Every man shall fear his mother and his father… (Vayikra 19:3)
GIGGLES COULD BE heard throughout the room. Even the morah smiled. She hadn’t meant it to be a funny question, but 14-year old Devorah always had a particular way of saying things…and sometimes in a very humorous way.
They were learning about the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, and going over the Talmud’s account of Dama ben Nesina:
Rebi Eliezer was asked: “How far does the honor of parents extend?”
He answered, “See what a certain gentile called Dama ben Nesina did in Ashkelon! The rabbis wanted jewels for the Ephod, at a profit of 600,000 [gold dinari]…but since the key was lying under his father’s pillow, and he did not trouble him…”
It was at this point that Devorah had raised her hand, a very serious and confused look on her face.
“Yes, Devorah?” the teacher asked, bracing herself for what might come out of that cute and interesting 14-year-old mouth.
“I don’t get it,” Devorah said in all seriousness. “If I did that, my father would KILL me!”
That’s what caused the cascade of giggles across the room, and forced the morah to smile too.
“First of all,” the morah said, once the class regained its calm, “I think that ‘kill’ is a strong word.”
Devorah blushed. She knew what the teacher meant, and realized her exaggeration. She amended her statement, “Okay, but he would get REALLY mad at me!”
“For what?” asked the teacher, knowing exactly what her student meant but wanting her to spell it out.
“I don’t know how much denarim are worth today,” Devorah explained, “but 600,000 sounds like a LOT of money to me! I don’t think my father would want to sleep through a chance to make SOOO much money SOOO easily!”
Devorah’s emphasis and tone got a few more smiles. It also woke up some of the other students, who until that moment had been prepared to accept the Talmud’s story at face value. All of a sudden, another classmate called out, “Yeah, mine neither!”
“Yeah,” others agreed, one after the other.
The teacher was pleased. It’s what she had hoped would happen. Right on cue, Devorah got the discussion rolling.
“Well,” the morah began, “according to what I read, a denarius was worth a day’s pay for a skilled laborer…in other words, someone trained to do a particular job. That’s roughly about $50. So if we multiply $50 by 600,000, we get, oh…about $30,000,000 in today’s terms.”
There was a collective gasp from all the students.
“No,” Devorah said, “I think for $30,000,000 my father WOULD have killed me!”
Once again, the class laughed, as did her teacher.
“Okay, okay…” the morah said, “it IS funny. But Devorah is raising a good point, which we need to discuss.”
The class gradually became quiet again.
“Let’s see what Hashem thought of Dama’s actions. HIS father obviously didn’t KILL him, because Dama was still around for the second half of the story”:
The following year, the Holy One, blessed is He, gave him a reward. A parah adumah was born in his herd. When the rabbis of the Jewish people went to him [to buy it], he said to them, “I know you, that [even] if I asked you for all the money in the world, you would pay me! But I only ask of you the money which I lost because of my father’s honor.”
The teacher looked at the students to see how the conclusion registered with them. Only some had a look that indicated they were trying to process the story.
“So,” she asked, to stimulate discussion, “does it sound as if Hashem was happy with Dama’s original decision, or upset about it?”
“Happy,” Devorah said right away.
“Happy,” said another, and then another, and then another.
“I’d say so!” the teacher agreed with a little drama.
“But let me ask you another question,” she said.
The students perked up.
“Is a non-Jew obligated in the mitzvah of honoring his or her parents?”
They didn’t know the answer.
“No,” the teacher answered for them. “In fact, the Talmud itself makes this point, saying that a person who does a mitzvah—but doesn’t have to—does not get as much a reward in Olam HaBa as someone who IS commanded to do the mitzvah. So why use an example of someone who is NOT obligated in the mitzvah of Kibud Av v’Aim instead of an example of someone who IS obligated in the mitzvah?”
“That’s an interesting question!” Devorah said.
“Yes, it is,” the teacher agreed.
“What’s the answer?” another student asked.
“THAT’S what I want YOU to think about,” the morah said. “So this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to separate into four groups, and each group will discuss the question and think of an answer.”
“What do we get if we’re right?” one student asked, reading the minds of most of the others.
The teacher got up, walked over to the closet, and opened it. The students craned their necks and strained to see what was inside, and soon whispers circulated about their favorite snacks being the reward for successfully completing the quest.
“Worth it?” the morah asked them.
“Yes!” they replied in unison, after which they were divided into groups by the teacher.
Minutes passed, during which she periodically looked up from her other work to check on the students. She was pleased with the intensity of the discussions and was looking forward to hearing the conclusions. Fifteen minutes later, they returned to their seats, ready to present their findings and, with the “help of God,” reap the rewards.
“You all sounded as if you took this assignment seriously,” she started, and added, “It’s amazing how the promise of reward can motivate us.”
The students smiled at that fundamental.
“Who wants to go first?” she asked.
Devorah’s hand exploded upward, giving her the right of the first answer.
“Yes, Devorah,” her morah acknowledged. “You seem eager to give your group’s answer!”
