Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) Don’t Survive, Thrive!

Sichon, the king of the Amorite nation did not let the Jewish people pass through his borders on their way to the Land of Israel. Instead, he and his nation came out to wage war against them. The Jews were victorious and they temporarily settled in his city of Cheshbon. The poets of the time composed a poem commemorating their victory, which began with the following words: “Regarding this the poets (moshlim) would say, ‘Come to Cheshbon . . . ‘” (Numbers 21:27). The Talmud makes the following comment on this verse. The word “poets” in Hebrew (moshlim) can also mean “rulers.” The name of the city is “Cheshbon,” which literally means “making an accounting.” The Talmud’s homiletic interpretation of this verse is, “let those who have learned to rule over their yetzer hara (evil inclination) come to take an accounting.” Personal accounting of our lives is what enables us to rule over our yetzer hara. Thinking people consider the sacrifice of time and money they will incur when doing a mitzvah but understand that in the long run, it is well worth is. One might say, why should I give my hard earned money to tzedaka? Why should I give my services (medical, legal, business advice) for free? Why should I call or visit my parents when I could be going to a neighborhood pool party? In all of the above, although the mitzvah may actually cost them time or money, this has to be weighed (i.e. calculated) against the reward of a mitzvah. The reward of a mitzvah is incomprehensible.

In Jewish consciousness, reward for mitzvot has two implications. The first is the how much happier one will be in life. In Psychology Today, Steve Taylor, Ph.D writes “While possessing wealth and material goods doesn’t lead to happiness, giving them away actually does.” Every act of kindness done with the right intentions, is a mitzvah but when we have no good reason for avoiding the mitzvah of kindness other than the comfort of the moment, it behooves us to make a calculation. “When I go to sleep tonight, will I feel happier and more content if I remain here right now in my self absorbed mind frame or, will I be happier, if a conquer my desire for momentary comfort and get up and help someone? Do I feel happier when I am selfish and therefore stingy or when I make an online donation to a worthy cause? Until now we have discussed the benefit of doing mitzvot and the feeling of happiness it bestows on the doer but there is a second benefit, one that involves a religious idea.

Every time we do a mitzvah, whether it is giving tzedaka, doing an act of kindness (chessed), lighting Shabbos candles, studying Torah or any other of the mitzvot, we receive eternal reward for that action.

The following parable was used by the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933) to explain this concept. His yeshiva had severe financial problems and one of the students had an idea. He wanted give up (i.e. transfer) his reward for the mitzvah of putting on tefillin for one day. In exchange, he would ask the Almighty to endow the yeshiva with financial support. The young man asked the Chofetz Chaim what he thought; the answer came in the form of a parable. A poor peasant once found a coin worth a million rubles. He was overjoyed. He immediately ran to the grocery store to buy the milk and bread that his family needed. He picked out a few other items and went to pay. He gave the coin to the storekeeper but the storekeeper laughed at him.

“You can’t pay with this,”
“Why not?” (He was afraid the coin might be counterfeit.)
“If I sold this building with all the merchandise inside it wouldn’t come close to the value of this coin.”

It is the same with a mitzvah, explained the Chofetz Chaim. The reward for one day’s mitzvah of tefillin can’t be evaluated with our currency because it is worth much more than money. The same is true with all mitzvot. For example, when members of the Chevra Kaddisha (volunteer burial society) prepare a body for burial, they are rewarded in two ways. (1) They feel good about helping someone and realize that this person will never be able to pay them back. The highest form of giving is when you know you will not be compensated by the person you are helping. (2) They are rewarded for doing a mitzvah; there’s no way they had any ulterior motive because they will receive no compensation from the corpse in front of them. The same holds true when a child says kaddish for a parent. Many people have shared with me how good and right it felt; disregarding that, they are rewarded for the honor (by saying kaddish) that they are giving to their parents.

Until now we have been discussing the importance of making a personal spiritual calculation in order to help one make positive choices in life but this concept holds true for negative actions also. One should consider the reward of a moral crime against its loss. The reward for stealing is (illegal) profit but the loss is the life of lies and tension one needs to lead because of it. In addition, although we might not see the person being prosecuted in this world, one is ultimately punished for the wrongdoing in the next world–this is a core point in classical Jewish thought. When someone hates someone else, before doing something foolish like physically harming this person or possessions, or besmirching that person (lashon hara), which might cause the loss of a job, promotion, or friends, the person should think, “will this toxic action really make me feel better? Do toxic actions ever help a person to find closure? In addition, how will I answer when I have to give an accounting for my life? The only way we can do this is to remain vigilant and constantly be in touch with ourselves and realize that the loss caused by a wrongdoing is far greater than any perceived gain. Those who rule over their yetzer hara (evil inclination) are deliberate when considering these things before making a decision.

“Regarding this the poets would say, ‘Come, let us make a spiritual accounting for our lives.” The same way that an accountant can tell you how much profit or loss you have, so too we are supposed to be our own spiritual accountants. What should we do when we seem helplessly overcome with fear, hostility, pain, passion, or a myriad of other emotions that threaten our ability to make the right choices? We need to pray for assistance and also look for a friend with the right values to help us become effective spiritual accountants. Prayer is the recognition that I can’t handle this myself–if I could, I would not be so close to making the foolish decision I am about to make.

Being kind vs. being careless; having resentment vs. being happy; animosity vs. kindness and friendship; whatever mind frame you find yourself, the degree of happiness you have in life will depend on the choices you make. Want a guarantee for happiness? Learn from the poets how to be an accountant. Why settle to merely survive when you have the ability to thrive?

(Sources: Babylonian Talmud Bava Basra 78b with Rashi; Happiness Comes from Giving, Not Buying and Having: Materialism Doesn’t Lead to Well-Being, but Altruism Does, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ 1/9/15)