then we see a simple truck driver who seems happy. So, who is the happy person?
Chazal say it must be the wise man, the chocham, but his wisdom is of a certain type of knowledge. It is a type of knowledge that ties external knowledge to internal knowledge. Meaning, it is not simply knowledge of science, psychology, philosophy, or Gemara. The chocham is a particular type of mind that incorporates knowledge of all areas and ties in to the knowledge of the self. Without knowledge of the self, one cannot have a life of knowledge, because the base from which he is working, which is instinctual, is not being dealt with. Thus, Pascal can be quite unhappy since he did not possess knowledge of his self.
When Chazal approached each day, they were filled with the happiness of possessing the faculty to perceive reality. No other creature has this gift. This perspective of valuing wisdom corrected their internal makeup. Chazal prayed daily to be free from destructive forces so that they might focus on God’s wisdom. It is only with psychological and philosophical knowledge that one can bring his instinctual world in line with wisdom and arrive at the happy life. But with wisdom alone, like Pascal, one will not arrive at a life that is harmonious. He might be knowledgeable in certain areas, but without addressing his internal world, he will be unhappy (as he is guided by his emotional whims and urges that lead him to unintelligent acts, where he is harmed, and destroyed).
Man is not essentially harmonious. But he was given the ability to harmonize his nature. Once man attains knowledge of Torah and psychology, he can then study his own nature and bring his instinctual life in line with the world of wisdom. Man must study his nature and understand how he operates. Doing so, he monitors where he deviates from Torah and corrects himself. [For example, one who chases wealth or fame can study Koheles and learn how these pursuits offer false promises of happiness. Having realized this truth, he can then redirect his energies toward the pursuit of wisdom and realize immense joy. But without managing his emotions, and making this change that can only come about through studying Torah and psychology, he will remain steadfast pursuing wealth and fame and lead an unhappy existence.]
This perfected and truly happy lifestyle is not achieved instantly, but is a process. As stated, if one is constantly on guard and always studies wisdom and his own actions, his instincts will not overtake him. This is the meaning of “Don’t trust in yourself until your death”: one never reaches a plateau of safety out of reach of instinctual urges. It is a relentless battle.
Today’s materialistic and religious cultures do not have this concept of happiness, which is achieved through the pursuit of studying God’s wisdom. Success and accomplishment, which are the driving forces behind materialism and religiosity today, miss the mark of attaining happiness, as they focus on the self, while the proper pursuit has no focus on oneself, but on God’s wisdom. Talmud Berachos describes one rabbi who was dying. One said to him:
If you cry because you only learned a small amount of Torah, you are wrong to feel bad, for the amount is unimportant: “Whether one learned a little or whether one learned a lot, all that is important is that one was motivated for the sake of Heaven” [and not to amass a quantity of knowledge].
If you learned based on your soul’s attitude of loving wisdom, that is all that matters.