Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Calculate the loss incurred in doing a mitzvah against the reward, and the reward for committing a transgression against the loss for doing it.” Pirke Avot 2:1
A set of four of Rabbi Yehudah’s aphorisms open chapter two of Pirke Avot. This one immediately follows the caution to treat all mitzvot seriously, because we don’t know the relative reward values of mitzvot (I wrote about this in my article last month – you can find it archived at AhavasIsraelGR.org or, along with all of my writings, at EmbodiedTorah.com). Now we are being told to take into account that there is in fact a reward for doing mitzvot and a penalty for committing sins. Even though we don’t know how much that reward or penalty might be, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi implies that it is substantially more than the loss or gain incurred by doing the mitzvah or engaging in the sinful behavior.
Focusing on mitzvot first, Rabbi is up front about the fact that there is a cost involved in doing a mitzvah. Doing a mitzvah takes time and some mitzvot cost money as well. He doesn’t hide the fact that living a Jewish life is not always easy. Waking up early to get to the synagogue for minyan takes effort. There is a cost to build a Sukkah, purchase a lulav and etrog, buy kosher meat, give tzedakah, or take time off for the Jewish holidays. We might quantify the reward in terms of the greater happiness at living a life infused with celebrations and the observance of God’s Torah, or greater satisfaction at living a live of meaning and service to others, or we might classify the benefit as the unquantifiable delight of a greater reward in the World to Come.
Turning to the punishment for sin, Rabbi seems to assumes that no one would commit a sin if there were not some gain in doing so. While there are some mean and nasty people who torment others simply for the sheer joy of it, most transgressive acts have a tangible benefit. Theft, fraud, embezzlement, misappropriation of intellectual property, or adultery are all way to describe stealing something that does not belong to you. Assault and murder and even simply telling a lie are typically ancillary to robbery or protection against monetary loss or loss of reputation leading to financial loss. Although Bob Woodward never uttered the words “Follow the money” outside of the movie “All the President’s Men,” the idea behind this journalist’s creed unraveled Watergate.
So Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi warns us that the short term financial gain of a sin is outweighed by either the loss of freedom should you get caught or the long term damage in the World to Come; and the short term cost in time and money and effort of doing a mitzvah is outweighed by its long term benefits. Can I prove this to you? No! But you can help me answer a question regarding the benefit gained from the time I spend writing these columns — ‘How many people read to the end?’ If you’ve gotten this far, send me an email or leave me a phone message with your name and the word “lottery” in it. You’ll help me disprove the hypothesis that I’m the only one who reads what I write! All who participate will be entered into a lottery for $20 worth of scrip of their choice. The winner will be announced on the occasion of the Festival of Lotteries, Purim, March 11.
Hebrew Words of the Month:
- payis – lottery
- mif’al hapayis – The name of the Israeli national lottery
- goral – fate
- hargalah – raffle, lottery
- mispar hahazak – power number