Rebbi Would Say: "Which Is The Right Path That A Man Should Choose For Himself? That Which Is Honorable To Himself And Brings Him Honor From Man.
"Be As Careful In [The Performance Of A Seemingly] Minor Mitzvah As Of A Major One, For You Do Not Know The Reward Given For The Mitzvos.
"Consider The Loss [That Might Be Incurred While Performing] A Mitzvah Against The Reward [Earned By Its Observance], And The Gain [Derived] From [Committing] A Sin Against The Loss.
"Reflect Upon Three Things And You Will Never Come To Sin: Know What Is Above You - An Eye That Sees, An Ear That Hears, And A Book In Which All Your Deeds Are Recorded."
This opening clause presents several difficulties. Among them:
- The very question: "Which is the right path that a man should choose for himself?" is problematic. There is only one proper path of conduct for a Jew - the Torah's way. Furthermore, we are obligated to fulfill the Torah; the matter is not a question of choice.
- There are four Hebrew terms for "man" - adam, ish, gevar, and enosh. The mishnah uses the term adam, which refers to man at the highest level - one who has developed his intellectual capacities. Yet the need to follow "the right path" applies even to a person on the lowest level.
- What is the relationship of this teaching to its author? Furthermore, why does the mishnah refer to him as simply Rebbi? On the surface, it would have been appropriate to refer to him using his name and title, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Indeed, the next mishnah refers to him in this manner.
These difficulties can be resolved as follows: In this mishnah
, Rebbi is instructing a person who has reached the level of adam.
For other people, the right path to follow is obvious; one must adhere to the directives of the Torah and its mitzvos.
When, however, a person already fulfills the Torah and its mitzvos
in a complete manner and has internalized them, thus meriting the title, adam,
there is room to ask: Which path should he follow now?
G-d, the Torah, and the Jewish people are all infinite. Therefore a person must realize that at all times he has both the potential and the responsibility to advance in divine service. There are, however, many paths which grant such an opportunity. Which should the person take? This is the question which Rebbi addresses.
"That which is honorable to himself" points to the potential of human beings to unite with G-d without intermediaries. After a person has thoroughly developed his required connection to G-d through the Torah, he should also seek to develop an intimate, private relationship with G-d.
Nevertheless, the connection with G-d a person establishes must also "bring him honor from man." Coming close to G-d must not take one away from worldly life. A person's conduct should be "good to the heavens, and good to the creations," i.e., the good one performs should be appreciated by others. While striving for the spiritual heights, a man must find favor in the eyes of his fellowmen, Jews and gentiles alike.
To explain this concept in terms of the mitzvah of Kiddush HaShem, the Sanctification of G-d's Name: On one hand, Kiddush HaShem represents the deepest possible bond between man and G-d. Nevertheless, when communicating this mitzvah, the Torah uses the expression: "I will be sanctified among the children of Israel," i.e., one's sanctification of G-d must also find favor "among the children of Israel." In this vein, our Sages explain that this mitzvah involves making G-d's name beloved. One's conduct should make others exclaim: "How fortunate is he for having studied the Torah!"
This level of service is possible because one is already an adam. I.e., the name adam relates to the word adamah as in the phrase, adamah l'elyon - "I resemble the One above." Just as G-d can combine and resolve opposite tendencies, a person should seek to rise above the limits of worldliness while at the same time remaining involved with his surroundings. Moreover, his efforts to relate to his environment should reflect his connection to G-d and his appreciation of G-d's desire for "a dwelling in this world."
The mishnah communicates this teaching in the name of Rebbi. In this context, Rebbi is not a name (as used in the following mishnah), but rather a title meaning "teacher." In composing the Mishnah, Rebbi served as a teacher to the entire Jewish people; this title describes the essence of his existence.
To emphasize this point, the mishnah refers to him as Rebbi instead of using his name, Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi. The title Nasi, "leader," reflects a connection with the entire people. Nevertheless, it also means "uplifted," indicating that the leader is on a much higher rung than the people at large.
The term Rebbi, i.e., teacher of Israel, indicates the point at which all Jews are united - the level at which "Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one." Rebbi relates to the Jewish people on this level, and teaches them how to achieve this inner and outer harmony.
These concepts are particularly relevant in the present age, when we anticipate Mashiach's coming. For it was concerning Rebbi that our Sages said: "If Mashiach is among those alive today, he is surely our holy teacher [Rebbi]."
Rebbi speaks about an adam - a person who like himself has reached a level of personal fulfillment, and yet is forced to suffer the pains of exile. At present, this is relevant to all of us. Since mankind as a whole has fulfilled all the divine service required of us, we have, to borrow an expression of the Previous Rebbe, "polished the buttons"; as a collective, we are on the level of adam.
