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An Unclouded Harvest: Lessons of Achitofel

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Achitofel instructed his children in three things [before his death]: Do not enter into quarrels. Do not rebel against the sovereignty of the house of David. If it is a clear day on the festival of Shavuot, sow wheat.

Talmud, Bava Batra 147a

The Ethics of the Fathers tells us that “there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of kehunah (priesthood) and the crown of sovereignty. But the crown of good name supersedes them all.”[23]

Sovereignty, priesthood and Torah constitute the three primary objects of human striving: power, spirituality and wisdom. There are two basic approaches to the attainment of these goals: the approach of one “whose wisdom comes before his piety”[24]—who relies on his own understanding to guide him in his quest; and the approach of one “whose piety comes before his wisdom”[25]—whose commitment to G-d takes precedence over his understanding. As the above-quoted mishnah concludes, the “crown of good name”—of good works and obedience to the divine will[26]—must supersede all other “crowns.”

Achitofel was one of the greatest sages of his generation (King David called him “my master and teacher”[27]). Yet all his life he followed the route of giving precedence to his reason over his piety[28]—a path which brought him much grief. Therein lies the deeper significance of the three pieces of advice he offers to his children before his passing: he is warning them not to repeat his error of placing wisdom before piety, as this pertains to the three “crowns” of human aspiration.

The first thing he tells them is: “Do not enter into quarrels.” This is a reference to the folly of Korach, whom the Torah considers the father of all disunity and strife.[29] Korach contested the legitimacy of the kehunah, arguing that spirituality should not be defined by a hierarchical priesthood but by every individual in the community, regardless of his vocation and calling in life.[30] Korach had many logical arguments in support of his view.[31] But because he did not accept that it is G-d, not man, who defines the nature of spirituality and the means of its attainment, his aspirations ended up destroying him and all who joined him in his campaign.[32]

The second piece of advice that Achitofel had for his children concerns the second crown, the “crown of sovereignty”: “Do not rebel against the sovereignty of the house of David.” Achitofel had been among the leaders of Absalom’s ill-fated rebellion against David[33]—and he had many sound arguments on which to base his claim that David had forfeited his right to the throne.[34] Here, too, the root of Achitofel’s error was his failure to set his obedience to the will of G-d above all else, including the deductions of the most brilliant of minds.

Finally, Achitofel addresses the attainment of the “crown of Torah,” telling his children: “If it is a clear day on the festival of Shavuot, sow your fields with wheat.” In the writings of our sages, “wheat” is a metaphor for wisdom. The “tree of knowledge,” says the Midrash, “was wheat.”[35] The Talmud states that “A child does not learn to say ‘Father,’ until he has tasted grain.”[36] If you want your “wheat” to turn out right—Achitofel is saying—you must recognize that the source of all wisdom is the festival of Shavuot, which is the day we entered into a covenant with G-d and received the Torah from Him. Only when you have a clear vision of Shavuot—only when you achieve an unclouded view of the commitment to G-d that must precede all human understanding—will your crop of reason grow straight and true and beneficially nourish your life.

Based on an letter by the Rebbe dated Erev Shavuot, 5709 (June 2, 1949)[37]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[23]. Ethics of the Fathers 4:13

[24]. Ibid. 3:9.

[25]. Ibid.

[26]. Bartinura commentary.

[27]. Ethics of the Fathers 6:3

[28]. See Tosefot on Talmud, Chagigah 15b, s.v. Kol.

[29]. Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a; Ethics of the Fathers, 5:17.

[30]. Numbers 16:3.

[31]. See Midrash Tanchuma (hayashan), Korach 4.

[32]. See Divisiveness, Diversity and Distinction, WIR, vol. IV, no. 38, and Inferior Material, vol. V, no. 39.

[33].  See II Samuel, chs. 15-17.

[34]. Cf. Talmud, Yoma 22b: “Saul lost the kingdom on account of a single sin, yet David sinned twice.”

[35]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 15:8.

[36]. Talmud, Berachot 40a.

[37] Igrot Kodesh, vol III, p. 113.

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