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
“Lovely indeed is my estate.” (16:6)
Judaism appreciates beauty. Hiddur Mitzvah is the idea that we might enhance a mitzvah by doing it in an esthetically pleasing way. While we might make kiddush on Friday nights with a plain drinking glass, we typically use a special cup dedicated to Shabbat. A Judaica collection in the home should not be a museum display of objects seen but never touched. There is joy in a Hanukkah menorah covered in wax drippings, and sadness in a menorah passed down from generation to generation in pristine condition. The greatest beauty is found in an object which a grandparent used to teach a grandchild the deepest meanings of Shabbat.
Happy is one … who is ardently devoted to God’s commandments. (112:1)
There are no guarantees of happiness in this world. Making the most money or acquiring the best ‘toys’ won’t do it, but studies have shown that those who spend time serving others tend to be happier than those who live self-centered lives.
God has many commandments and they have a variety of functions, although the Torah generally does not describe a purpose for the commandments. Living a life of participation in public prayer, Sabbath and holiday observance (including the communal aspects of such holy days), tzedakah and service towards others tends to creates the conditions for greater happiness. However, it is not an automatic response, like dropping a quarter into a parking meter. Showing up for a minyan now and then when you feel like it does not show devotion. Showing up consistently, even when you are tired and would rather be doing something else, does. Being physically present because you were asked to make a minyan but mentally zoning out, or rushing through your prayers and leaving the service early so your can get to your next activity doesn’t show devotion. The former is minimally doing someone a favor and the latter is selfishness – devotion to your prayer, not devotion to being a part of a community serving God.
Devotion to God’s commandments requires a high degree of selflessness. I have to be willing to give something up for God and it is precisely in setting aside my ego and my needs in favor of something else that satisfaction and happiness may be found.
A righteous person flowers like a date-palm, grows like a cedar in Lebanon. (92:13)
Good behavior is contagious. Unfortunately, so is bad behavior, but the Psalmist and I would rather focus on the power of goodness to multiply. The metaphor in our verse has at multiple layers of meaning.
First, just as a date-palm produces many dates and a cedar tree produces many branches and leaves, a righteous person will have many children. This layer of meaning may not always prove itself to be true. Either because of infertility or by choice, some wonderful and giving people might not have children, or might only have one or two.
Second, just as both a date-palm and a cedar tree grow straight and tall, so too a righteous person stands tall and walks a straight path. By definition a righteous person follows a straight path as long as we define this to mean that such a person lives according to their principles. Great practitioners of civil disobedience like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks lived precisely according to their sense of justice, even when it meant disobeying the law. Humility is also a significant value, so one can proudly stand up for one’s convictions while also avoiding the sin of arrogance.
Third, the fruit, branches, and leaves on the trees can also be understood as the good deeds of the righteous person. Just as the trees sweeten the world with the smell and taste of their products, so too do the actions of a good person make the world a sweeter place.
Psalm 92, with its focus on the victory of joy, faithfulness, and righteousness, is also known as the Psalm for Shabbat. The actions of righteous people bring the world closer to “a day which is all Shabbat,” one of the Jewish expressions for the messianic era.