Shabbos Parashas Mattos-Masei – A Lesson From the Maggid on Pirkei Avos

It is the custom in the summer months to review a chapter of Pirkei Avos each Shabbos afternoon. This week we are reviewing the second chapter, so I decided to present one of the Maggid’s teachings, taken from Ohel Yaakov, Parashas Vayishlach, on the first Mishnah of this chapter. The Mishna states (Avos 2:1): “Be as careful with a ‘minor’ mitzvah as with a ‘major’ mitzvah, for you do not know the reward that is given on account of mitzvos.” This Mishnah prompts two questions. First, why does the Mishnah use the phrasing “reward that is given on account of mitzvos” (מתן שכרן של מצות) rather the simpler phrasing “the reward for mitzvos” (שכרן של מצות)? Second, if we do not know the reward given on account of mitzvos, what sense does it make to speak of “minor mitzos” and “major mitzvos”?
The Maggid explains the Mishnah as follows. It is written (Tehillim 62:13): “Unto You, O Lord, is kindness, when you pay a man according to his deeds” (homiletically rendering כי as when rather that for). That is, when Hashem pays a person reward for a mitzvah, He accompanies the payment with a kindness: He generously includes an added blessing beyond what the person is entitled to for doing the mitzvah. It is like the practice of merchants to give a customer who makes a purchase an added portion of what he bought, or some other bonus. But Hashem takes this practice a huge step further, often giving an extra portion that is worth many times more than the principal reward. This wondrous kindness is described in the following teaching of Bar Kappara (Bereishis Rabbah 61:4):
The added portion (תוספת) that Hashem grants is greater than the principal. Thus, among Chavah’s first two sons, Kayin was the principal [and was accompanied by a single twin sister], while Hevel, who is described as an addition – “And she gave birth further (וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת) to his brother, to Hevel” (Bereishis 4:2) – was accompanied by two twin sisters. Rachel’s principal son Yosef fathered two sons, while her added son Binyamin fathered ten. Eir was Yehudah’s principal son, while Sheilah, who is described as an addition – “She went on still further and gave birth to a son (וַתֹּסֶף עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן), and she called his name Sheilah” (ibid. 38:5) – ultimately produced ten Jewish law courts [see Divrei HaYamim Alef 4:21–22]. Iyov’s principal lifespan was only 70 years, and he received an added allotment of 140 years, as it is written (Iyov 42:16), “And Iyov lived after this 140 years.” Chizkiyahu’s principal reign was only 14 years, and he received an additional 15 years, as it is written (Yeshayah 38:5), “Behold, I add onto your days 15 years.” Yishmael was the principal [among the children of Avraham’s concubine Hagar, later called Keturah], while the added sons that Avraham fathered through Keturah – “And Avraham proceeded further (וַיֹּסֶף אַבְרָהָם) and he took a wife [after Sarah’s death], and her name was Keturah” (Bereishis 25:1) – were numerous: “And she bore him Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midian, Yishbak, and Shuah” (ibid. 25:2).
Elsewhere the Sages give another example of how Hashem adds onto the principal (Shemos Rabbah 18:5):
Initially, when Hashem set out to bring the plagues on Egypt, He announced the slaying of the firstborn at the outset, as it is written (Shemos 4:23): “Behold, I am going to slay your firstborn.” Pharaoh responded by saying (Shemos 5:2): “Who is Hashem, that I should heed His voice?” Hashem said to Himself: “If I bring on him the slaying of the firstborn at the outset, he will send the Jews out. Rather, I will first bring on him other plagues, and as an ultimate result (בעקב זאת) I will subject him to them all.” … Accordingly, Hashem is extolled (Tehillim 90:11): “Who knows the power of Your wrath?” Who knows Your modes of operation that You put into effect at the sea, as it is written (Tehillim 77:20): “In the sea was Your road, and Your path passed through the mighty waters, and Your footsteps (עקבותיך) were not known” – Who knows what effects You ultimately cause to result?
This Midrash shows how far Hashem goes beyond His original pronouncement when displaying wrath. When He grants blessing and pays reward for mitzvos, the added portion is even greater, for our Sages teach that His beneficence is greater than His vengeance (Sotah 11a; Sanhedrin 100a-b). Thus, given that – as the Midrash teaches – it is impossible to gauge the overabundant display of power that results when Hashem exacts retribution, surely it is impossible to gauge the overabundant display of benevolence that results when He pays reward.
We can now understand the Mishnah in Avos. The phrase “reward that is given on account of mitzvos” (מתן שכרן של מצות) that the Mishnah uses refers to the added blessing that Hashem provides in the wake (בעקב) of His coming to pay reward, for it is a gift (מתנה) that accompanies the principal reward. The Mishnah tells us to be as careful with a “minor” mitzvah as with a “major” mitzvah because we do not know what additional blessing Hashem grants as an adjunct to the reward for a given mitzvah. Occasionally the Torah specifies the reward for a given mitzvah, but in such cases it is specifying only the principal reward – we have no inkling of what the accompanying added blessing may be.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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