Ethics – Now & Then 17 – Avot 2:1

All Israel has a share in the world to come, as it is said: “And Your people all are righteous [tzaddikim]; they shall inherit the Land forever; they are the branch of My planting; My handiwork, in which to take pride.” (Isaiah 60:21)

Star of David ENT

Avot 2:1 Rabbi said: Which is the proper path that a man should choose
                for himself? Whatever is a credit to himself and earns the
                esteem of fellow men. Be as scrupulous in performing a ‘minor‘
                mitzvah [good deed in obedience to a commandment] as in a
                ‘major’ one, for you do not know the the reward given for the
                respective commandments.
                Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward, and the
                reward of a sin against its cost.
                Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin:
                Know what is above you – a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear and
                all your deeds are recorded in a Book.

Rabbi said:

‘Rabbi’ refers to Yehudah HaNasi (135 – 219 CE), who was held in very high esteem and was considered the most excellent of teachers – the Rabbi. He also was called Rabbeinu HaKadosh, our Holy Teacher, for together with his remarkable wisdom and accomplishment, both in spiritual and material matters, he was a man of great honesty and humility. The Talmud states: “With the death of the Rabbi, real humility and fear of sin ceased to exist” (Sotah 49b). [1]

Which is the proper path that a man should choose for himself? Whatever is a credit to himself and earns the esteem of fellow men.

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi emphasizes the fact that God endowed humankind with the ability to choose – to exercise free will. The highest choice we can make, as Yeshua lived and taught, is to choose to obey our Father’s will. “My food is to do the will of Him Who sent me, and to finish His work” (Jn.4:34). The Father’s way, or path, is perfect and as we follow the Shepherd of our souls, Yeshua, he is faithful to lead us in the path of righteousness – the “proper path” that will be a “credit” to oneself and will earn the respect of one’s fellow man – to the glory of God.

As we walk, however, the freedom of choice remains with us. Do we always choose lovingkindness and righteousness over sin and wickedness? Sadly, in the brokenness of this world, sin and evil often prevail in human affairs. Rather than hearing and honoring God’s will in loving obedience, man robs his fellow man by imposing his own will on others through violence, force and fear. Man, as history illustrates, will choose a path for himself without concern for the fate or esteem of others.

Rabbi Yehudah teaches that in choosing, rather, to serve God and to please Him, one’s path will be a balanced one of moderation that will benefit both oneself and others. This credo is simply and beautifully summed up by Yeshua when he says,“Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt.7:12). It was a positive affirmation of Hillel’s counsel, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.” A thief would not want to be robbed and a murderer would certainly not wish the same fate on himself.

Be as scrupulous in performing a ‘minor‘ mitzvah [good deed in obedience to a commandment] as in a ‘major’ one, for you do not know the the reward given for the respective commandments.

The specific ‘rewards’ to be earned by obeying and carrying out the commandments of God are not usually given in Scripture. The one major exception, found in the Decalogue, is that of the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 5:16). Interestingly, the reward of a long, satisfying life also is listed in connection with what the Sages consider the ‘least’ of the commandments: “If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long” (Deut. 22:6-7). Both, however, highlight the relationship between a parent and his/her young, proving the importance of these roles in our Father’s eyes.

As His children, we can understand the general omission of listing rewards as the motivation for our obedience should not be for reward but as a result of our love for our Father and our deep desire to honor and please Him. The fact of reward and punishment is clear. However, every act of obedience is important in God’s eyes and, as Yehudah HaNasi points out, we should pay as much attention to and endeavor to perform the seemingly less important commandments as well as the weightier ones. Yeshua promises reward for a simple act of giving a cup of water to one who thirsts, “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water…, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42).

Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward, and the reward of a sin against its cost.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch comments, “Good deeds and sins alike carry a two-fold recompense. First, there is the objective reward or punishment; this comes sooner or later…either in this world or in the world to come… The other recompense is spiritual in character and it comes to us immediately; it is inherent in the good deed or in the sin itself.” [2]

Obedience to God’s will can bring tangible reward here on earth; however Yeshua warns unequivocally, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven… For where your treasure is there your heart will be also! …You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt.6:19-24). If our time, thoughts and energy are chiefly directed toward the pleasurable rewards to be found in this world, that is where our hearts will be drawn. We will be serving the “master” of the lusts and cares of this life rather than serving the Master in Whom is eternal life.

The immediate spiritual recompense referred to by Rabbi Hirsch is intangible and occurs whether we are aware of it or not. There is a constant flow of interaction between one’s mind, body and spirit. Our thoughts and the actions we perform have an instantaneous effect on our spirit. Little children are very sensitive to and aware of the pleasure in doing something that pleases Mom and Dad, and also feel deep remorse when they do something they know, or discover, is wrong and that upsets them! Similarly, as we learn the will of our Father in Heaven and do what we know pleases Him, there is a building up of the spirit, a moral strengthening and a pleasure in drawing closer to His Presence. Conversely, the result of any evil or disobedient act carries a sense of loss in one’s spirit, a weakening of moral fiber, as it were, that leaves one more susceptible to additional sin. There also is a painful realization of further separation from God. A high cost indeed.

Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin:
Know what is above you – a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear and
all your deeds are recorded in a Book.

The hold of sin can slowly but surely become a very tight grip on one’s life. The wise Rabbi, Yehudah HaNasi, advises awareness of three realities that will help to escape and avoid the grasp of sin. When we know with full assurance that our God is the Creator of Heaven and Earth, and that our lives are in His hands, we can always remember that His “seeing Eye” and “hearing Ear” are constantly watching and listening – because He loves us. When we are committed to living in faithful obedience to His will, this knowledge affords us joy and great peace of mind. Even when obedience requires sacrifice and is difficult we derive a reward of spirit and the satisfaction of a duty done. We can rest in knowing that, more than our outward deeds, our perfectly loving Father sees our hearts and hears our cries…and these also are recorded in His Book of Life.
ENDNOTES:

1. Artscroll Mesorah Series, The Pirkei Avos Treasury; 60
2. S.R. Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers; 20

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