“The spirit of man is the lamp of God.”
Today’s Daf Yomi includes a discussion on a long-standing philosophical problem: if a mitzva is performed out of self-interest does it count? We learned in the early readings back in Tractate Berakhot that intention and what is in someone’s heart matters. Today, the Talmud presents a more complicated view of what constitutes good deeds.
The Gemara asks if a mitzva has been performed if it is motivated by personal interest. The immediate answer is somewhat surprising. We are told that one is among the “full-fledged righteous” if he performs a mitzva in order to heal his son or to be destined for the World-to-Come. This is contrary to everything I learned concerning the reason we do good deeds which is to give back, to think broader and larger and reach beyond ourselves.
The bravest and most remarkable of all human acts is to perform a good deed while endangering oneself. It is magical thinking to believe that such a mitzva will protect one from harm. This is the perspective of Rabbi Elazar. He supports his position with a passage from Exodus which states that “no man shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before God your Lord three times in the year.” We are told that this passage offers assurance that when landowners went to Jerusalem for a festival in fulfillment of a mitzva, their land and flocks were protected.
Rav also believes that performing a mitzva, such as the study of Torah, can protect someone from harm, although his perspective is more measured and personal than that of Rabbi Elazar. Rav assured his students that they will be protected through the strength of his authority. Some students who lived outside of town faced dangers from robbers and other foreboding characters when they traveled to the yeshiva after dark. Rav told them that if they came, he would assume responsibility for their safety. However, when asked about offering the same type of protection when they returned home to their families, he responded that he could make no such promises and they were on their own.
It is difficult to understand the perspective of Rav and Rabbi Elazar in the context of all the pain and darkness that has transpired over the centuries. We are told in the Talmud that “even when God Himself issued the command, there is concern with commonplace dangers.” Many people who lived what they considered righteous lives returned from a pilgrimage to find their land disseminated by wildlife and their treasured animals harmed. Jews in Europe lost everything they owned during the Holocaust. The Gemara challenges the view of Rav and Rabbi Elazar and tells us that “one should not rely on a miracle” in the face of danger.
When I was fortunate enough to be in Jerusalem last year, I visited the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations, at the Yad Vashem complex on the Mount of Remembrance. To walk along the Avenue of the Righteous and to read the names of each hero on the stone plagues resting aside the trees is a heart-wrenching experience. These are people who risked their lives and those of their families to save Jews during one of the darkest periods of our history. Some of these righteous souls are not identified by name because they acted clandestinely.
The people whose names are engraved among the trees on the Avenue of the righteous, and those whose names are unknown, are truly the “full-fledged righteous.” They represent the best of humanity, and their spirit lives on in the quiet garden on the Mount of Remembrance, and in the hearts of every grateful Jew whose family survived into another generation. Even during one of the darkest periods of our modern times, the righteous provided hope that if miracles exist, it is within those among us who are willing to do the right thing in the face of extreme danger.
Today, the front-line workers and healthcare professionals and the scientists who have been working around the clock in development of a vaccine, are truly righteous. They have worked to heal the sick and dying at great risk to themselves. They are the garden of miracles among us.