The Ladder of Life
Chapter 4, Mishna 2
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Ben (the son of) Azzai said, run to perform [even] a minor mitzvah
(commandment) and flee from sin, for 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."
This mishna teaches us that one should be meticulous even in the
observance of "small" mitzvos, and likewise should he run from all evil
acts. One reason that comes to mind almost immediately is the fact that we
should not be so quick to "rate" the mitzvos and pass judgment on their
relative importance. Sometimes the smallest of good deeds (at least from a
technical standpoint) -- such as singing songs at the Sabbath table, or
preparing and eating an authentic Jewish dish -- may generate that spark
of interest in a child which only years later will be kindled into the
huge blaze of an inspired Jewish heart.
(An experienced rabbi years ago told me that you would be amazed how many
otherwise secular Jews will come out of the woodwork to attend an
advertised challah-baking class. Certainly, there is far more to Judaism
than ethnic culture and traditional food, but who knows where that crucial
first step will lead?)
This concept -- that it is beyond our ken to rate the mitzvos -- was
actually the subject of an earlier mishna -- 2:1 (part 2)
(www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-1b.html). Feel free to check
out our discussion there.
Here ben Azzai approaches this topic from a different angle: the cause and
effect nature of both good and bad deeds. His first reason not to
underrate minor mitzvos is because one mitzvah leads to (lit., "drags
along") another. This means that doing one mitzvah will ready and
condition us to do greater mitzvos. One good act, no matter how small,
makes an imprint upon us. Giving a nickel or dime at the cash register to
cure heart disease may make very little difference to the recipient
organization (although, of course, every nickel adds up), but it makes a
difference to us -- as well as to our children who observe us so keenly.
It will transform us into more charitable individuals, and the next time
it will be that much easier. We will have then readied ourselves for
bigger and greater challenges.
A person who has accustomed himself to attend afternoon synagogue services
regularly will be capable of doing so even at the height of the football
season -- when it involves pulling himself away from the boob-tube just at
the start of the fourth quarter. (He may even be more the "strong man"
than the 280 pound hulks he's viewing -- see previous mishna. ;-) Such a
person has properly conditioned himself to serve G-d. His level of
challenge has progressed beyond "Will he go to synagogue?" and certainly
beyond "Will he pray?" He is ready to serve G-d in increasingly more
challenging -- and more rewarding -- ways.
The same unfortunately holds true regarding evil: one sin leads to
another. If a person commits a certain type of sin one time -- say one he
has never done before -- he will feel guilty. The next time, however, he
will not feel that same tinge of regret. He may then slip down another
rung and sin in a slightly bigger way -- partly because he's developed an
appetite for that type of behavior and partly because it's only one
small step from where he now is.
The Talmud teaches that if one sins and repeats it, the sin
becomes "permissible" to him (Sotah 22a). It has just lost its severity.
He wasn't struck by lightning. Nothing seems to have changed; the world
goes on as usual. R. Yisrael Salanter, one of the great scholars and
ethicists of the 19th Century, commented on the above passage: Say one
commits the same sin a third time? What then? Why then it becomes a
mitzvah! We get so used to ourselves and our behavior -- not to mention
our need for self-justification -- that we will no longer see any wrong in
our failings. That angry streak, cynicism, loose tongue etc. -- they're
all necessary to stand up for our rights, hold our own, get on with our
friends etc. Slowly, our evil inclination whittles us down, and what was
once unimaginable and unthinkable becomes routine and unthinking.
A number of years ago a non-Jewish friend of mine told me the following
incident. He was busy at work during Passover, munching on a bag of
pretzels (well, I said he wasn't Jewish!). In the hall he passed by a
Jewess, an exceptionally nice, fairly traditional lady in her forties. He,
in complete innocence (not realizing that pretzels too are "leaven"), held
out the bag to offer her a few. She hesitated at first, then said, "Oh
well, I already blew it when I had that Egg McMuffin the other day!" and
Humorous in a sad kind of way, but very telling. What was this woman's
error? It was in feeling that once she ruined her streak, there was no
point continuing. I would wager that her primary motivation for observing
the mitzvos (to the extent she did) was nostalgia and fond childhood
memories. Once the fond memories became tarnished, the sense of nostalgia
quickly lost its innocence, and she was left with little else drawing her
The truth, however, is that deeds -- both good and bad -- must be seen in
their proper light. If a person slips one time and sins, he has failed in
a single way on a single occasion. It will take him more effort to correct
his new failing, but one failure must not be viewed as any more than it
is. Such a person has slipped a single rung on the ladder of life. He is,
however, still on the ladder -- and must view himself as such. G-d does
not give up on us because of one sin -- or even many sins.
In a related vein, we can only expect to climb the ladder one rung at a
time. It is not realistic or practical to attempt to reach the top without
slowly and painstakingly edging our way forwards -- and sometimes even
resting a little on a middle rung. G-d presented us with the ladder. We
must first recognize that it is there and that we are on it. Only then can
we decide in which direction to go.
The second reason ben Azzai offers for valuing minor mitzvos is because
the reward for performing a mitzvah is another mitzvah. If we perform one
good deed, G-d will reward us by providing us with opportunities to do yet
other mitzvos. Deuteronomy 22:6-7 instructs that before taking eggs or
chicks from a nest one must first send away the mother bird. The following
verses (8-11) discuss a number of laws relating to property and
acquisitions -- building a railing around the (accessible) roof of a
house, laws relating to planting and working fields, and the restriction
on wearing clothes containing mixtures of wool and linen. The Midrash
(brought in Rashi to v. 8) explains the connection: One who fulfills the
first mitzvah of sending away the mother bird -- as easy and effortless as
it is -- will later find himself building a new house and acquiring new
fields, vineyards and clothes. He will then merit to perform the many
mitzvos relevant to these items.
To some extent, this principle is simply a gift from heaven. G-d rewards
us for performing the first mitzvah by putting us in the right place at
the right time, affording us opportunities to do yet more mitzvos.
But there is also a pattern to this. When a person shows G-d he is
prepared to serve Him any way he or she can, G-d takes note of His
faithful servant. When there are jobs to be done G-d knows whom He can
trust. We've all seen people who seem to have the uncanny ability of
always being around when help is needed or a worthy project is getting
underway. Their name always seems to come up. And G-d wills it this way.
When we show our readiness, G-d will see to it that the opportunities
come -- and likewise He will find us worthy of being entrusted with
wealth and other blessings. As a former student of mine appends to her e-
mails, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." The more we
prepare ourselves, the more show our willingness to take that critical
first step, the more G-d will reciprocate -- and reward in kind.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.