Shiur #10: Perek 2, Mishna 1

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




Rebbe [the name used for Rabbi Judah the Prince, who organized the mishna around 200 CE] says:  What is the straight path that a person should select?  Any one that credits the one who performs it and earns esteem from other people; and be as careful with a "light" mitzva as with a "strict" one, for you do not know the reward given for mitzvot; and always consider the loss of a mitzva as opposed to its reward and the reward of sin as opposed to its loss.  Be aware of three things and you will never sin.  Know what is above you:  an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears; and all your deeds are recorded in a book.


To appreciate Maharal's presentation of this mishna, we really need to first examine the mishna on our own, to see the many problems it raises.  Even a cursory reading of the mishna reveals several questions, only some of which Maharal raised.  First, why does the second chapter begin with Rebbe?  In reality, he (or his son, quoted in the next mishna) are the last members of the chain of tradition that the first chapter was concerned with presenting, so why was he left for the second chapter?  Second, what do we mean by a derekh yeshara, a straight life-path - why not just ask which derekh, which path, a person should choose?  Third, if we really do not know the reward for mitzvot, what do we mean by a light or a stringent mitzva?  Fourth, if we do not know that reward, how can we calculate the profit of a mitzva against its loss?  Fifth, did not Antigonos warn us against having the reward for mitzvot in mind in our performance of them - how can Rebbe urge us to keep that very reward in mind?  Sixth, what are the anthropomorphic references to God doing in the mishna - why refer to an ayin ro'a, etc.?




The point about the placement of Rebbe in the second chapter is more of a stylistic than a substantive one, but it shows an awareness of structure on Maharal's part that is interesting.  In asking the question, Maharal is assuming that Avot was carefully structured, so there must be a reason for the fairly odd division of chapters (as we will see in his answer, he assumes a structure for the third chapter as well).  He may be right, but his predecessors did not conceive of Avot that way and therefore did not ask that type of question.


Maharal's answer is that Rebbe is speaking very generally, which make his statements good ones to use to open a chapter.  Similarly, the third chapter starts with Akavya b. Mahalal'el's listing a different set of three considerations that protect a person from sin.  In each case, Maharal says, the generality of their concerns is what justifies placing them first in the chapter.




Maharal relates the word yeshara to an interesting debate between R. Yishmael and R. Akiva in the Sifre (rabbinic source-material on the Torah).  On the verse "ve-asita ha-yashar ve-hatov (and you shall do the straight and the good)," the two rabbis agree that one word means that which is objectively good, while the other means that which people will laud.  They disagree about which word means which concept. Maharal suggests that yeshara here means socially laudatory, which is R. Akiva's opinion (since that is what Rebbe is stressing - his phrasing of the question, in Maharal's reading, actually contains the seeds of his answer).


In a future set of mishnayot, R. Yochanan b. Zakkai questions his students as to the derekh tova that a person should choose, using the word tova instead of yeshara that we have in our mishna.  He actually understands "Torah" to mean the objectively good path, rather than the socially laudable one.  The interesting point is not so much the claim about R. Yochanan and Rebbe as the careful attention Maharal paid to the adjectives used for derekh in the two mishnayot.




At first, Rebbe refers to choosing a path, but then he warns us to be as careful about light mitzvot as about stringent ones - which is it, our choice or simply a system we have to follow in its entirety?  Maharal explains that the first clause of the mishna was discussing middot, traits of character and courses of action that are not specifically delineated by the Torah.  Once Rebbe begins discussing mitzvot, however, he cannot suggest that some were more important than others or that people have the right to choose among their mitzva performances.


Rebbe claims that we have to be equally careful about all mitzvot, because we do not know the reward given for them.  He recognizes the existence of "light" and "stringent" mitzvot, but denies that each mitzva's status has any connection to the reward given for it.




One problem with that claim comes from a gemara in Hullin which notes that the Torah specifically mentioned the reward for the mitzva of shiluach ha-ken, sending away a mother bird before taking the eggs or chicks from her nest.  The gemara says that the Torah chose to mention the reward for this mitzva to allow for an argument a fortiori, a kal va-chomer, to all other mitzvot.  If such a simple mitzva as shiluakh ha-ken merits such a large reward (lengthening of one's days), how much more so the others?  Embedded in that argument, however, is the assumption that we can deduce the relative value of mitzvot.




