Rebbi says… And be careful with a ‘light’ mitzvah just like with a ‘grave’ one, as you do not know the given reward of mitzvot.
And be calculative of the loss of performing a mitzvah against its gain and the gain of performing a sin against its loss (Avot 2:1).
Ben Azzai says: be quick in performing a ‘light’ mitzvah just like with a ‘grave’ one and flee from transgression. One mitzvah draws along another and one sin draws along another. The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah and the reward of a sin is another sin (Avot 4:12).
Two mishnayot in Pirkei Avot, one that quotes Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi and one that quotes Ben Azzai, encourage us to value mitzvah fulfillment and avoid aveirah transgression. The mishnayot are similar in that both begin with the word “havei” and both encourage, or indeed direct (Maharal & Tosafot Yom Tov), us to properly value mitzvah observance.
Let’s begin our study of Rebbi’s mishneh with the second part of his teaching, which urges us to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of the performance of both mitzvot and aveirot. Although our mitzvah observance should be motivated by the mission to serve Hashem as opposed to the goal of receiving reward (See Avot 1:3), reminding ourselves of the reward can help motivate us.
Though mitzvah observance can sometimes be cumbersome, we should compare the great reward we receive to the (relatively) small sacrifice we make by observing them. Conversely, when tempted to violate aveirot, we should remind ourselves that the long-term loss outweighs the short-term pleasure or gain.
The gemara in Avodah Zarah elaborates on our mishna and explains that the yetzer hara often lures us to sin by highlighting the pleasure we will receive from it. We need to “regain control” of ourselves by reflecting upon the long-term loss sin causes. The gemara (Masechet Sotah 3a) teaches that people only sin if they are dominated by a ruach shetut (foolish spirit). One who carefully considers the true consequences of their actions will choose to fulfill mitzvot and avoid aveirot.
In addition to helping us avoid future sins, our accurate appraisal of sin is also critical to our teshuva for sins committed in the past. We express this idea in the words we add to our viduy (confession of sin): “Sarnu mi’mitzvotecha… v’lo shavah lanu – We have veered from the path of your mitzvot and it was not worth it.” This admission and honest evaluation of our past sins distances us from them and helps us avoid future mistakes.
We have seen that Rebbi encourages us to consider the reward for mitzvah observance and the loss caused by sin. What kind of reward and loss is Rebbi referring to? Many commentaries (see Rashbatz to the Mishna) understand Rebbi as focusing upon the sechar (reward) and onesh (punishment) we receive in the next world. The loss involved in performing a mitzvah and the pleasure offered by sin pale in comparison to the eternal and more meaningful reward and punishment of the next world.
We can add that observing mitzvot and avoiding aveirot are beneficial to us in this world as well. Sin often offers instant gratification, but impacts us negatively later in life. This is why the Torah often uses the word “yom” to describe a person who chooses sin. For example, Yaakov asked Eisav to sell him the bechor (firstborn) rights “hayom – today” (Sefer Bereishit 25:31). The Seforno (ibid.) explains that Yaakov used this word to highlight why Eisav was unworthy of the bechor rights. One who prefers the short-term pleasures of today over meaningful long-term goals cannot be a link in the chain of Jewish generations that is rooted in eternal values.
What We Don’t Know
Though the cost/benefit analysis is helpful, it can also have a negative impact on the nature of our fulfillment. The focus on reward can cause people to pursue only the mitzvot they think offer the most reward. Rebbi preempts this at the start of the Mishneh by noting that we do not actually know the exact reward given for each mitzvah. We should therefore “care” about all mitzvot equally – those we assume to be less significant as much as those we assume to be more (See Rabbeinu Yonah & Maharal to the Mishna).
For this reason, halacha mandates principles like “Ha’osek b’mitzvah patur min ha’mitzvah” (Masechet Sukkah 25a) and “Ein ma’avirin al ha’mitzvot” (See Masechet Pesachim 64b) which reject the prioritization of mitzvot presumed to be of greater significance. We seek to fulfill all mitzvot with equal passion and commitment irrespective of the different amount of reward we associate with each.
Why We Don’t Know
Chazal (Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechet Peah 1:1) take this idea a step further by explaining that Hashem intentionally concealed the amount of sechar awarded for each mitzvah in order to avoid selective fulfillment. As we do not know the reward associated with each mitzvah, we have no choice but to commit ourselves to all them equally. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 6:2, Midrash Tanchuma Eikev 2 and Midrash Tehillim 9) conveys this idea by comparing Hashem to a king who asks his subjects to plant an orchard for him. He avoids revealing his favorite type of tree in order to ensure that all the necessary species are planted.
One question still remains: why does Hashem want us to fulfill all of the various mitzvot instead of focusing on the most important ones? Many meforshim (Such as Sefer Ha’Ikarim 4:20) compare mitzvot to medicines or vitamins. Even if certain ones are more crucial to our health, all of them need to be included in our diet. Others (Tiferet Yisrael to the Mishnah) link different mitzvot to various body parts. Our fingers may be less important than our heart, but they are still important; so too are the mitzvot meant to purify and sustain them.
The Chasid Yavetz makes an additional point. Though we benefit from mitzvah observance, our main goal should be the fulfillment of Hashem’s will. Avot’s first perek (mishna 3) made this point when it warned us not to serve Hashem in order to receive reward. In this sense, all mitzvot are equal, as they are all expressions of Hashem’s will.
In a similar vein, the Ramban (to Sefer Shemot 13:16) quotes our mishna as the basis of his assertion that all mitzvot are precious because they are all our way of thanking Hashem for having created us. As each mitzvah is an equal expression of Hashem’s will, they are each an equally precious way of thanking Him.
Let’s make sure to heed Rebbi’s advice and constantly remind ourselves of how much we gain from mitzvah fulfillment and the price we pay for sin. May this inspire us to make wise decisions.