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The Goldilocks Syndrome: Ethics of the Fathers, 3:20

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Yonason Goldson

In our pursuit of happiness, all we desire is not for the taking.

Rabbi Akiva used to say: Everything is given on collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the Storekeeper extends credit, the ledger is open, the hand writes, and whoever wants may come borrow. The collectors make their rounds constantly every day, they collect from a person whether he realizes it or not, and they have what to rely upon. The judgment is a true judgement, and everything is prepared for the banquet. Ethics of the Father's 3:20

It's remarkable how little we learned from the childhood stories told, presumably, to impart the beginnings of wisdom.

A little girl lost in the woods wanders into a strange house, helps herself to what she finds there, damages the furniture, then settles down to sleep in a stranger's bed, all without the slightest concern for who the owners may be or the possibility that they might soon return. The story teaches respect for other people's property -- a simple lesson well-suited to the two-dimensional moral sensitivities of small children.

Had the great sage Rabbi Akiva known the story, however, he would no doubt have found within it a far more compelling principle, the one he set forth in our mishna by way of a different allegory, but so similar pedagogically that he might have titled it the Goldilocks Syndrome.


Like Goldilocks discovering herself in an unfamiliar house filled with tantalizing objects and attractions, every child growing into adulthood gradually becomes cognizant of the virtually countless possibilities offered by life in this world. Faced with endless opportunities of things to do, places to see, foods to eat, and experiences to be had, most of us look at the world around us as if it were an opulent palace into which we have wandered uninvited, only to discover that the owner has abandoned all its contents for whoever might find them.

However, the world is not a house forsaken by its owner. Rather, it is a store whose Proprietor, although not visible from every row or aisle, nevertheless keeps careful watch over all His customers, extending credit in lieu of immediate payment while recording every purchase.

Moreover, in contrast to Goldilocks, who could flee the arrival of the legitimate masters of the house, for the rest of us, a net is spread for all the living: when life in this world comes to an end, we will all be trapped by the Final Judgment of having to account for what we have taken from the world, no matter how large or how small, and how we have used what we have taken.

But the Master of the World can afford to be a more forgiving proprietor than a typical storekeeper. And so Rabbi Akiva continues his allegory by explaining that the collectors make their rounds constantly, every day. Because the Almighty created this world as a means for us to earn our eternal reward, He must allow us free will. Paradoxically, allowing us free rein makes it all to easy for us to become befuddled by the physical veil that hides the spiritual essence of the universe, whereby we may forfeit the ultimate pleasure G-d has prepared for us. Free will is a risky proposition.


Consequently, the seemingly random circumstances in which we find ourselves from day to day and from moment to moment are anything but random. Although free will is a function of our own choices, Divine Providence tailors every occurrence that we encounter to suit our own spiritual needs. A flat tire, a stubbed toe, a ripped shirt, a frozen computer – each of these is an agent of the Proprietor, making the "collection rounds." In one sense, by paying off our account in this world, we have less to pay off in the next; in another sense, every inconvenience, every insult or injury, is intended to shake us out of our spiritual stupor and remind us that there are consequences for all our actions.

But these "collectors" operate in another fashion as well. An unexpected check in the mail, a parking meter with time remaining, a vacant seat on a crowded bus or train, a smile from a passing stranger – each of these is also a message from the Proprietor, suggesting that we have acquitted ourselves responsibly or, perhaps, providing a model of how we ought to be acting toward others.

And so Rabbi Akiva explains that the Proprietor's agents collect from a person whether he realizes it or not, for it is up to us to look for the messages and try to understand the lessons. This does not mean that every incident has a clear and obvious meaning; rather, it is through a process of constant introspection that we retain awareness of the true purpose of our creation. And whatever these "collectors" exact from us, they have what to rely on, because the judgment is a true judgment – everything is calculated according to scales of ultimate justice.

Needless to say, there will be no banquet in the World to Come. However, the image of a grand banquet where the most delectable food and drink is served by the most discreet and polite servants upon a table beautifully set with the finest linen, china, and crystal before the backdrop of a subtle but elegant string quartet – such an image evokes within the mind's eye a glimpse of the merest fraction of the reward that awaits in the next world. There, the radiance of the divine presence will produce a spiritual pleasure equivalent to – but far exceeding – the most profound satisfaction of all our physical senses combined.

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