June 18, 2024
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רַבִּי אוֹמֵר … וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְּבַחֲמוּרָה, שֶׁאֵין אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל מִצְוֹת.
 וֶהֱוֵי מְחַשֵּׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ, ושְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה כְּנֶגֶד הֶפְסֵדָהּ (אבות ב:א):
בֶּן עַזַּאי אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי רָץ לְמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְּבַחֲמוּרָה, וּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה.
שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה. שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה. וּשְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה, עֲבֵרָה (אבות ד:ב):

Last time, we studied the Rabbi’s teaching (Avot 2:1) about the importance of being cautious about the performance of all mitzvot — even those we assume to be less significant. Ben Azzai continues this theme by encouraging us to not only be cautious, but to also run to fulfill all mitzvot — even those we see as less significant.

Running From the Beginning

We learn the importance of running to fulfill mitzvot from Avraham Avinu. When telling the story of Avraham hachnasat orchim (hospitality), the Torah mentions four (!) times that he ran and rushed (Bereishit 18:6-7). First he ran to invite them, then he rushed to ask Sarah to bake bread for them and then he ran to find meat and rushed to prepare it for them.

The Ramban explains that the Torah emphasizes this point because Avraham’s running and haste reflect his passion for chesed. He saw chesed and mitzvot as more than mere obligations; they were his passion. We use the word “ratz” — an abbreviation of the word ratzon (will) — to describe running because we run towards what we are passionate about. The Torah’s description of Avraham’s actions teaches us to be passionate about mitzvah observance and to express this passion by running to fulfill them.

Passion

Another expression of such passion is our fulfillment of mitzvot, at the earliest possible moment. Chazal (Pesachim 4a) called this concept “zerizin makdimin l’mitzvot.”

Moshe Rabbeinu took this a step further. He was so eager to fulfill the mitzvah of establishing arei miklat (cities of refuge) that he designated three cities for this purpose on the western side of the Jordan River — as soon as it was captured — even though the cities would not be operational until the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael proper. Moshe valued mitzvah observance so deeply that he seized the opportunity to fulfill mitzvot, even before they were mandated.

A powerful story told about the Chofetz Chaim demonstrates this eagerness to fulfill mitzvot. Late one night, a boy returning from the Radin yeshiva in the midst of a snowstorm encountered the Chofetz Chaim. The latter admonished him for being out late in the snow, and told him to go home right away. The next morning, the boy asked his host — the Chofetz Chaim’s sister — why the Chofetz Chaim himself was out that night. She explained that since the moon had not been visible for kiddush levanah the past motzei Shabbat, the Chofetz Chaim had been walking around each night (even in the snow) hoping that he could see the moon, and fulfill the mitzvah of kiddush levanah.

The Will Behind It All

Like the Rabbi, Ben Azzai stresses the importance of all mitzvot by encouraging us to run even towards mitzvot we assume to be less significant. The Alshich explains that we should run towards all mitzvot, because they are all (equally) the will of Hashem. The logic behind Ben Azzai’s words is similar to the teaching of Ben Teima (Avot 5:20) who recommends “running like a deer to fulfill the will of your Father-in-Heaven.” We fulfill mitzvot because they are the quintessential expressions of Hashem’s will. As they all equally express His will, we should run towards all of them equally.

The Pirkei Moshe takes this idea a step further, and explains that running to fulfill mitzvot — whose fulfillment we see as less important — is even more significant than running towards those we see as more important. Rushing to fulfill an “important” mitzvah reflects the mitzvah’s importance. Rushing to fulfill less “important” mitzvot expresses our passion to follow Hashem’s will.

One Thing Leads to Another …

Ben Azzai gives two (additional) reasons for why people should run to fulfill all mitzvot. The first reason is that “mitzvah goreret mitzvah — each mitzvah generates another mitzvah.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that fulfilling any mitzvah accustoms us to such behavior and, inevitably, fosters our fulfillment of additional ones. The specific mitzvah one starts with is — therefore — less important, because the fulfillment of any and all mitzvot inspires future mitzvah observance.

This same conditioning occurs with sin. We should run from any and all sins just as we run towards all mitzvot, because violating any sin weakens our aversion to future ones. Based upon the first pasuk in sefer Tehillim, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 18b) explains that even one who intends to just “pass by” sinners will come to stop and observe their activities and, eventually, “sit” and join them.

Rav Huna (Yoma 86b) presents this idea sharply by explaining that after committing a sin twice, we start to view it as permissible. Though we initially see sin as taboo, transgression of even a minor aveira erodes this aversion to the point where we come to see that sin — and even more severe ones — as acceptable. The Sifrei (Sefer Devarim, 186) says that a person begins by transgressing an aveira kalah, but eventually reaches an aveira chamura.

For example, a person could start with hatred and progress to murder, exactly like Kayin did with Hevel. The Gemara (Shabbat 105b) explains that this is the strategy of the yetzer hara: he starts with something small and, eventually, works his way up to avodah zara. Like Rabbi Shimon (Avot 2:9), who emphasized the importance of considering the future implications of our actions; Ben Azzai urges us to run from even minor sins, because of the additional ones, our initial transgression will inevitably generate.

The Chassid Yavetz adds an important point to our appreciation of Ben Azzai’s teaching. He explains that mitzvah observance generates additional fulfillment (only) when we are passionate about the initial observance. Running to fulfill mitzvot expresses and reinforces our appreciation of mitzvot. This appreciation inspires additional fulfillment.

Hashem’s Helping Hand

Rav Chaim Volozhin makes a similar point regarding the next part of the mishna, Ben Azzai’s second reason to pursue mitzvot: “Sechar mitzvah, mitzvah. Sechar aveirah, aveirah.” The question the commentaries address is the relationship between this reason and the first one (“mitzvah goreret mitzvah”).

Rabbeinu Yonah explains that, in addition to our own conditioning (goreret), when we perform a mitzvah, Hashem rewards us (gives sechar) by strengthening our efforts. Reish Lakish (Yoma 38b) develops this idea by asserting that Hashem “opens the door” for one who wants to sin, and aids those who seek to purify themselves. The first step is ours to make alone… Once we make that choice, Hashem assists our efforts.

Rabbi Chaim Volozhin builds off Rabbeinu Yonah’s idea and explains that Hashem assists us, even before we begin the actual performance of the first mitzvah. He helps us as soon as we express interest in the mitzvah — as soon as we run towards it. Ben Azzai encourages us to run towards mitzvot because when we do, Hashem helps us successfully fulfill them. According to Rabbi ChaimVolozhin, the initial “mitzvah” Ben Azzai refers to is the running to fulfill and the “sechar mitzvah — reward,” refers to Hashem’s help in actually fulfilling the mitzvah that we run towards.

Inspiration and Assistance

In summary (of the various explanations), Ben Azzai encourages us to run towards mitzvah observance, because our expression of our passion to fulfill reinforces our appreciation of mitzvot. This appreciation inspires us to continue fulfilling in the future and earns us Hashem’s assistance towards such fulfillment…

May Ben Azzai’s words help us appreciate the opportunity to observe mitzvot, as well as the significance of running towards them. May our “running towards mitzvot” inspire us to continue fulfilling mitzvot in the future.


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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