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The Diet for the Soul: Ethics of the Fathers, 4:2

The Diet for the Soul: Ethics of the Fathers, 4:2

Spiritual health demands the same kind of balance as physical health.

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Ben Azzai says: Run to perform [even] a minor mitzvah (commandment) and flee from sin, as one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a sin is a sin.
Ethics of the Fathers 4:2

Those of us concerned with our physical well-being might justly wonder which is the most important vitamin to maintain good health. One doctor might answer Vitamin C; a different doctor might insist that Vitamin D is most vital. Whichever answer we received, would we then adopt a regimen of Vitamin C or D with no concern for any other vitamin at all?

No responsible doctor would approve such a diet. Even if one vitamin is truly the most important, our bodies require a whole array of different vitamins in varying proportions to maintain good health. Ultimately, every vitamin is equally necessary, each for a different reason.

Does the same reasoning apply to laws? Our mishna tells us that it does.

THE HEALTH OF BODY AND SOUL

In secular legal systems, crimes are divided into felonies and misdemeanors, while penalties are imposed proportional to the severity of each crime, as determined by the lawmakers of the land. For the most part, secular crime is defined by what society prohibits: theft, assault, murder, and running a stop sign are all proscribed behaviors. Even payment of taxes is defined in the negative: non-payment is the crime that results in punitive action; payment is an obligation but carries no reward.

In contrast, the system of Torah miztvot – those precepts that Jewish law commands us to observe – includes both performative actions and prohibitions. By observing the former, we earn heavenly reward; by transgressing the latter, we invoke heavenly judgment.

Human logic would lead us to believe that some mitzvoth are more important than others. Presumably, such transgressions as murder and kidnapping outweigh mixing milk and meat; intuitively, such precepts as Sabbath observance and Yom Kippur outweigh wearing tzitzit – fringes – on the corners of our garments. We might logically suppose that, by devoting our energy and commitment toward fulfilling more important mitzvoth, we exempt ourselves from those precepts that are relatively minor.

Ben Azzai comes to teach the error of this reasoning.

Every mitzvah is essential to our spiritual well-being.

Spiritual health demands the same kind of balance as physical health, and mitzvoth are the health food of the soul. Every mitzvah is essential to our spiritual well-being and, consequently, there is no such thing as a "minor" mitzvah. Failure to recognize the importance of any mitzvah will inevitably result in some kind of spiritual malaise.

If so, what does Ben Azzai mean by telling us to run after a "minor" mitzvah. Could he not have stated more simply and more accurately that every mitzvah is indispensable?

A UNIQUE PRESCRIPTION FOR EVERY PRACTITIONER

Beyond his observation concerning the value of mitzvot, Ben Azzai offers a critical insight into human nature. All of us have certain practices in which we find particular meaning or inspiration. Some find the Sabbath uniquely fulfilling; others are inspired by prayer; still others find their passion in the challenge of Torah study. By the same token, all of us have certain precepts that we find difficult to credit with supreme importance. Perhaps the prohibition against mixing wool and linen in our garments strikes us arcane, or the requirement for men to wrap their arms and foreheads with tefillin seems bizarre.

When a mitzvah is difficult for us, or when we don't understand its purpose, it's easy for us to dismiss that mitzvah as "unimportant." Therefore, the "minor" mitzvah to which Ben Azzai refers varies from one person to the next.

If we discover ourselves lacking appreciation for any mitzvah, how should we respond? Run! says Ben Azzai. Awaken your passion and enthusiasm by acting contrary to your natural inclination.

The most substantial personal growth comes from doing those things that are most difficult for us.

The most substantial personal growth comes from doing those things that are most difficult for us. When we prod ourselves to do that which does not come naturally, we not only earn the greatest possible reward but affect within ourselves the greatest possible transformation. At the same time, we can study those mitzvot we do not understand to gain a more profound appreciation of their symbolism and significance.

The "minor" mitzvah is the ultimate battlefield on which to fight the war of spiritual development.

Conversely, when it comes to transgressions, we should see every sin equally. By appreciating the spiritual harm we cause ourselves through our violation of Jewish law, we will not be content to merely refrain from willful transgression. Rather, we will flee from any circumstance that challenges our resolve to do what is right, just as we would flee from an approaching flood or a raging fire.

REACHING THE AVENUE OF THE STARS

However, Ben Azzai has a further insight to offer. Indeed, it is difficult for us to equate the distant and intangible reward we are promised in the next world with the immediate gratification available to us in our earthly existence. And so Ben Azzai tells us that one mitzvah leads to another, just as one sin leads to the next.

Human beings are creatures of habit. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" asked a tourist in New York. Answered the native New Yorker: "Practice, practice. " This formula for success applies to the most successful actors, musicians, and athletes. Those who diligently apply themselves to perfection in their fields are most frequently those who rise to the highest level of performance.

The same is true of spirituality. The manner in which we conduct ourselves accustoms us to similar behavior. If we act in a way that is morally and spiritually uplifted, then that type of behavior will become more natural. Where at first we may have to exert ourselves to the limits of our ability to overcome temptation, gradually we will discover that our desires become more refined and less base. Conversely, the more we indulge in selfishness and self-absorption, the more that kind of behavior will define how we act and who we are.

Ben Azzai concludes by telling us that the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah and the reward for a sin is another sin. This may be understood on three levels. First, it is a continuation of the point previously made. When we demonstrate a desire to act with moral and spiritual integrity, the Almighty strews more such opportunities in our path. If we chase after the fulfillment of our lusts and our desires, God places more temptations before us to lead us along the path we have chosen.

Second, since a mitzvah is the means through which we earn reward for ourselves in this world, the Almighty can give us no greater reward in this world than the opportunity to do another mitzvah, through which we have yet another opportunity to earn even greater reward. On the other hand, by accustoming ourselves to sin, we earn the punishment of acquiring more opportunities to forfeit the reward we might have had.

Finally, the most profound and enduring pleasure this world can offer is the sense of a life well-lived. The reward for a good life is a good life, for it is an existence filled with meaning and purpose, a life of satisfaction and a sense of self-worth. Rather than squandering one's existence on self-indulgence and pleasure-seeking, Ben Azzai offers this formula for self-fulfillment, the secret of true happiness in this world and ultimate pleasure in the World to Come.

Published: January 24, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Julio Zenteno, February 26, 2009 11:54 AM

Thanks for the wise teaching of how to develop the power of our mind.

(5) Jane LaLone, February 1, 2009 11:43 AM

The More One Loses, The More we need Mitzvot

It feels like maybe, just maybe, the losses will stop coming at a furious pace for me. I think if one seeks to do mitzvah after mitzvah, the losses lose some of their power over us. I know that each mitzvah done for me lifts my heart up, erasing some of the pain inflicted with or without intention. Ah, the blessing of my faith and the friends who come with it and through it give me comfort! Thank you for the article which solidifies the message that was coming to me in a more abstract fashion. Let there be peace in Israel and all of the world.

(4) Sasha, January 31, 2009 9:23 PM

Thank you for these great, brilliant and pure truths!

(3) Anonymous, January 27, 2009 5:36 AM

Were it that simple!

In a perfect world, perhaps...but in this real world, a life of good deeds does not guarantee a life of satisfaction. To increase personal happiness in the finite lifetime that everyone has, one should choose to do mitzvot for long-term satisfaction AND enjoy hedonistic pleasures frequently in the moment.

(2) Cathy Cohn Pollack, January 27, 2009 4:07 AM

Inspirational!

As always, Rabbi, well written, thoughtful, relevant, and helpful. Thank you for inspiration that's not preachy or condescending, but thought provoking and inspirational. CCP

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