We are taught that each of us is a soul and a body. Each of our souls stems from a very high spiritual place, the body being merely the soul’s garment, as it were, while we live a physical existence. Each morning we say, “אֱ־לֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא .../My God, the soul you have given me is pure …”
Yet, the first of the three things that Akavia ben Mahallalel advises us to observe in order to encourage us not to sin is that we come from a putrid drop. How can this possibly prevent us from sinning knowing what we know about the body and its relationship to the soul?
The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is that this very knowledge of the relationship between the soul and the body is what keeps us from sinning. Akavia ben Mahallalel is teaching us that the body has no life without the soul. The prophet said, “... נֹתֵן נְשָׁמָה לָעָם עָלֶיהָ .../… He gives a soul to the people who walk upon [the Earth.]” (Yeshayah 42:5) and, “... וְיֹצֵר רוּחַ־אָדָם בְּקִרְבּוֹ/… and who fashions the spirit of man within him.” (Zechariah 12:1) Realizing that our very existence comes from God through our souls is a strong deterrent to sin, indeed.
We find this idea in the Midrash on the pasuk from the end of this week’s parsha, “לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתָי .../In order that you remember to perform all My commandments …” (Bemidbar 15:40) The Midrash teaches us the importance of fulfilling all the mitzvos. Performance of the mitzvos gives us life because through it we are connected to God, the source of life. The Midrash compares this to a drowning man who is thrown a life buoy and told that as long as he holds the life buoy he will live. God, as well, tells us, “As long as you are connected to the mitzvos, ‘וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בּה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם/you are connected to God, your Lord, all of you who are alive today.”
The Chiddushei HaRim was wont to say that the Torah gives life only to those who recognize that life comes through the Torah, “עֵץ־חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ .../It is a tree of life to those who hold on to it.” (Mishlei 3:18) To the extent that we internalize the knowledge that on our own we have no life, we can connect to the good life that comes through the Torah.
We find this same concept in the juxtaposition of two pesukim at the end of this week’s parsha. “... וְלֹא־תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם/… and do not explore after your heart and eyes which have led you astray.” This is followed directly by, “לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתָי וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים לֵא־לֹהֵיכֶם/So that you remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your Lord.” To the extent that we refrain from being drawn after the cravings in our hearts and what our eyes see because we know that everything is from God, we can pursue truth. Remembering leads inexorably to performing.
Akavia ben Mahallel, then, is teaching us something profound about the nature of our physical existence that will in fact deter us from sinning. May we merit internalizing this understanding!