Ethics Now & Then 63 – Avot 4:13

Avot 4:13  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: He who fulfills even a single mitzvah gains himself a single advocate, and he who commits even a single transgression gains himself a single accuser. Repentance and good deeds are like a shield against retribution.

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Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said:

There are two sages by this name but it is believed that the Rabbi Eliezer quoted here lived during the 2nd Century and was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.  Rabbi Eliezer was a member of the synod that convened after the vicious persecutions perpetrated by the Roman emperor Hadrian. The aim and purpose of the synod was to restore and preserve the spiritual and communal life of the Jewish people.

 He who fulfills even a single mitzvah gains himself a single advocate…

The rather challenging fact is stressed by Rabbi Eliezer that every small deed we perform is significant. Every action we take is like a seed that is planted and will bear a harvest. Each deed has greater repercussions than we can realize. To help in our appreciation of  the effect of our actions, the Sages present the metaphor of angels.

In connection with the undertsanding that we each have an inbuilt yetzer tov (an inclination for good) and a yetzer ra (an inclination toward evil), when you act in accord with your yetzer tov and do a mitzvah (good deed), an angel is created that acts as an advocate for you; one who will act as a protector and defender. The Midrash thus records that if a person does many mitzvoth, “…the Holy One gives him half His camp”!* Even thousands of angels to encamp about him. We hear an echo of this in Yeshua’s words when, late at night after the Passover Seder, a large group of the camp of the corrupt High Priest and elders came to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and He will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).

Every act of goodness and holiness has an invisible ripple effect and adds to the power of good in the world. In addition, there is an effect within the person who does good himself and his character and life are deeply and positively influenced. Grasping this truth can strongly encourage us to obey the commandments for good (mitzvoth) that we are presented with in God’s Word. We can happily aim to act in obedience with the perfect will of our Father in Heaven, whose unfailing love we can fully trust and whose will we know is only for our unending good.

Yeshua himself taught and lived and commissioned his disciples: ” I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31). He came that all the world might come into knowledge of God and His chesed ve’emet, His loving-kindness and truth. In the prayer Yeshua prayed with all his being before he was arrested and taken for trial and crucifixion, he proclaims: “I have given them Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that You [Father] take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (John 17:14-17).

…and he who commits even a single transgression gains himself a single accuser.

Conversely, with every evil deed (sin or transgression of God’s will – averah) a person gains an accusing angel, a “prosecuting attorney” that will have a negative influence in his life and upon his character and that will result in ripples of evil in the world. Every known transgression is, in effect, a disregard of and a rebellion against the will of one’s Creator. It therefore carries with it a cloud of guilt that brings a degree of separation from His light and Presence.

In this context, the Sages say that at Rosh HaShanah, following a special time of grace and opportunity to finely examine one’s heart and life  in order to repent during the month of Elul, the time of Judgment of the year’s deeds arrives and “…the Holy Blessed One bids the ministering angels, ‘Erect a platform; let the defense attorneys stand [there]; and let the accusers stand [here].'”**  The Sages also consider that one does not cancel out the other. They all stand. A mitzvah does not cancel out an averah. A simple example: If a store owner deliberately overcharges a customer by $10- he cannot then give $10- to a beggar thinking that will absolve his guilt. The only recourse is true repentance. To do justly, he needs to face and admit his guilt and return the money to the customer, and he must determine to not repeat the sin in the future.

 Repentance and good deeds are like a shield against retribution.

Repentance in Hebrew is teshuvah, from the root ‘to turn and return’. The concept, as we know, is perfectly described in Yeshua’s parable of the Prodigal Son – or, better still, the Merciful Father. The errant son was not restored immediately, at the time the realization of the extent of the transgression of his father’s will dawned on him. It required a process. Whatever was done needed to be corrected. To be shielded from sin as he went forward, he needed to make the journey of return in humility and with full resolve to not act in the same way again.

From these verses in Avot we can gain a deeper appreciation of how important it is to keep far from sin and to keep our focus on walking in obedience to the mitzvoth in God’s Word and to spread His goodness in the world. This is the conclusion shared also by King Solomon, as he wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

At the same time we can rest and rejoice in the overwhelming love and mercy of our Father God. His eyes are ever upon us to do good and we are reminded: “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My Word” (Isaiah 22:2b).

As we turn and return to Him we can sing each day with grateful hearts: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’ (Lamentations 3:22-24).

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Based on the belief that Jesus died as an atonement for sin, a prevailing teaching in the Church holds that sins are automatically pardoned and the commandments of God are thus made null and void.
Does the law/Torah/teaching of God expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures still have relevance and, if so, how is it applicable in the life of a believer today?

Romans 8:1 reads: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Yeshua/Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

Sadly, instead of applying this verse to the “law of sin and death” – the inclination toward sin that seeks to indulge and satisfy the flesh – it is applied to the Holy Scriptures themselves – the Word that brings life! Paul clarifies this in verse 7:  “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law/Torah; indeed, it cannot.”

Many Christians believe, as has been taught in Replacement Theology and in the majority of the Church’s denominations, that the “law” that one is set free from is the Law/Torah of God. This thinking, built on and substantiated by other random verses from the letters of Paul, effectively frees one from paying attention to the commandments of God given in the  Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, the Torah, we are told, was written by the finger or Spirit of God, and will stand when all else fades. By His Spirit given in Yeshua all can cry, “Abba! Father!” (v. 16) and can learn, through His Word, to walk after the Good Shepherd Yeshua in Abba’s Torah (teaching) and ways of truth and kindness.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom.8:14).



* Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 32.

** Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh HaShanah 1:3

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