Performing mitzvot offers inner and outward rewards

Pinchas Lipner


Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2

There are several explanations offered for the detailed enumeration of the wanderings of our people in the desert.

One such explanation points out that the recounting of each stopping place can serve to elucidate the difference between our material achievements and our spiritual achievements.

In Massei, Moses is commanded to establish three cities of refuge for those who had negligently killed someone. He fulfilled this command by establishing three such cities on the east side of the Jordan River, but the cities did not come into use until Joshua (after Moses' death) chose three more such cities on the west side of the Jordan. Moses knew full well that the completion of this mitzvah would not be his, but his enthusiasm was not dimmed. He understood that there is spiritual achievement in each step one takes toward the fulfillment of a mitzvah even if one doesn't merit its completion. So the individual mention of each step on the way from the impurity of Egypt toward the purity of the Holy Land demonstrates that each step had its own intrinsic spiritual value.

Then there is the Talmud, which amazingly proclaims that if one merely had the intention of doing a mitzvah and was for some reason thwarted from actually doing it, then the attempt alone is accepted as if it were the act (Kidushin 40a). Here, the mere intention to perform a mitzvah is counted as if the mitzvah were fulfilled.

But an apparent contradiction may ultimately help us to better understand these concepts. The Talmud (Makkot 23b) seems to suggest that we can ascertain the comparative rewards of different mitzvot and that those requiring much effort and sacrifice will bring us greater reward than the easier ones. But on the other hand, the Mishnah (Avoth 2:1) cautions, "Be as vigilant with a slight mitzvah as a grave one, for you do not know what is the relative reward for the mitzvah."

There is, in fact, no real contradiction. The reward of each mitzvah (regardless of the effort expended on it) is indeed not knowable to us. What is knowable is that in addition to the basic reward for doing a mitzvah, there is another aspect of reward that does relate to the effort expended, and this aspect is evaluated according to the price we pay in sacrifice and difficulty (ibid).

There is a double effect in the performance of a mitzvah. First, there is the effect on the world, the impact on the universe of an act of holiness. This, of course, can happen only if the act is completed. An intention alone cannot cut it. The intention to give tzedakah will not feed the hungry man. In the arena of the individual's holiness, however, the power of the intention can be enormous. Here, one could argue that the actual accomplishment of the mitzvah is almost inconsequential. Our inner life is affected by the sincere and motivated effort regardless of any unavoidable obstacles or preventions. The object of the individual's spiritual life is not the final achievement, but the process of achievement itself.

In material matters, it must be understood, it is the end product only which counts. Economy of resources and effort, large reward in production, in other words, the "bottom line" is what we look for. In this area, effort as a good in itself has no meaning. On the contrary, the extent to which effort can be eliminated is a measure of material success.

The motto of the spiritual sphere, however, is "Lefum tzaarah agrah — the reward and benefit are proportionate to the striving involved."

The long difficult journey of the Jewish nation through the wilderness is a model of this notion. The separate mention of each of their camping stages demonstrates the significance and worth of each step of their passage towards sanctity. The foot set jubilantly on holy ground is not reported here, but the agonizing and seemingly endless process toward holiness is brought down to us.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler of blessed memory used to say, "Everyone is born into the midst of things and dies in the midst of things." Everywhere there is incompleteness, imperfection and ambitions frustrated. In the world of Torah, one can almost ask, "So what?" Even if it isn't within our ability to complete a task, we have no excuse for withdrawing from it (Avoth 2:16). Each movement of the heart toward the Almighty is cherished and treasured for its own sake. Whether or not our efforts result in the completion of the task, "Faithful is He, your Employer, to pay you full wages for your labor" (ibid).

Shabbat shalom.