W e’re willing to stretch ourselves and perform beyond our normal capabilities if we know that someone is watching us, that someone close to us will applaud when we reach the finish line — the knowledge infusing us with strengths we didn’t know we had. How much more so when Hashem is rooting for us?

With Pesach behind us, we’re starting a new cycle of Shabbos afternoon Pirkei Avos study. In honor of the occasion, let’s delve into one of this week’s mishnayos:

“Look at three things, and you won’t come to transgression,” Rabi Yehudah Hanasi instructs us. “Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and [know] that all your deeds are recorded in a book” (Avos 2:1).

Transgression is man’s constant problem. Every human being, whatever his moral values may be, encounters daily temptations to stray from those values — and often succumbs. And whenever this happens, he feels the shame of his weakness in face of the challenge.

Let’s take a simple example: Civilized people in general agree that lying is wrong and worthy of condemnation, yet our reality is immersed in falsehood. White lies, polite lies, hyperbole, and hypocrisy — this kind of dishonesty is the oil that greases the wheels of society and keeps it running.

And yet, deep inside, don’t most people yearn for purity of action? Don’t we wish we had the strength to live by the dictates of our spirit? Why, then, don’t we manage to avoid the trap of transgression —be it falsehood, anger, base desire, or pursuit of honor — that lies in wait to trip us up?

The problem is that transgression is usually accompanied by a wave of emotion that takes over and compels all the components of our personality to focus solely on fulfilling its desire, while faith, worldview, principles, friends, and everything else exist only as blurry background. We are led into transgression by forces seemingly beyond our control, by a force that hijacks our faculties and forces them to do its bidding.

Let’s say, however, that a person knows he’s being provoked — to anger, for example — by someone who wants to expose his weakness. Then he would fortify himself and keep calm, rather than allow the other to get the better of him. Knowing clearly in advance that getting angry is against his own interests will snuff out the flame instantly. Because when one knows he’s being tested, his survival instincts guard him against taking the bait.

We see this dynamic played out all the time, not only in spiritual matters, but with mundane challenges as well. We are willing to stretch ourselves and perform beyond our normal capabilities if we know that someone is watching us, someone is waiting for results, and someone close to us will applaud when we reach the finish line. This knowledge fuels us, pushes us, infuses us with strength we didn’t know we had.

A deeply moving example of this idea is provided by Dr. Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. One night, he was asked to speak to a group of prisoners who saw nothing but death ahead of them and were in a state of extreme dejection. Frankl writes: 

I asked the poor creatures, who listened to me attentively in the darkness of the hut, to face up to the seriousness of our position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours — a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or G-d — and he would expect us not to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly — not miserably — knowing how to die.

The knowledge that something is expected of us enables us to look differently at the situations we encounter. It gives us new tools for coping, be it with death or with life, with sin or with success.

This is what Rabi Yehudah Hanasi is telling us: You don’t want to sin? You want to overcome the natural tendency that pulls you toward sin? Then “know what is above you.”

Rav Chaim of Volozhin explains: 

He means to say that a person must constantly paint a mental picture, for if he saw a person standing over him, watching everything he does and listening to everything he says with great precision, and writing it all down in a ledger, he would surely be seized with fear and trembling. How much more so when a person depicts for himself the reality that HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Who fills all the worlds, sees and notes his every move and hears every word he speaks… (Ruach Chaim on Avos).

Here is the key to personal liberation from the control of the yetzer. When a person becomes fully aware of Hashem’s presence, Who is watching him and wishing him to succeed in overcoming an urge or in dealing with a difficult set of circumstances, then he can pull himself together and act in accordance with the principles he believes in — according to the Torah.

But Hashem’s presence is not only external. It is not something forced upon him from above. If a person can listen to the quietest whispers of his heart, he will find this objectivity within himself:  

We see that the human mind has the ability to learn about all the things of this world. And it has another, higher ability than this, to know itself and to know about this knowledge — this is knowledge of knowledge. And in this knowledge, it is close to the Borei Yisbarach. For when man is born, he is like an animal, and when he acquires knowledge, he attains a level above animals. If he gains great knowledge and wisdom, he goes far beyond the animal, and his consciousness rises to a very high level… And if it busies itself with thoughts of the Borei Yisbarach, he rises to an even higher level and rises exponentially, for then it encompasses all the levels of knowledge. (Sefer Hayashar of Rabbeinu Tam, section 5)

Our human minds have a capacity for contemplation of G-d’s cosmic presence beyond our immediate desires, and accordingly, we may interpret Rebbi’s advice on a deeper level of “Da mah l’maalah — mimcha”: Know that what is Above is within you. (See Nefesh HaChaim, Chapter 6.)

If one attains and develops objective self-awareness, it can serve to repel any urge to sin. But Rebbi adds a free bonus:

“And all your deeds are recorded in a book.”

What is this “book” Rebbi speaks of? Where is it, and when are man’s deeds recorded in it?

On Rosh Hashanah, we plead, “Kasveinu b’sefer hachaim.” Rav Dessler explains that the “book” in which Hashem writes “is the consciousness of man, in which all acts and thoughts are recorded, and hence ‘all your deeds are recorded in a book’; ‘books of the living and books of the dead’; ‘every man’s hand seals it and it will be read out by itself’ ” (Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Vol. IV, p. 92).

Your every act, says Rebbi, your every thought and emotion, is engraved on your soul, and this mass of data makes you what you are. In the language of modern science, if you get upset, that anger is stored somewhere in your brain cells, and if you get upset again, not only is that anger, too, stored in your brain cells, but the original anger is awakened along with it, underpinning the new anger and reinforcing it. It is this stored data that forms our habits, for better or for worse. Our positive and negative behaviors trigger chemical changes in the brain as well. If all this is detectable in man’s outer shell, the physical brain, then surely parallel changes occur on the spiritual level, deep in the neshamah.

Thus, according to Rebbi, with every move we make, we create our own present and future selves. And although with our selective memory, we might forget past actions, nevertheless they are all there within us, guiding and shaping the personality that emerges.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 705)