Know where you are going
עֲקַבְיָא בֶן מַהֲלַלְאֵל אוֹמֵר, הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאִי אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה. דַּע מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן
Akavia ben Mahalalel says: Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:1
This quote goes on to describe each of the three: We come from a putrid drop, we are headed for death, and eventually we will stand before the divine to be judged. A close look at these statements yields a complex mixture of existentialism and spirituality. The first two root us in the physical nature of humanity — our bodies all begin and end the same way. One could argue, therefore, why not go ahead and engage in sin? The outcome is the same whether you are following a moral path or not. The third point, however, reminds us that our physical bodies are not necessarily the entire nature of our being.
If we took a purely spiritual approach, we would go in the direction of asceticism, forgoing the physical in order to pursue only religious purity. Therefore the three statements offered by Akavia ben Mahalalel are actually most powerful when taken all together. We are not purely spiritual beings – we have physicality that impacts and informs our lives, and while we should remain humble given our origin and eventual destination, we are meant to derive physical pleasure and imbue our physical existence with spiritual mindfulness. In fact, it is the knowledge that our eventual end will bring us closer to the divine that helps us live meaningfully while we are alive.
I think that this perspective is one we actually try to keep far away from children – in our culture and socio-economic circumstances, many of us try to keep this sense of mortality out of our children’s lives, more or less, unless they are forced to face and reckon with it. This is not the case in many other settings – it is not hard to imagine circumstances under which elementary-aged children are dealing with these issues much more frequently and personally. Certainly the author of these words lived in a time and place in which children were often faced with the realities of mortality.
I’m not advocating for any shift in practice here, but I do wonder what impact it has on our children that we tend to “sterilize” notions of mortality and other physical aspects of human behavior. These days, our access to information from around the world is instant, and our awareness of mortality from natural disasters, human abuse of power, terrorism and domestic violence have all increased. This must have an impact on us, as well as our children. What are the responsible and healthy ways to approach these topics (when appropriate) with kids?