The Mishnah (4,2) taught:
Ben Azai said, “Run to a light mitzvah and flee from a sin. For a mitzvah draws a mitzvah and a sin draws a sin. The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah, the reward for a sin is a sin.”
We shall focus on the beginning of Ben Azai’s statement. What is a light mitzvah and why should one run to them?
The Tifferet Yisrael suggests a number of explanations for the term “light”. The first is that the performance of the mitzvah does not require physical exertion; it is simple to perform. The second is that a mitzvah can be simple due to its regular performance, e.g. tefillah. A mitzvah can also be simple because common sense obligates one to perform them, e.g. honouring one’s parents or the elderly. Finally a mitzvah can be simple since one gains pleasure from its performance, e.g. eating on Shabbat or Yom Tov.
With this in mind, the Tifferet Yisrael explains that the Mishnah is not just encouraging one to perform these mitzvot because, given their “simplicity”, one is likely to perform them anyway. Instead, the Mishnah is encouraging one to be cautious in their execution and that they are performed with the correct intentions.
The Tifferet Yisrael however continues, that when Ben Azai makes reference to running and fleeing, this is because when one is contemplating a specific act, the yeter harah will attempt to stifle the performance of mitzvot and encourage sins. He explains that this is why we pray to “remove the Satan from before us”, preventing us from doing Mitzvah, “and from behind us”, pushing us to do the reverse.
The Ruach Chaim however explain that while sin makes itself readily available, the same is not true for mitzvot. One must pursue mitzvot in order that they are made available. The performance of even a small mitzvah, as the Mishnah continues, brings about another one. The Ruach Chaim explains that the imbalance was necessary in order to allow for free choice.
The Ruach Chaim provides another explanation of why the Mishnah focuses specifically on simple mitzvot. One is likely to expend effort which is proportional to the perceived gain. Similarly, if one is focused on reward, one would tend to focus on only the large mitzvot. The Mishnah therefore teaches that such a focus is flawed. One’s intention when performing mitzvot should simply be, because it is the will of Hashem. Running to perform simple mitzvot demonstrates that one’s focus is on obeying the King’s command.
Till now we have seen that running to small mitzvot is either because of resistance (Tifferet Yisrael), their scarcity or the message it sends (Ruach Chaim). The Midrash Shmuel explains that the act of running to a mitzvah is itself a mitzvah. When the Mishnah later teaches: “schar mitzvah, mitzvah”, the term “schar” does not mean reward, but payment. In other words, that payment made is considered a mitzvah. He explains that if one expended financially to perform a mitzvah he would have merited twice – once for the mitzvah and also for the expense. Likewise, if someone runs to perform a mitzvah then energy expended – the effort “paid” – is considered a mitzvah.
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