Rabbi Akiva said: "Jesting and frivolity accustom one to immorality. The oral transmission is a protective fence for the Torah; tithes are a protective fence for wealth; vows are a protective fence for abstinence; a protective fence for wisdom is silence." Ethics of the Fathers, 3:17
Laughter may indeed be the best medicine. It has been proven beneficial for the heart, the circulatory system, and the immune system, as well as for patients suffering from anxiety and even diabetes.
Nevertheless, by exceeding normal bounds, laughter can produce distinctly humorless results. Mockery, sarcasm, and ridicule are the ugly side of laughter, perverting humor into cruelty. And even good-natured laughter, when it goes out of control, can strip a human being of his composure and render him irrational and incoherent.
In our previous mishna, Rabbi Yishmael adjured us to "receive every person with joy." In our current mishna, his colleague Rabbi Akiva cautions us against carrying a good thing too far.
Where Rabbi Yishmael admonished us to recognize the inherent value of every person, Rabbi Akiva warns us of the danger of allowing congeniality overflow the banks of decorum. The demarcation lines of social propriety, of refined speech, of civilized conduct, will be disregarded as easily amidst uncontrolled laughter as they will be under the influence of alcohol. Man swiftly becomes intoxicated with levity, leaving him vulnerable to committing errors of judgment as egregious as any drunk. Moderation in laughter, as in almost everything, is the way of the righteous.
GUARDING THE GATES OF TRADITION
Having observed how frivolous behavior leads naturally to moral imprudence, Rabbi Akiva presents a series of strategies -- or fences -- for reinforcing the natural boundaries of common sense and civic virtue. If levity can break down our respect for the limits of propriety, a disciplined approach to life can fortify and bolster them.
The bedrock of personal conduct is Torah, the only absolute guide to right and wrong in the universe. And the most extraordinary dimension of Torah, the aspect that most clearly testifies to the divinity of the Law, is the Oral Tradition.
In order for the Torah to remain anchored in the foundations of immutability, its essence had to be rendered in written form. However, to allow the Torah to retain sufficient flexibility to remain relevant to all generations and in all cultural contexts for over 3300 years, the Almighty added to the Written Law an oral component, whereby the underlying depth of meaning, together with the general rules of interpretation and application, would be safeguarded and passed down by the scholars and sages of every generation.
By fixing the Torah in written form, God assured its eternal integrity. By preserving the Torah's significance and the means to apply it to every time and circumstance through the Oral Law, the sages have assured its eternal relevance. In this way, the oral transmission is a fence to protect the Torah.
GUARDING THE CROWN JEWELS
The sages of the Talmud offer this astounding insight into the character of a tzaddik, a genuinely righteous person: the tzaddik is more concerned with his money than he is with his own well-being. At first glance, their observation seems incomprehensible. How is it possible that a righteous Jew, presumably absorbed in the purest spiritual pursuits, could set material wealth on a higher plane than his own personal welfare?
The answer, however, is simple. The tzaddik recognizes with a clarity few of us can imagine that this world and everything in it is property of the Creator. If so, any possessions or wealth that a person may have are not truly his. Rather, he is merely the custodian of whatever money or property come to his hand, and he must use them in accordance with the will of their true owner. Should he use them carelessly, frivolously, or selfishly, he is little better than a thief.
For the large majority of us who lack the sensitivity of tzaddikim, the Torah mandates the giving of tithes: from one's income, the Torah requires one percent for the priests (kohanim) and ten percent for the Levites, since these families devote their lives to serving as the spiritual teachers and mentors of the Jewish people. Because their spiritual pursuits leave them no time to secure their own livelihood, the rest of the nation shoulders the responsibility for their support. An additional ten percent must be spent in the capital of Jerusalem or, in every third year, set aside as charity for the poor.
In our times, when the kohanim and Leviim do not serve and when many Jews have no access to Jerusalem, one dedicates between ten and twenty percent of his annual income to the support of the Jewish poor and of Torah institutions. This system of tithes reminds us that the Almighty has entrusted us with all we have, and impresses upon us the responsibilities of wealth. It is noteworthy that the neither the sages nor the Jewish government levy this tax. It is left to every individual to distribute his share to those in need.
In our times, the power of the spoken word has largely been forgotten or misunderstood. Elected officials make pledges they are not expected to keep, the media report half-truths and skewed facts without accountability, and contracts are drawn up with intentional ambiguity in the indecipherable language of Legalese.
Once upon a time, the assurance "I give you my word" carried immeasurable weight. A promise was a promise, a handshake sealed a deal, and a good man was as good as his word. The notion of failing to uphold a commitment, oral or otherwise, was too mortifying to contemplate.
According to Torah law and custom, the violation of any vow is counted among the most reprehensible transgressions, so much so that Jewish tradition contains countless stories of tzaddikim who paid large sums of money they did not owe rather than submit to a vow -- even a truthful vow. Their fear of making a false or even unnecessary promise outweighed all financial consequences even when justice was on their side.
Here Rabbi Akiva comes to impress upon us the sheer power of self-respect. We can all sympathize with an individual who, under the pressure of passion or desperation, yields to temptation. But no person should be so lacking in self-respect that he will not honor his word, keep his promise, or fulfill his pledge.
In this section of our mishna, Rabbi Akiva offers practical advice to strengthen our resolve in the face of temptation. At times, we may find ourselves slipping into transgression and, despite our awareness of the contemptibility of our imminent actions, we cannot summon the internal fortitude to stop before we tumble over the brink. At such a moment, the added power of proclaiming in the language of an oath that I will not commit this act may tilt the scales of decision back in favor of our deep-seated conviction to always do right.
GUARDING THE GATES OF WISDOM
Ultimately, the rightness of our actions depends upon the maturity of our wisdom. Without wisdom, we easily rationalize good as evil and evil as good -- inevitably along the lines of our desires and preconceptions.
Even more dangerous than the influence of our self-interest is the frequency of confusing intelligence with intellectual integrity. Some of the most intelligent individuals in history have lacked any moral compass whatsoever, and others have been hopelessly misguided in their desire to do good.
While the acquisition of wisdom does require study, the preservation of wisdom is a different matter altogether. As Alexander Pope famously wrote, a little learning is a dangerous thing. It is not knowledge that dangerous, but the belief that we possess all the knowledge that we need and that, armed with knowledge, we cannot err.
Consequently, Rabbi Akiva concludes his list of "fences" by reminding us to appreciate the most easily accessible fence of all: silence. How much do we not learn because we do not hear? How much do we not hear because we are talking? And how much of what we say truly needs to be said? By talking less and listening more, we not only acquire more knowledge but protect ourselves from misapplying what knowledge we already have.
As a final insight, it is worth noting that, in his final lesson, Rabbi Akiva reverses the formula he has used throughout. He does not teach us that silence is a fence for wisdom, parallel to his previous teachings, but that a fence for wisdom is silence. Why?
The Maharal of Prague explains that, although psychological "fences" of the sort described by Rabbi Akiva are often useful in our spiritual and moral advancement, in these four cases they are indispensable. By reversing the order of his final lesson, Rabbi Akiva indicates that his list is complete, and that he has offered not merely good advice but absolutely essential rules for righteousness. Without the erection of these protective fences, the integrity of the Torah will erode, our wealth will corrupt us, temptation will overpower us, and our wisdom will lead us astray.
Our most valuable possessions require the greatest security -- psychologically and spiritually, even more than materially.