Having completed everything required of us, we must know what is the right path - the most direct and effective means to bring about the actual coming of Mashiach and the raising of the world to a higher plane of divine service.
(Sefer HaSichos 5750, Vol. II, p. 420ff; 5751, Vol. II, p. 497ff.)
The Hebrew word zahir
, translated as "careful" also means "shine." All the mitzvos
share a fundamental quality; each of them enables one's soul to shine forth.
(Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1191ff)
In his Commentary to the Mishnah
, the Rambam
points out that there is no statement in the Torah detailing the relative severity of the positive commandments. Therefore, one should be careful in the observance of all of them.
Nevertheless, the Rambam continues, there is an indirect means of appreciating the relative severity of positive commandments. The severity of each negative commandment is reflected in the severity of the punishment for its violation. Certain positive commandments are paralleled by negative ones - e.g., there are both positive and negative commandments to observe the Sabbath. By comparing the positive commandment to the negative commandment that parallels it, one can appreciate its relative importance.
In that vein, the Rambam interprets the subsequent clause of the mishnah as follows: "Calculate the loss incurred by [the violation of] a mitzvah [in order] to know the reward [for its fulfillment]"; i.e., appreciate the severity of a negative commandment and from it, assess the importance of the parallel positive commandment.
The Rambam's statements raise a question: Since it is possible to appreciate the relative severity of some positive commandments, how can a person be expected to be equally committed to the performance of all mitzvos?
It can be explained that there are two dimensions to each mitzvah: a) the particular effect it has in refining the person performing it and the world at large; b) the strengthening of a transcendent bond with G-d.
With regard to the first dimension, there is a difference between one mitzvah and another, for each mitzvah is intended to refine a different element of our personality and of the world at large. And yet, such differences do not apply with regard to the second dimension; every mitzvah serves equally to strengthen our connection with the Infinite.
Similar concepts apply in regard to the reward brought about by the observance of mitzvos. On one hand, the reward for a mitzvah depends on the extent of its effects, and thus there are differences between the reward for one mitzvah and another. On the other hand, the ultimate reward for performing a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself, i.e., the tzavsa, or "bond," with G-d that is established by its performance. The realization that such a connection is possible should motivate a person to "Be as careful of [the performance of a seemingly] minor mitzvah as of a major one."
(Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1191ff; Sichos Shabbos Parshas Matos-Masei, 5747)
R. Ovadiah of Bartenura teaches that this clause instructs a person to focus on the endless spiritual advantage he will gain from the observance of a mitzvah
, rather than on the momentary material loss he might suffer. Similarly, committing a sin may provide a temporary material gratification, but also involves an eternal spiritual loss.
This concept raises a question: We are taught that teshuvah, repentance, has the potential to wipe away all a person's sins. How then, can sin be considered as an eternal loss?
This difficulty can be resolved as follows: In Tanya, ch. 29, the Alter Rebbe explains that when a person turns to G-d in complete teshuvah, he renews his relationship with Him, and it is as if he had never sinned. Nevertheless, the sin is not wiped away entirely, since "there are many levels and dimensions within our hearts." As a person advances in his divine service and experiences deeper dimensions of love for G-d, the sins he committed previously create a block, making it necessary for him to rise to an even more complete level of teshuvah.
So even though teshuvah is effective at every level, the effect of sin is lasting.
(Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1196)
The Maggid of Mezritch would say:
"Know that everything above" - all that transpires in the spiritual realms - is "from you" - dependent on your conduct. Each of us has the potential to influence the most elevated spiritual realms.
(Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XX, p. 331)
- (Back to text) See Zohar III, 48a, which discusses the significance of each of these four names, and see the explanations of these concepts in Likkutei Torah, Shir HaShirim, 25a, Sefer HoArochim-Chabad, Vol. I, p. 148ff.
- (Back to text) See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De'os 3:1.
- (Back to text) Kiddushin 40a.
- (Back to text) See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:4.
- (Back to text) Vayikra 22:32.
- (Back to text) Yoma 86a, quoted by the Rambam, loc. cit.:11.
- (Back to text) Yeshayahu 14:14; Shaloh 3a, 20b.
- (Back to text) See Midrash Tanchuma, Bechukosai, sec. 3; Tanya, chs. 33 and 36.
- (Back to text) Sanhedrin 98b.
- (Back to text) Sichos Simchas Torah, 5689.
- (Back to text) See Tzavoas HaRivosh, sec. 1.
- (Back to text) Pirkei Avos 4:2.
- (Back to text) Likkutei Torah, Bechukosai 45c.
- (Back to text) Cited in Or HaTorah al Aggados Chazal, p. 112b.