He [Rabbi Akiva] used to say,“Everything is given on pledge and a net is spread out over all the living. The shop is open, the merchant extends credit, the ledger is open and the hand records therein. All who wish to borrow may come and borrow. But the collectors make their regular daily rounds and take payment from a person with or without their knowledge…” Pirkey Avot 3:16
A person usually goes about their daily life thinking that whatever they do is basically okay. Even if this is not the case, they figure if no one knows, then it’s not the end of the world; they’ll just fix it afterwards. They may even realize that God knows about their indiscretions, but since the person considers them to be only temporary, everything will somehow straighten out in the end. These are the type of thoughts that Rabbi Akiva is addressing in his statement in Pirkey Avot. He reminds us that whatever we take from this world must be left behind when we leave; nothing can be taken with us when we die.
PAYING BACK WHAT YOU EAT
One way to understand this is found in the book “Chesed L’Avraham,” written by the grandfather of the Chida, Rabbi Chaim David Azulai, a”h. He writes that when a person dies, the chevra kadisha comes to attend to the body before the levaya, or funeral. They cover the body in the place where it was when the soul departed, and everyone returns home. The deceased remains alone with himself. When the body is put into the grave, if the person enjoyed a lot from this world, the first thing that happens is that the worms come to demand their portion. In other words, they must now return whatever they took from this world, whatever they ate simply to fill their stomach. Yet if they ate only in holiness and purity, i.e., only kosher food and only in quantities necessary to sustain a healthy and strong body to serve God, then there is nothing to take back. This is one understanding of “they take payment”.
WITH OR WITHOUT HIS KNOWLEDGE
Since there are specific times during the year conducive to repentance and forgiveness, a person may think that everything automatically works out. For example, there is the month of Elul, [the Hebrew month set aside for teshuva, intensive introspection and repentance] which is followed by Rosh HaShanah and the atonement of Yom Kippur. But the reality is that God is not obligated to wait until these specific times and can send messengers to collect what is due at any point. Sometimes, one may even be aware of their situation and upon a little soul searching, may even realize they might need to go through something unpleasant. But usually, this level of self-awareness is rare and one has no realization that anything is amiss or in need of change. But God operates in His ways. It is here the idea “with or without his knowledge” comes into play.
YOU ARE YOUR OWN JUDGE
Rebbe Nachman transmits the following idea in the name of the holy Baal Shem Tov. Before any decree is issued in the world, God forbid, the entire world is assembled to give their agreement. In this instance, the “entire world” encompasses the inanimate, plant, animal, and human levels. They are all notified and asked if there is any opposition to the decree. This even includes the person who has the negative decree hanging over them. When everyone reaches agreement, the judgment is passed.
Who in the world would agree to a negative decree against oneself? Obviously, if you were to ask the person directly, they would defend themselves and oppose the judgment. For this reason, a similar situation is presented to them, and their opinion is asked without realizing it has anything to do with their own case. Someone will ask them, “What do you think about what so-and-so did?” They respond, “Whoo whoo, they deserve this or that…” In heaven they say, “Is that right? You just passed judgment on yourself…” The case is closed and the person doesn’t comprehend what just transpired. According to Rebbe Nachman, this is an example of “taking payment with or without his knowledge”.
The whole concept of how a person is asked each time about their own judgment is profoundly deep. Each word of every story we hear has lofty and exalted significance. For example, we may hear a story about two people involved in an argument that has nothing to do with us. In the rare case it does, we need to be even more careful. But most of the time, it is simply a seemingly random story where everyone takes the liberty of jumping into the fray, taking a stand on who is right or wrong, and who deserves what. The very words a person utters are then taken and applied to his own case and he will be compelled to bring his own words to fruition. This is why Rebbe Nachman advises us to be very careful about what we say. Don’t let an inadvertent word slip out in the wrong way or pass judgment on another’s behavior. If you do, you are agreeing to your own verdict, since no judgment can materialize without your agreement.
CONTROLLING YOUR THOUGHTS
King David says, Zamoti bal ya’avar pi. “My thoughts dare not pass through my mouth.” (Psalms 17:3) There are two important ways to understand this verse. Firstly, the word zamoti is related to the Hebrew word for “muzzle”—z’mam. King David alludes to this as if to say, “God! Since I don’t weigh my words seriously enough, put a muzzle on my mouth to prevent me from saying anything irresponsible or improper.”
The second explanation of how to understand this verse concerns controlling our thoughts. Sometimes a person blurts out an empty phrase, without even knowing why they said it. But the reality is that there are custodial forces appointed over a person from heaven; sometimes they are good and sometimes not. They seize upon these same words and turn them around on the one who uttered them. These ramifications ought give each of us serious pause for thought.
It is not necessary to express every thought that comes to mind. Thus King David refers here to the need for an even deeper level of restraint. He would like God to place a muzzle on his mouth to stop him from verbalizing anything that enters his head. Since according to Rebbe Nachman, it is through these very words that they “take the payment from a person with or without his knowledge”.
