One Step At a Time

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The Maharal in the second chapter of his classic work Derech HaChaim writes that the first Mishna of each chapter of Pirkei Avot includes several important principles and themes that pertain to the rest of the chapter. It is therefore critical to dive deep to better understand the opening words and teachings of each chapter. The fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot opens with the famous teaching of Ben Zoma who describes the true meaning behind some of life’s most sought after character traits. Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. Who is strong? One who conquers his own Yetzer, his own inclination. Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his portion. Who is honored? One who honors others. In many ways, Ben Zoma’s teaching is the total opposite of what one might expect. Modern society defines those that are strongest, wealthiest, happiest, and deserving of honor in very different ways. Yet, Ben Zoma teaches that each of these (at times) superficial traits have a deeper inner nature to them. While this is certainly a beautiful and important teaching, for what reason is this Mishna listed first? In what way does Ben Zoma’s teaching set the stage for the rest of the chapter?

Interestingly, some have argued that the first two Mishnayot of the Chapter are in fact linked as both authors of each Mishna have the distinction of being referred to exclusively by their father’s names. Mishna 1 describes the teaching of Ben Zoma (the son of Zoma) and Mishna 2 describes the teaching of Ben Azzai (the son of Azzai). There are those that argue that both Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai share the name Shimon and as such are referred to by their father’s name to avoid confusion. Yet, that hypothesis proves to be problematic in that the Gemara in Tractate Chullin (83a) explicitly refers to Ben Zoma as Rabbi Shimon ben Zoma. In addition, it is interesting to point out that neither Ben Zoma nor Ben Azzai are referred to with the title of Rabbi. Rashi in Tractate Kiddushin (59b) posits that each of these sages died at a young age and therefore never completed their Rabbinic ordination. Others such as the Maharal write that Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai were each prolific scholars at such a young age that they were referred to by their father’s name which ultimately stuck for years to come.

There are some wonderful stories that describe the greatness of both Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai. The Gemara in Tractate Berachot (57b) writes that, “whoever sees Ben Zoma in a dream may anticipate wisdom.” The Rambam, Maimonides, in his introduction to the Mishna writes that Ben Zoma was so great and unique to his generation that he deserved to have “all the Jews serve him.” Similarly, the Gemara goes to great lengths in discussing the greatness of Ben Azzai. In fact the Gemara in Tractate Yevamot (63a) describes how Ben Azzai was so dedicated to Torah learning that he never got married. When his students challenged him on this matter citing a previous teaching of his about the importance and value of getting married, Ben Zoma replied that, “What can I do, since my soul yearns for the Torah, and having children can always be fulfilled by others.” As an interesting side note, Tosafot in his comments on the Gemara writes that Ben Azzai did get married (to his colleague Rabbi Akiva’s daughter), however when he saw that he could not remain separated from the Torah for even one moment, he divorced her. While, in more modern times, it may be hard to relate to this story, it is clear that Ben Azzai was a great Torah scholar. Like Ben Zoma, the Gemara in Tractate Berachot (57b) writes that, “if a person sees Ben Azzai in a dream, he may anticipate piety.”

It is clear that both Rabbis, who share the name Shimon, Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai, were great leaders and teachers of the Jewish people. Yet, Pirkei Avot is filled with many great Rabbis. Why would these two similarly described Rabbis have their teachings placed in adjacent Mishnayot? Just because they have similar names?! More than that, Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai lived in different historical times. In what way are their teachings connected? Why does the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot begin with the teachings of Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai?

Working backwards from the second Mishna of the fourth chapter, Ben Azzai teaches a very simple, yet important idea—One should run to a ‘light’ Mitzvah and flee from sin because one Mitzvah leads to another Mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin. In addition, the reward for a Mitzvah is another Mitzvah, and the reward for a sin is another sin. In other words, Ben Azzai is emphasizing the importance of adhering to all of G-d’s Mitzvot, even those that may seem less important or consequential. Ben Azzai’s words of “Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah” that one Mitzvah leads to another Mitzvah, have been made famous through many children and popular songs. Yet, what is remarkable about Ben Azzai’s teachings is that once again, a Rabbi in Pirkei Avot is simply repeating a previous teaching said by another Rabbi. Pirkei Avot (2:1) already discussed this issue, when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi taught, “Hevey Zahir BiMitzvah Kalah KiVaChamura” ; “Be as meticulous in the observance of a minor Mitzvah as a major one.” If that is the case, what is Ben Azzai adding to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s teaching? Running with the same enthusiasm to both ‘light’ and ‘weightier’ Mitzvot is the same idea as being equally meticulous in the observance of these different types of Mitzvot?!

What is fascinating is that many of the commentators attempt to offer descriptions of what might be classified as a ‘light’ Mitzvah. Rashi in his commentary noting the discrepancy between Mishna 4:2 and Mishna 2:1 describes a ‘light’ Mitzvah as a Mitzvah that appears less significant. Building off this idea, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau in his Pirkei Avot commentary quotes the Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Israel Lipschitz) who delineates five types of ‘minor Mitzvot’:

  1. Mitzvot that do not take a long time to perform and who fulfillment does not require physical prowess
  2. Mitzvot that take time but that are easy to fulfill because one is accustomed to do them, such as daily prayer
  3. Mitzvot that are kept even if the Torah did not command them such as honoring one’s parents
  4. Mitzvot that are physically enjoyed such as eating on Shabbat and holidays
  5. Mitzvot that are performed in the presence of others such as putting on Tefillin or shaking a Lulva which may be done in part for the sake of upholding a person’s reputation.

