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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse two: s'char

Ben Azzai said, Run to do even a slight precept, and flee from transgression; for one good deed draws another good deed in its train, and one sin, another sin; for the reward of a good deed is a good deed, and the wages of sin is sin.

I am using Joseph Hertz’s translation, because it so pointedly uses wages instead of reward. If you ask people what are the wages of sin? (or for that matter what is the wages of sin?) the chances are very good that the response will be the wages of sin is death (or are death). I don’t know what the response would be to what is the wages of a good deed?, but I suspect it would not be another good deed. But it should be.

I think that s’char mitzvah, mitzvah; s’char aveira, aveira is not only an excellent first principle to teach and live by, it’s a seriously accurate description of the universe (the one I perceive). Certainly more so than many other ethical precepts. I know that when Saul of Tarsus said that For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, he wasn’t talking about the death of the body but death of the spirit —but then, see, we’ve stopped describing any universe I recognize. I’m not saying it’s ineffective as inspiration, but when we are talking about how the world turns, Simeon ben Azzai seems to me to be simply telling the truth.

Do a mitzvah, do another, do another, and they start to come easy. Allow yourself to fall short once, fine, nobody is perfect. But the second time is easier, and the third easier yet, and then transgressions follow each other in a train until it seems impossible to stop them. Of course, transgressions of diet are the obvious ones to think about, but peculation, particularly stealing from the workplace strikes me as an even more powerful example. The first time you take a five out of the drawer, or walk out with something in your pockets, you may think you will pass out from the fear and shame. But you get away with it, because most of the time people do get away with it, and so you do it again, and again, and again, until somehow you think of it your right, inviolable, to walk out with a CD or an extra hour’s pay, and any enforcement is an outrage.

The first time you give a dollar as a handout, almost anything could happen. If you do it, though, and then you do it again, and then again, pretty soon you could have a habit, a dollar a day to help the homeless, and you will do it almost without thinking. Not entirely, but without misgivings or trepidation, and even without resentment. A bad habit is harder than a diamond to break; a good habit is more valuable than a diamond to keep.

Which is why we adopted the precept, which ben Azzai refers to as running to do a mitzvah, that any mitzvah should be done as early in the day as possible. Some are time-sensitive, of course, but still, if there is a range of time, it is better to do it at the beginning of that range, as if s’char mitzvah mitzvah you have time for the next one. Whether this applies to, er, marital relations is unclear; ben Azzai, for all his piety, did not run to follow that particular precept and remained unmarried and childless until the Romans killed him after the Bar Koziba catastrophe. Goes to show, doesn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,