Less is More
He (Hillel) used to say: The more flesh the more worms; the more possessions the more worry; the more women the more witchcraft; the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more manservants the more theft.
The more Torah the more life, the more schooling the more wisdom; the more counsel the more understanding; the more righteousness the more peace. If a man has acquired a good name he has gained something which enhances his worth; but if he has acquired words of the Torah he has attained the world to come. (Avos 2:8)
At first glance Hillel appears to be cynical about and disparaging toward all indulgence and in essence toward anything having to do with physical pleasure. He seems to be implying that all luxuries are more than excessive. He seems to be saying that everything corporeal fosters negative side effects. Hillel contrasts this with Torah, wisdom, and righteousness, thereby emphasizing how truly beneficial the latter are. There is, however, one recurring phrase of emphasis: the more there is of X, the more there will be of Y – X being flesh, wives, maidservants, and manservants, Y being the corresponding negative repercussions. What is it that makes more of these items equate a greater negative outcome?
If we analyze each item separately, the detrimental element in each is self-evident. Indeed, the mefarshim on this mishna devote little attention to its first part because it is so obvious in its meaning. Nonetheless there does not seem to be an underlying explanation connecting these individual aspects. If each item has its own reason as to why too much of it is detrimental and there isn't one underlying theme, then it would stand to reason that Hillel's teaching may be confined to these specific items alone.
Each item listed by Hillel is a necessity – at least at certain times. Every Jewish man should have a wife. Everyone needs to have some possessions. There are situations in which one needs a servant. Nonetheless, says Hillel, one should not have too much because too much will have a negative effect. Additionally, each one of these items is an aid to accomplishing. Consequently, one who wishes to accomplish must have these aids. Generally, one can assume that if something is a good thing to have, then to have more of it would be of even greater benefit. Why is it better not to have too much of certain things, if these are ultimately helpful to success?
Rabeinu Yona, in his commentary on this Mishna, explains that the items Hillel enumerates as having a negative impact when in excess are items associated with the pursuit of glory. Having many servants may connote wealth. Likewise having many possessions - and in days of yore many wives as well – also implied prosperity. Rabeinu Yona therefore warns that these items carry with them consequences.
In life there are lots of paraphernalia that can be used to aggrandize someone or something. At times these items may even help someone become truly great. However, these pieces are add-ons. They do not become part of the essence of their owner. They remain accessories. These items do belong to their owners and therefore become the responsibility of their owners. Too much emphasis on these makes them a burden rather than an aid. It is in this vein and for contrast that Hillel introduces in the second part of the Mishna his list of virtues and qualities.
Torah and virtues and qualities become part of a person’s essence. Since they become a real part of a person’s being they are truly enduring. Luxuries are tempting. However, it is Torah and virtues that can make Man truly glorious and it is Torah and virtues that give Man eternal life.