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Moreover he saw a skull floating on the face of the water. He said to it: because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they that drowned you will be drowned.

This is one of the most cryptic statements in Pirkei Avot. Hillel, upon seeing a skull floating on the water, declares in Aramaic, that the skull had it coming: “because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they that drowned you will be drowned.” This judgmental reflection is challenging on several levels. How did Hillel know? Perhaps this person was innocent of wrongdoing or perhaps he was killed by accident? Isn’t this the same Hillel who professed the importance of not judging your fellow until you have reached his place (Avot 2:4)? If Hillel is claiming that all people who are killed in this fashion are wicked people who have committed murder, is this a statement of Divine Justice (notice that God’s name isn’t mentioned), or a prediction of the natural, dire consequences of engaging in malevolent behavior? Finally, as he is having a one-sided conversation with a floating skull in Aramaic, who exactly is Hillel’s intended audience?

In the mid 1960’s, social psychologist Melvin Lerner began studying what he later called the just-world hypothesis. The theory suggests that people have a core assumption that the world is just. Lerner was not interested in theological or philosophical questions as to whether the world is actually just, but rather, what people believe about the world being just. People generally believe that bad actions lead to negative consequences, and good actions to positive ones.

As we know, perceived reality often doesn’t map onto the system of justice. What do we think when confronted with a situation when someone seems to be suffering for no fault of his own? Because people have a tendency to hold onto their belief in a just world, one common (and what Lerner deems non-rational) way to contend with the perceived reality is to reinterpret the situation to assume that the person really is deserving of suffering. Hence, the just-world hypothesis accounts for the phenomenon of blaming the victim – if someone is harmed, it must be they deserved it. The belief in a just world has also been correlated with intent to harm others, the desire for revenge, neuroticism, and other negative characteristics (see Sutton, Stoeber, and Kamble, 2017).

Yet, research also demonstrates that there are positive benefits associated with belief in a just world, including higher feelings of well-being, higher levels of prosocial behavior, and lower levels of antisocial behavior. How can we account for these differences in findings? The answer lies in a critical distinction made by Isaac Lipkus, Claudia Dalbert, and Ilene Siegler (1996), when they distinguished between a person’s belief regarding whether the world is just as applied to others, and that same belief as applied to the self. There can be much psychological benefit for a person to believe that his or her own actions have just consequences (with some exceptions). This would likely lead to a desire to avoid harmful behavior and a desire for self-improvement. However, it could be psychologically, socially, and morally damaging for people to assume that other people deserve their misfortune.

There seems to be little question that the Torah encourages a belief in a just world. God runs the world fairly and through a system of Divine justice. Yet, the challenge, already revealed in Tanach and echoed in Chazal, is that the system is not patently obvious, at least from a human perspective. Innocent people are murdered, and murderers die of old age. How does one go about reconciling these differences?

To better understand Hillel’s statement in this Mishna, Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (Tosfot Yom Tov) argues that we need to understand the next Mishna, which is the last of Hillel’s four statements recorded in the second chapter of Avot. Consequently, we will explore this second Mishna, both on its own, as well as with an eye to how it may shed light on the previous statement.

He used to say: The more flesh, the more worms; The more property, the more anxiety; The more wives, the more witchcraft; The more maidservants, the more lewdness; The more servants, the more robbery; The more Torah, the more life; The more sitting, the more wisdom; The more counsel, the more understanding; The more charity, the more peace. If one acquires a good name, he has acquired something for himself; If one acquires for himself knowledge of Torah, he has acquired life in the world to come.

The Mishna presents ten clauses: the first five focus on the negative ramifications of an excess of physicality and materialism, and the second five on the benefits of an abundance of wisdom and spirituality. In terms of the first five, Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura notices a natural progression of material growth. While some of the examples provided by Hillel are outdated, it is not difficult to modernize and personalize the sequence. The more physical desires we pursue, the more material wealth we will need to acquire, which leads to more costs and responsibilities, many of which have negative ramifications. Consistent overeating can cause serious health problems. Having more money can bring about its own host of problems, including the anxiety Hillel describes here. While these aren’t automatic consequences (as Midrash Shmuel points out, there are people who have more money and don’t have anxiety) the challenge is that most people strongly desire food, money, and wealth, despite being aware of the probable negative outcomes, or, while assuming that they will be immune to the consequences.

However, when it comes to spiritual pursuits, the more the better. Learning and following Torah, providing and receiving wise advice, and performing acts of charity, all lead to continued growth. The self-earned reputation of righteousness and knowledge will do well for the person in this world and the next.

Returning to the difficulties posed by the previous Mishna, namely, that Hillel’s confident stance on justice seems overstated, Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller argues that this second Mishna sheds light on the first in the following way. Hillel agrees that Divine justice is not always clear. Hillel was not claiming with certainty that the skull belonged to a murderer, as is evident from the numerous cases where innocent people are killed and murderers die of old age. Yet, he is still confident in complete Divine justice, even though our knowledge is limited in terms of how or why these exceptions occur. However, Hillel does not want these seeming exceptions to the rule to lead people to assume that the world is not just. Therefore, he emphasizes in the second Mishna examples of a just world that should be patently clear and obvious to all. Our actions have natural consequences. Good behaviors lead to success in this world, and bad choices lead to continued struggle.

Perhaps, based on the research findings cited above, we can explain the interplay between the two Mishnayot slightly differently. The second Mishna provides advice for everyone to rehearse to themselves. Our actions have consequences. If I eat unhealthily, I will pay the price. If I get too ensnared in the materialistic world, it will be detrimental to my own peace of mind. Believing in the just world for our own actions has beneficial consequences. However, even though we believe the world is just, Hillel teaches us that it is unhelpful to focus on that justice when it comes to others. Instead of blaming the victim, we should be non-judgmental and act with compassion. Hillel professes his belief in a just world to a floating skull, not to a human being. In a subtle move that we should take to heart, Hillel encourages us to acknowledge Divine justice, but not at the expense of judging another human being.

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