Based on the above list, the question of what Ben Azzai is adding to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s teaching in Mishna 2:1 is strengthened. None of these ‘light’ Mitzvot need much motivation at all. They are things that are done with practically no effort. What then is Ben Azzai adding in his teaching?

Perhaps it can be suggested that Ben Azzai is not trying to teach about the importance of doing ‘light’ Mitzvot like Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi had taught. Rather, Ben Azzai is emphasizing the way in which a person performs all Mitzvot. Ben Azzai begins Mishna 2 by teaching, “Hevi Ratz” ; “Run” to do a Mitzvah. Based on this, Ben Azzai is in fact teaching the important Jewish value of Zerizut, or alacrity, when performing Mitzvot. The Gemara learns the idea of Zerizut from our forefather Avraham. On two different occasions, Avraham displayed an eager enthusiasm and passionate attitude in fulfilling G-d’s commandments. The Gemara in Tractate Berachot (6b) writes that Avraham displayed zeal in personally attending to the needs of his angelic visitors. In addition, the Gemara in Pesachim (4a) describes how Avraham woke up early in the morning to begin his journey for the Akeida. Avraham teaches of the importance of Zerizut, which comprises not only swiftness but also the energy a person should generate in performing G-d’s commandments. Avraham never wanted to wait one extra moment in grasping the opportunity to worship G-d. Similarly, Ben Azzai teaches, neither should we. Mitzvot should be performed with Zerizut.

This notion of Zerizut actually plays itself out in a number of interesting Halachik scenarios and questions. For example, while the entire eighth day is suitable for circumcision a newborn baby boy, the ideal of Zerizut teaches that one should attempt to perform the Brit Milah as early as possible in the day. However, the question then becomes what one should do when the principle of Zerizut comes into conflict with other Halachik principles. For example, there is an idea of Birov Am Hadrat Melech, that it is more suitable to perform a Mitzah with a larger crowd. Is it therefore more ideal to perform a Brit Milah earlier in the morning to fulfill Zerizut or is more ideal to perform a Brit Milah later in the day when more people are able to attend? These questions and others like it are based on a more intricate and detailed understanding of Zerizut beyond the scope of this discussion. (For those interested in more information please see Termuat HaDeshen Siman 35).

Rabbeinu Yona in his commentary to Mishna 2 teaches that Ben Azzai in fact offers two different reasons as to why a person should pursue Mitzvot and avoid sins. The first reason Ben Azzai teaches is that Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah, that one Mitzvah causes another Mitzvah. In other words, much like someone that is dieting or trying to make a major life improvement, change begins with one step forward. Each day those steps build off of each other and help a person get to where they need to be. In this case, a fulfilling religious experience through the conditioning of observing Mitzvot. However, Ben Azzai teaches a second reason as to why a person should pursue Mitzvot—a Mitzvah’s reward is another Mitzvah. This idea seems to suggest a form of Divine assistance, of G-d helping a person to accomplish additional Mitzvot. In other words, not only does one help themselves to perform other Mitzvot by doing one Mitzvah, but they also invoke G-d’s help who rewards them with the opportunity to perform another Mitzvah. The Gemara in Tractate Bava Batra (9b) teaches a perfect example of this idea of Divine assistance in that if a person fulfills the Mitzvah of giving Tzedaka, of giving charity, then G-d provides even greater financial abilities to such a person to maintain his or her level of performance. It is only with the attitude of Zerizut, of sprinting to a Mitzvah, that one is able to truly achieve this level of conditioning and Divine assistance in continuing to perform G-d’s Mitzvot.

This emphasis of the teaching of Ben Azzai puts Mishna 1 of the fourth chapter into an entirely different context. Ben Azzai’s teaching can now be seen as complementing and completing the teaching of Ben Zoma. In Mishna 1, Ben Zoma listed character traits valued by all people, yet offered a very high bar for anyone to achieve these traits. For example, ‘being happy with what you have’ is incredibly difficult to do. Who is strong? One who conquers his own Yetzer, his evil inclination. How many people can actually say they have conquered their evil inclination? After studying Ben Zoma’s teaching a person is certain to feel inadequate. How could anyone ever consider themselves to be happy, wealthy, wise, or honored with such high standards? Therefore Ben Azzai comes to complete Ben Zoma’s teaching by explaining that G-d does not expect a person to one day wake up and reach these pious highs. Instead G-d expects a person to start slowly, to do one Mitzvah at a time to ultimately work towards these goals. The more regularly a person works and improves even on the easiest and ‘lightest’ of Mitzvot the easier the more challenging Mitzvot become. These two Mishnayot together teach that the journey is in many ways much more valuable and important than the destination. One’s attitude, having Zerizut, enthusiasm and passion, while performing these ‘lighter’ Mitzvot is what allows a person to gradually climb up each rung of the ladder closer to G-d. Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah and Schar Mitzvah Mitzvah—together with G-d’s help when we have the right attitude and alacrity Mitzvot build off of each other bringing us closer to G-d.

As we will see throughout our studies of Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot, this message serves as the foundation and the theme of this chapter. May we each find meaning in our relationship with G-d as we continue to work hard, and have great enthusiasm and Zerizut in performing G-d’s Mitzvot