“I sure am!” Devorah agreed. “We think…” she began, looking at her “colleagues” as she spoke, “that the rabbis used the example of a non-Jew to tell us, ‘Look how much someone who is NOT Jewish and who doesn’t have to honor his father did so. Therefore you…meaning us Jews…have to go even FURTHER!’”
She looked at her friends to make sure that she got it right, and they all nodded in agreement. Then she looked at the teacher for her response, and got it a few seconds later.
“Very good,” the morah told her. “That is a wonderful answer!”
Everyone in her group felt great, and they were pleased that they clearly had answered correctly. They could almost taste the snack sitting on the closet shelf, just waiting to be enjoyed by some lucky students.
The teacher then went on to repeat the SAME thing to ALL four groups. They all had come up with variations of the same idea, although some went off on tangents at the end. But that didn’t bother the teacher, because she had her own ideas to add to the discussion. The exercise was mainly to put her students in the proper frame of mind to hear them. The ideas were THAT important.
“I’m impressed with all the answers,” she told the class. “You really thought deeply and articulated your answers well. In fact, I really don’t know if one group deserves the prize more than another,” she told them. “But I have good news! In anticipation of a tie, I made sure to buy enough noshes for EVERYONE! You’re ALL winners today.”
There were big grins on all the faces.
“But,” she continued, “before we get to that, I would like to share something with you that I was privileged to hear from the rabbi of my shul, Rabbi Freifeld, in a shiur a few weeks ago. I think you will enjoy it too. It’s ALL about reward!”
They weren’t sure they agreed with their morah, but they also weren’t in a position to disagree verbally. So they paid attention.
“By now you all know that this world is not the place where we receive reward for our mitzvos. Everything Hashem gives us in THIS world is so that we can DO mitzvos and EARN reward for them. If we don’t eat, we can’t do mitzvos. If don’t have clothes, we are limited in the mitzvos we can do. We need material things in life purely so that we can do spiritual things.”
She paused and looked at their faces. Unable to read many of them, she asked, “Does everyone understand what I am saying?”
The students nodded affirmatively, even those who didn’t fully understand, so she continued.
“We just saw how important it is to know what awaits us for doing something we do not necessarily FEEL like doing. And even though we are told to serve Hashem without thinking about receiving a reward, humans…that’s us…still need to know about the reward we’re going to get for doing so…”
“That’s a LOT of noshes!” one student called out from the back of the room, getting a good laugh from everyone, including the morah.
“Yes, it IS a lot of noshes!” she affectionately confirmed. Then thinking about it, said, “The truth is, what is waiting for us is far more ENJOYABLE than just a NOSH!”
“What’s more enjoyable than a NOSH?” a different student called out.
“That’s a good question,” the teacher replied. And THAT is what the story of Dama ben Nesina is coming to help us understand.
The girls were all ears. This was something they instinctively wanted to know.
“So,” she began, “we all agree that Dama’s reward was HUGE for such a small mitzvah…that he wasn’t even obligated to do, right?”
Some nodded yes. Others whispered it.
“And yet the rabbis tell us right after the story of Dama that someone who is COMMANDED to do a mitzvah gets even MORE reward than someone who is NOT commanded to do a mitzvah. MUCH MORE!” she added with emphasis.
“Wowwww,” Devorah said.
The teacher smiled.
“He got SO much reward,” Devorah spoke, making calculations in her mind, “and we get even more…because we HAVE to do the mitzvah?”
“So…” Devorah continued to think out loud, “just imagine the reward we get simply for washing netilas yadayim before eating bread, making a motzei, dovening, and honoring OUR father and mother!”
“That’s right!” agreed the teacher, again happy that she was getting the message across.
“And,” Devorah continued, “it’s amazing how much Hashem rewarded a gentile for a mitzvah he didn’t even have kavanah to do…just because it was a good thing…like the mitzvah itself.”
“You are right!” said the teacher, looking at the rest of the girls to make sure they were walking the same intellectual path.
“So someone could be a billionaire,” Devorah asked, “because he did some kind of mitzvah, even though he didn’t plan to?”
“Sure!” the morah answered. “After all, how much do we benefit as Torah Jews from all the amazing inventions the non-Jewish world has created over the thousands of years of history. Even if they didn’t want the Jews to benefit from them, if we eventually did, then God rewards them. The rabbis says that God never holds back any reward from any created being!”
“But,” Rachel told her teacher, “our reward comes later…in Olam HaBa. And it’s MASSIVE compared to any reward non-obligated people might receive down here for any mitzvah they might have done, even inadvertently!”
“That’s right!” Devorah said excitedly. Except now she was not the student, but the teacher, a seminary teacher. It was 15 years after that discussion about reward for mitzvos, and in the meantime she had married and given birth to two children of her own. She was also a popular teacher at a local seminary.
That class back when she was 14-years-old had definitely impacted her way of thinking. In fact, it was what made her decide that she too would become a morah one day, so she could share such wonderful and important ideas with her own children. And she did, both the ones she gave birth to and the ones who made a point of coming to her classes.