Commanded Community or Virtuous Volunteer?

Honor your father and your mother, said the sages, is the most difficult commandment, the most difficult mitzvah, of all.  How shall I know when I have fulfilled it?  It has no fixed form or span of time.  It is not marked by any specific ritual act and there is no beracha, no blessing, to recite.

Sages asked Rabbi Eliezer:  How far must one take the mitzvah of honoring father and mother?

If you want to know the extent of this commandment, the master said, consider the example set by a heathen who lives in Ashkelon, Dama ben Natina, by name.  The story says that God, himself, lavishly rewarded Dama’s great filial respect—and Dama even turned that reward into a further opportunity for honoring of his father.  (Click here for Talmud Story)

Rabbi Eliezer’s questioners must have been dumbfounded:  Certainly, the honoring of parents is a common human good.  But does a non-Jew really provide the greatest example of how to fulfill a mitzvah?

Further, if God so rewards the mitzvah behavior of one who is not bound to the commandments, could this mean that a voluntary act is more worthy than the act of someone who has been commanded?

Rabbi Hanina had given thought to the issue: “One who is commanded and does is greater than one who is not commanded and does.”  His unelaborated insistence does not stem the flow of questions that are with us still:

What is the difference between being a virtuous volunteer and being an obedient member of a commanded community?  From what “address” do we engage in common human causes that are also commandments for the Jewish community?  From the address of the good citizen of humankind, or from a Jewish address?

A thousand years after Rabbi Hanina, Talmud commentators speculated about his meaning:  “It seems,” they said, “that the reason one who is commanded and does is preferred is that he worries and troubles himself lest he violate a command.”  For the volunteer, if the act becomes tiresome he is at liberty to stop.

It is not the case that Jewish behavior is more valuable than the acts of others.  Certainly, Rabbi Eliezer’s “Honor your father” hero was a non-Jew from Ashkelon.  But, for one who is a member of the mitzvah community, a common cause undertaken as a mitzvah is undertaken with a sense of memory, identity and responsibility.

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2 Responses to Commanded Community or Virtuous Volunteer?

  1. Susan Breitzer says:

    It is interesting both that this commandment to honor one’s father and mother is spotlighted and that the example is a non-Jew who is not officially bound by the commandment. (Not that it isn’t a good idea, anyway!). I daresay it brings out the known conundrum that honoring one’s parents and doing their wishes are not necessarily the same thing–notably when to do so would involve violating other commandments specific to the Jewish people, reminding us that this is just one part of an entire “commanded” way of life.

  2. Zvi Altman says:

    When I read Rabbi Hanina’s statement: “One who is commanded and does is greater than one who is not commanded and does” I was not sure that I agreed. Surely doing because you want to is better than doing because you are ordered. Is obedience such a good thing that it outweighs goodness from the heart? The quotation from the Talmud (two paragraphs later) seemed only to emphasize a particular mindset that places a higher value on the act of obedience than on the action itself.

    But I realized that Rabbi Hanina is not just talking about doing any old thing, or being commanded in a general sense – rather he is speaking specifically about doing mitzvot. And a mitzvah by definition implies a Commandment.

    Once I saw this I was able to give Rav Hanina a bit more room – and it got me thinking about the mitzvah of tzedakah – which is usually translated as charity. We think of charity as something we do from the goodness of our hearts and indeed the word itself comes from the Latin root that gives us cardiac as well as a host of other related concepts having to do with dearness and even love.

    But tzedakah is something else entirely – it comes from the Hebrew root TzDK, which means justice. Charity may be from the heart but tzedakah is about justice – and justice is not optional. And that is why tzedakah is not optional. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive… ” (Devarim 16:20)

    We constantly react to the events and people we encounter all day long. But Judaism teaches us how to respond, and to do so appropriately. The mitzvot channel us into a constant series of responses – to the living beings we encounter, to the food we eat, to the rainbow we see and the thunder that we hear. We are not to be passive or to react automatically without thinking, rather we are to respond – consciously and appropriately – often with berachot but also with tzedakah and with many other mitzvot.

    For me, this is one of the most precious aspects of Judaism – that we are commanded to be engaged in the world, to take responsibility. So in the end I come to agree with Rabbi Hanina – taking up the yoke of responsibility willingly and consciously, with all that that implies, is indeed greater than doing simply because you feel like it in a particular moment.

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