The Mishna Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is filled with wise advice and insightful statements. Among those of the first chapter is a fascinating instruction given by Avtalion, a first century B.C.E. rabbi. He said: “Sages, be careful with your words lest you incur the penalty of exile and are called to a place where the waters of learning are impure and the disciples that come after you drink of them and die; and the Heavenly Name is consequently profaned (Pirkei Avot 1:11).
In the first century before the common era, exile was a very real risk. Among the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were battling for control of Jewish leadership. But, the Roman Empire was in control of what was then known as Judea, and the disorder within the Jewish ranks escalated into civil unrest. This was the era leading to the destruction of the Second Temple. Given the tempestuousness of the time, Avtalion’s words were words of practical and necessary caution.
It is intriguing how the wise words of Avtalion resonate powerfully even today. In the culture of social media where it is so easy to make one’s self heard, it is also frequently forgotten (although one should constantly have it in mind) that words once spoken or written are difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve. Blog posts and comments are shared and spread quickly. It is not without reason that one’s social media presence is often referred to as “influence.”
Exile as warned of by Avtalion are not a great threat today. Nevertheless, the real consequence that Avtalion warns against is that an exiled sage will stray far from Jewish life and mislead those who follow him, which will result in a “Chilul Hashem,” desecration of God’s name. This is the risk that remains very real today.
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