Shiur #22: Evaluating Mitzvot

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

Shiur #22: Evaluating Mitzvot

By Rav Moshe Taragin



Ben Azzai begins the second Mishna of the fourth perek of Avot by encouraging adherence to the entire range of mitzvot - even those which appear 'less weighty' than other more grave commandments. Indeed, an earlier Mishna (2:1) already addressed this issue, and Rebbi already demanded sweeping adherence to all mitzvot because of our inability to accurately discern the true value of mitzvot. Even though a particular mitzva may seem 'slight,' it may possess unexpected value, and therefore no mitzvot should be neglected based upon perceived undervalue. As that Mishna exhorted "She'ein ata yodei'a matan secharan shel mitzvot" – we cannot truly assess any mitzva's value. In our Mishna, Ben Azzai takes a different angle: even allowing the possibility of properly screening mitzvot, all commandments should be pursued because of their contagious nature. Performing lesser mitzvot will instigate performance of greater ones, just as violation of minor sin will prompt failure to avoid more severe prohibitions. Rashi already noted the discrepancy between these two mishnayot and the danger of assigning worth to mitzvot. In his rendition of our Mishna he adds "Perform mitzvot which APPEAR less significant" so that they will instigate performance of miztvot which appear more severe. Ben Azzai did not violate Rebbi's warning against evaluating mitzvot; he was merely adding an additional 'practical' reason for full adherence to the entire system of Halakha.


1) Does a mitzva 'enable' future mitzvot? 


Rabbeinu Yonah questions Ben Azzai's dual reasons for pursuing mitzvot and avoiding aveirot, respectively. Initially, the Mishna claims that one mitzva 'INDUCES' (goreret, which literally means to drag but functionally means to instigate or induce) further mitzvot whereas the Mishna subsequently claims that the REWARD for a mitzva is another mitzva. Essentially, the first term highlights a natural condition whereby religious behavior facilitates continued religious success. Breaking inertia and commencing religious behavior is oftentimes more difficult than sustaining such success. Once a person regulates himself to religion, his future performance will be eased. Alternatively the second concept in the Mishna- that "a mitzva's reward is another mitzva"- suggests some form of Divine assistance or enabling. In addition to natural advantage, an earlier mitzva assures Divine aid toward performance of additional mitzvot. Though Judaism does not endorse pre-determinism, and champions absolute freedom of choice at every stage of human experience, it nonetheless allows Divine support for humanely chosen lifestyles. If a person chooses to indulge in mitzva performance, Ben Azzai claims, he will merit Divine assistance in performing additional deeds. In fact the Gemara in Bava Batra (9b) provides a concrete example of this form of Divine assistance: if a person pursues the mitzva of Tzedaka, Hakadosh Baruch Hu provides even greater financial abilities to maintain his level of performance.


2) Zerizut


The Mishna actually begins by describing someone who SPRINTS toward a mitzva evoking the value of 'zerizut' in the performance of a mitzva. In fact, the conditioning effect - that one mitzva will condition toward future mitzvot may only apply to someone who enthusiastically and energetically performs a mitzva. By displaying this attitude, he demonstrates that a mitzva is an opportunity and not a burden. This mentality reflects and generates an attitude which facilitates future performance.


The Gemara in Berakhot (6b) derives the trait of zerizut from Avraham Avinu who displayed zeal in personally attending to the needs of his angelic visitors. Additionally, the Gemara in Pesachim (4a) records how Avraham arose early to embark upon the Akeida. This first portrait displays his zeal while the latter his alacrity - two traits which compose zerizut.


Alternatively, the Rambam, in his commentary to Avot, highlights Moshe Rabbeinu's behavior as a model of zerizut. Knowing that arei miklat would not become operative until the Land of Israel had been allocated, Moshe still seized a mitzva opportunity and delegated three cities in the East Bank as arei miklat. Unwilling to forfeit a mitzva opportunity, he participated in the beginning of a process which would only be completed posthumously. This portrait addresses a related but independent aspect of mitzva performance. Avraham's behavior demonstrates the RAPIDITY by which mitzvot should be performed as well as the requisite ENERGY which should be generated. Moshe's sense of urgency speaks more to a fear of a mitzva slipping out of a person's grasp. In each instance, Avraham did not harbor fear that a mitzva would expire. He rather displayed vigor and enthusiasm to perform a mitzva in a personal and passionate manner. Moshe is filled with a wistfulness about miztvot which causes him to grasp an opportunity, which, legally, may not even have been considered a mitzva since the city's operation as a refuge was delayed by many years. Yearning for even an 'unofficial' share of a mitzva, he seizes his chance.