These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

What I learned at Pardes This Week (#2)

Posted on March 24, 2011 by Pious Antic

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In my halakha (Jewish Law) class last semester, we looked at a piece of gemara in which one rabbi asserts that an averah (sin) which is done for the sake of heaven (lishmah) is superior to a mitzvah (a good deed) that is done not for the sake of heaven. It is then countered that if one does a mitzvah not for the sake of heaven, one will eventually end up doing it for the sake of heaven, and so the gemara concludes that an aveirah for the sake of heaven is equivalent, but not superior, to a mitzvah that is for the sake of heaven.

What is a sin that is done for the sake of heaven? The two examples that gemara deals with are (1) Tamar in the Book of Genesis, who sleeps with her father in law (really big aveirah) to prove a point and (2) Yael, who commits adultery with the enemy general during a war in order to kill him.

It’s clear that these are aveirot for the sake of heaven, but what is a mitzvah that isn’t for the sake of heaven? I think I did a mitzvah that wasn’t for the sake of heaven last semester. There were a couple of girls from my program who were nervous about Yom Kippur services. For Jews who don’t go to synagogue regularly, Yom Kippur is very challenging, because the holiday has the longest and most complicated liturgy of the year, and yet it is the precisely the one holiday when Jews who don’t go to syngagogue and are not versed in the traditional litury show up at shul looking for a profound religious experience. The result is that instead of having a meaningful experience on this holiest of holy days, people find themselves lost, confused and frustrated. So I sat down with these two women and helped them go through their Yom Kippur prayerbooks in order to map out the different services and familiarize themselves with the prayerbook in advance of the holiday. But the truth was, I wasn’t really doing this because it was a mitzvah, or because it was the nice thing to do. I was doing this because these were two beautiful women asking me to help them with something. If it had been two men asking for my help instead of two women, would I have been as ready to spend two hours going over the liturgy with them? I’m not so sure.

I also learned another gemara in a different context that shed light for me on the idea of a mitzvah that isn’t for the sake of heaven. The rabbis in Israel sent a message to the rabbis in Babylonia warning them to be careful with regard to three things: personal hygiene, a study partner, and the poor. If these Torah scholars had to be warned to be careful with these things, it seems clear that there is a danger when one engages in Torah study too intensively, of neglecting these areas, namely one’s own personal needs, the needs of the people one comes into contact every day, and the needs of the broader community. Those who engage in Torah study or any meritorious activity without attending to themselves, their personal relationships and the greater good, provide a striking example of a mitzvah that is not for the sake of heaven.