On the other hand, a Midrash Tanhuma that likens God's decision to withhold from us the mitzvot's relative importance seems to point the other way.  The midrash tells of a king who wanted to have an orchard planted and worried that the gardeners would plant only one type of tree.  He therefore did not announce how much he would pay for each tree, to achieve a well-mixed orchard.  That midrash clearly assumes (according to Maharal) that we do not know the relative value of each mitzva.  [Rashi and Rabbenu Yonah also quote that midrash; I would point out that in fact the midrash assumes that some mitzvot are more valuable to God than others, just that He withheld that knowledge from us so we accomplish a potpourri of mitzvot.]


Because of his qualms on the issue, Maharal reads the words, "she-i ata yodei'a matan sekharan shel mitzvot (for you do not know the gift/reward of mitzvot)," as a statement of their overall magnitude, not their relative worth.  In Maharal's reading, the mishna intends to stress that the reward for even the smallest mitzva is greater than we can possibly imagine.  We may, indeed, know which mitzvot are more or less important to God, but we cannot imagine the greatness of reward awaiting even the smallest of our mitzvot; so we should be exceedingly careful to perform even the most (apparently) insignificant ones.




Another part of the phrase - the term "matan sekharan (the gift of the reward)," - provides Maharal with another avenue to explain this question.  He notes that what differentiates mitzvot is not purely objective.  While Shabbat, for example, might be more significant a mitzva than the commandment to pick up a lulav on Sukkot, each mitzva is also colored by the amount of effort invested by the person performing it.  If a person has to travel far to attain a lulav, or stretch finances to purchase it, then that effort adds to the value of the mitzva, and God rewards that effort separately from the act itself.  That reward - for the effort - Maharal believes the mishna terms "matan sakhar (the gift reward)," meaning reward that does not stem directly from the act itself.




The next clause of the mishna recommends weighing the loss incurred in performing a mitzva (either in terms of loss of money or pleasure) against the gain (the reward God gives) and vice verse for sins.  That seems to contradict Antigonos' order to worship God with no thought of reward.  Maharal points out, however, that Rebbe simply was recommending a way to conquer one's evil inclination.  Since the yeitzer hara (evil impulse) works on a profit/loss standard, pushing us away from mitzvot because of the loss of pleasure or money involved, and towards sin because of the financial gain or physical enjoyment to be had, we need to operate with it on its own terms.  In an ideal sense, however, we should be working towards Antigonos' goal.




     The mishna then lists "three things" that protect from sin, but they all seem to be one:  knowing what is Above (God).  Maharal explains that each of these three is a different aspect of God.  The Eye refers to God's knowledge of what happens on Earth (in Maharal's view, the reference to a single Eye helps avoid the error that the mishna means a physical eye); the Ear means that God pays attention to these events; and the Book means that all these actions are recorded for a later accounting.  In Maharal's view, these three - God's knowledge, interest, and the reward and punishment for actions - are the basis for all religiosity, so that Rebbe has managed to encapsulate effectively the fundamental drives to religiosity in one short statement.





One last interesting point in this very rich presentation:  Maharal believes that "kol ma'asekha ba-sefer nikhtavim" means that our actions are not just recorded in God's memory, as it were, but that they make an impact on the universe in some way.  So, too, when Moshe Rabbenu says, in a moment of frustration, "Wipe me out of your Book," Maharal believes he was asking to have his impact on the universe wiped away.  The Yavetz, who lived a little earlier than Maharal, and fled from Spain and Portugal during the expulsion from those countries in 1492 and 1497 respectively, believes that a person's soul is the sefer referred to here.  He thought our souls record each of our actions, so that reading our souls allows for a complete rendering of our judgement before God.  I find both interpretations interesting, because they assume that mitzvot are not simply a personal matter, or that they only mold our character, intellect, etc.  Rather, actions of mitzva and sin leave an actual imprint, either on the world or on our souls, and that imprint can be deciphered to produce meaningful information.