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The Garden of Forking Paths: Ethics of the Fathers 2:1

The Garden of Forking Paths: Ethics of the Fathers 2:1

Practical wisdom on choosing wisely as we walk along the complex path of life.

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"Rabbi said, What is the proper path that one should choose for himself? Whatever is honorable for himself, and earns him esteem from his fellows. Be as conscientious with a 'minor' mitzvah (commandment) as with an 'important' one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvot. Reckon the cost for performing a mitzvah against its reward, and the benefit of a transgression against its cost. Contemplate three things and you will not come to the hands of sin: Know what is above you -- an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a Book."

In his famous 1941 short story, "The Garden of Forking Paths," Jorge Luis Borges envisions life not as a flowing stream or an eternal continuum, but as an infinitely complex system of pathways branching out from every point of decision.

The author of our mishna, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (the Prince), contemplated the same image nearly 2,000 years earlier. As we walk the path of life, we haven't the luxury of a straight and unambiguously marked road to follow; rather, we must chart our own course with every choice we make -- from the moment of adult responsibility until the day of our demise.

But how do we acquire the confidence to choose wisely from an infinite array of possibilities? That is the question Rabbi comes to answer. And although his answer is as complex as the question itself, it is also astonishingly simple.

Whatever is honorable for himself, and earns him esteem from his fellows.

Striving to achieve both the inner calling of one's soul while defining oneself in the context of the community is true spiritual heroism.

The word translated in the text as 'honorable' and 'esteem' is tiferet -- literally 'splendor.' The kabbalists have applied this description as the defining character trait of our patriarch Jacob, who inherited the spiritual legacies of his forebears: chesed, selfless loving kindness, from his grandfather Abraham, and of gevurah, inner spiritual self-discipline, from his father Isaac. Jacob successfully blended these apparently contradictory traits and achieved a new synthesis with the creation of a single attribute called rachamim -- mercy. It is for this resolution of conceptual opposites that Jacob earns the appellation of tiferet -- splendorous. And it is with this quality in mind that the Jewish people are named for him.

How easy it is to stake out a position at one extreme or the other. How convenient to curry favor from others at the expense of personal integrity, or to follow one's own star no matter what others might think or believe. But to strive to achieve both the inner calling of one's soul even while defining oneself in the context of the community, that is a labor that calls for true spiritual heroism and absolute splendor.

Moreover, each of these seeming opposites can in fact serve to strengthen the other. Are my own motives pure? Have I rationalized or deceived myself into mistaking good for bad? By considering how my actions will be perceived, I acquire the means to assess my own deeds with greater objectivity. Am I seeking recognition or indulging in flattery? By searching my own soul I can measure the integrity of my own motivations. By striking a balance between my public and private selves, I stand the best chance of staying the true course.

MITZVOT AS VITAMINS

Be as conscientious with a 'minor' mitzvah as with an 'important' one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvot.

Imagine a person who, upon reading a report stating that vitamin C is the most important nutrient for the body, embarks on a diet designed to maximize his intake of vitamin C. Then imagine this person's chagrin when, despite his most sincere efforts, his body succumbs to illness brought on by a deficiency of vitamins A, B12, and E.

Mitzvot are like vitamins. There is no commandment so supremely important that its observance mitigates the observance of any other.

Mitzvot are like vitamins. There is no commandment so supremely important that its observance mitigates the observance of any other. Just as the body remains healthy only when it receives every essential vitamin in its proper measure, so too does a regimen of careful attention to the whole range of mitzvot ensures spiritual health.

Furthermore, one man's 'minor' mitzvah may be another man¹s 'important' one. If I find one particular mitzvah, whether charity or honoring parents or observing the Sabbath, especially difficult, that mitzvah, however 'minor,' may be of paramount importance for me. That same mitzvah might pose no challenge at all to the next person, who may have great difficulty with a mitzvah that is easy for me. In addition, the importance of a mitzvah may depend on the time, place, and situation, more than the intrinsic value of the mitzvah itself.

What our reward for any mitzvah will be we do not know. But as we sensitize ourselves to remain alert for opportunities to do good and implement Torah precepts, we train ourselves to value every mitzvah as the means of growing ever closer to the divine. Ultimately, the spiritual transformation of self should be the greatest dividend of mitzvah observance.

THIS WORLD COST / BENEFIT ANALYSIS

Reckon the cost for performing a mitzvah against its reward, and the benefit of a transgression against its cost

At first glance, our mishna seems to contradict itself. Having just warned us that we 'do not know the reward for the mitzvot,' the mishna now instructs us to weigh each mitzvah's cost against its reward.

The mishna, however, leads us toward an understanding that we need not be fixated on the World to Come to appreciated the value of a good deed. Consider the benefit of our actions on others: the practical and psychological comfort we provide others through acts of kindness and charity; the support we give our neighbors through community involvement; the ripple effect of a single action as it inspires each recipient to do unto others as has been done unto him; and the sense of satisfaction we take away from each act of virtue and self-discipline. Are these not worth far more than any expenditure of time, energy, and money?

Conversely, what do we gain from our transgressions? A transient moment of physical pleasure; a fleeting instant of conquest or power; a passing interval of immediate gratification; a few more dollars gained at another¹s expense. And what then? Can any of these compensate us for a fraction of the shame that we feel -- or ought to feel -- when we compromise our principles or take advantage of our fellows? As Sir Thomas More lamented, 'It profits a man nothing to sell his soul for all the world.' Shall we sell ours for such a paltry amount?

In short, the reward of a good life is a good life. Choose life! declares the Torah, and you will live well in both this world and the next.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Contemplate three things and you will not come to the hands of sin: Know what is above you -- an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a Book

Temptation is great. Gratification is immediate. And the rewards of virtue seem distant and abstract. Even when we know what is right and are committed to do what's right, how do we summon the inner strength to stay strong in our resolve when faced with so many reasons and opportunities to stray from the straight and narrow?

The 12-step recovery method of Alcoholic Anonymous and other substance abuse programs succeeds only because it is built upon this unshakeable foundation: there is a power in the world greater than myself. I am not the center of the universe; I may not define right and wrong according to my own instincts and impulses; I am accountable for my actions.

Once again, our mishna anticipates conventional wisdom by centuries. The eye sees and the ear hears: all of our actions, public and private, are observed and duly recorded -- written in the Book of the Righteous if we so merit, and written in the Book of the Wicked if we do not. Our actions are not fleeting, nor will they be forgotten once our bodies have returned to dust. We will be called to account before the highest court and made to relive every event of our lives.

Contemplate the future, the mishna adjures us, and you will find the strength to take hold of the present. Focus on the eternity of every deed, and you will find the courage and the resolve to turn away from evil, to embrace good, and to live a life of valor and virtue and true happiness. As you travel through life, the mishna teaches, choose each path well, and you will find that your journey through the garden of forking paths will bring you to the ultimate destination, to the ultimate garden called Eden.

Published: January 1, 2005


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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Anonymous, January 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Great Article

Thanks for making me stop and think about the outcome of the countless minor decisions I make in my life on a daily basis.

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