We witness how people suffer from a bundle of woes that they carry, whether external problems or personal health issues, God forbid. Yet the reality is that they agreed and signed off on everything. Without their agreement, these difficulties could not have materialized. One may say, “I never agreed to such a thing!” The recording is then played back for them and they are asked, “You don’t remember what you said in such and such year when someone told you a certain story? Was it any of your business to comment? You gave your commentary anyway and here are the consequences.” God should save us from ourselves!
This spiritual dynamic accompanies us every single day, hour by hour. It is written, “Whoever sits in the refuge of the Most High…” (Psalms 91). The Talmud calls this particular chapter of Psalms “a song against evil forces,” since it is recited by those who want to be saved from misfortune and accidents. For instance, when mourners attend a funeral, they recite these verses since they possess tremendous protective power against negative spiritual forces seeking to harm a person. It is further written, “His angels He will charge for you, to protect you on all your paths.” This refers to the fact that there are angels who constantly accompany a person to safeguard him from harm. According to our sages, these protective angels are more accurately called the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara, the good inclination and the evil inclination. In contrast to what most people think, they are both responsible for protecting a person from disaster, since the fundamental role of the yetzer hara is to serve a person. However, if one comes too close and is drawn after him, the yetzer hara is no longer obligated to fulfill his protective duty. One then becomes enslaved to him, and the yetzer hara does whatever he wants with the person.
FORCES CREATED FROM OUR OWN ACTIONS
Along with the yetzer tov and yetzer hara, come all sorts of other forces, God forbid, which are created when a person stumbles, for example, in eating non-kosher food or is involved with any kind of negative thoughts, speech, or actions. In this case, damaging forces are created in the world that are bound to the person who created them. These forces are called mezekei alma, “destroyers of the world.” Their whole purpose is to cause damage and they don’t even realize this is their role.
To illustrate, it is like a child who plays with matches because he thinks it is fun. An adult comes along and admonishes him, but when he sees that the child doesn’t understand, he takes the matches away by force. This is because the adult understands very well that the child is doing something dangerous. The child though, doesn’t comprehend this fact. He screams and cries, “Why did you take them away from me?!” Likewise, these “destroyers of the world,” don’t even understand they are destructive. Their actions are not intentional, but since they were created from damage, this is their fundamental essence.
It is these forces that accompany us wherever we go. They catch our every word in an attempt to interpret it according to their crooked way of thinking, because after all, they are a creation based on crookedness and damage. Since they are an undesirable creation, everything about them is undesirable. They even have the ability to compel a person to undergo judgments from the upper worlds. They facilitate a person’s undoing to such an extent that life is endangered, and the individual has no idea what is actually going on.
We don’t know. We don’t actually see these forces or perceive them with our senses, but what do we know? We know that there are tzaddikim on the highest of spiritual levels, who know about these matters with such clarity, that they simply advise us to have compassion on ourselves and acknowledge we don’t know what goes on around us on a spiritual plane. For this reason, they caution us to guard ourselves from undesirable speech, thoughts, or deeds since they bring detrimental consequences.
One may take note of the many criminals at large in the world, who say and do terrible things, but seem to have it good without any suffering. So where do these ideas fit in? The answer is that something much worse is actually going on for them. The criminal doesn’t pay for his actions in this world. It simply waits for him in the next world, where everything comes back to him in a much more penetrating way. This is what the Talmud refers to when it states, “Afflictions atone for a person.” Whatever difficulties one goes through in this world serve as a huge atonement for him. It is preferable and worthwhile to undergo it here, since in the next world, one contends with not only afflictions, but humiliation along with much more unpleasantness.
The only advice is to say to oneself, “Stop.” Just as we need to be careful about what we put in our mouth, i.e., kosher and healthy food, likewise we must be careful about what comes out of it by guarding our speech. The same caution applies to our actions. We should do nothing that the Torah or our sages forbid. Similarly with thought; we shouldn’t think that just because our thoughts are only between us and God, they can be easily fixed. It doesn’t exactly work like this, since many holy books describe the power of thought as greater than the power of deed. It is possible to do teshuva or repair an action, but it is much more difficult to do the same with a thought. You can nullify or gain control over an action, but once you think it, a thought is out of your control and possession.
Thus Rebbe Nachman’s advice to everyone is to weigh our deeds in a way that will be truly positive in this world and the next, and to live good and thoughtful lives, with proper consideration for our every thought, word, and action. Since there will be no one to pass a bad judgment, every negative decree will be opposed.
Remember that you are never asked directly about your own situation, rather only about someone else’s story. Thus, don’t rush to pass judgment either verbally or even in your thoughts as to who is right or wrong. Unless it concerns you directly and practically, just leave it without comment. You will feel profoundly satisfied, and it will be so very beneficial not only to you but to the entire Jewish people.
May God enlighten us with higher levels of self-awareness to improve our lives, as well as the entire world, every day and every moment.