Where We're Coming From, Where We're Going
Avos 3, 1:
Akaviya ben Mahalalel says: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning. 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.
At first glance this Mishna seems to reiterate ideas that are well known. Sometimes it is extremely important to assert that which is known already. In fact, the Ramchal prefaces his Mesillas Yesharim by declaring that he is only reminding us of many of the fundamentals that we know already. That all too often we become incognizant of them because they become habitual. Very often the obvious is overlooked. One could say that this is the message that Akaviya ben Mehalel is trying to connote. Nonetheless it is important to bear in mind that the aphorisms brought in Pirkei Avos were the crucial morals that the various preceptors of these mishnayos imparted as life themes.
A close examination of this mishna reveals a stark contrast between two of Akaviya ben Mehalel three points and the other “odd” point. He starts off by telling us that we should remember that we came from a putrid drop. Coming from a putrid drop isn't mania manifestation of Man's greatness; to the contrary, it depicts Man as being an ignoble being. He then goes on to tell us that eventually we will be interred in the soil – a place of worms and maggots. This too does not depict Man as noble. Then he steers us in a totally different direction. He reminds us that we will stand judgement before the Master of All. Standing in judgment before the Ribbino Shel Olam is no small matter. Standing in judgement before Hashem implies at least two things: firstly, that there is some sort of communications between Man and God. Secondly, it means not only does Hashem communicate with Man, Hashem values Man and his acts.
In the world of Mussar there were two distinct schools of thought: Slobodka and Novardok. Slabodka focused on Gadlus HoAdom – the greatness of Man. Novardok on the other hand focused on shiflus Hoadam – the lowliness of Man. Without getting caught up in the various particulars of their philosophies, it is clear that there are two ways of looking at Man. One could appraise Man as being great, and at the same time one can evaluate Man as a lowly creature. Neither movement lasted forever. The more popular and the more lasting of the two is certainly the derech of slobodka.
Perhaps this is the message of Akaviya ben Mahalalel: Man is a lowly creature coming from mere dirt and returning to a very comparable of situation. Yet Man is great. Akaviya ben Mehalel is reminding us in this Mishna of some very simple and well known proverbial axioms. Yet at the same time he is emphasizing by means of contrast the paradoxical nature of Man. Man is all at once inherently ignoble and inherently noble.