In preparing this week’s Thoughts on Shemot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:11, I was intrigued by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s observations in his book, Growth Through Torah.2 He wrote, “You ultimately help yourself when you help others” (p 146), and he derived this from two passages in this week’s Torah portion.
Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters who came and drew water. They filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. But shepherds came and drove them away, so Moses stood up, helped them and watered their flock. (Exo. 2:16-17)
It happened along the way, at a lodging place, that ADONAI met him and sought to kill him! But Zipporah took a flint, cut off the foreskin of her son, and threw it at his feet, saying, “You are surely a bridegroom of blood to me.” She said, “A bridegroom of blood” because of the circumcision. Then He let him alone. (Exo. 4:24-26)
Rabbi Pliskin explains, “Whenever you do a favor for someone else, you benefit yourself. Definitely, the highest level is to do kindness for others, for the sake of the mitzvah without thinking of personal gain. But whenever you find it difficult to do kindness for others, at least do it for pragmatic reasons. When you are kind to others, they will be kinder to you. If not right away, then in the course of time you will eventually be repaid” (p 146-147).
However, if doing acts of kindness with the thought in mind of eventually the acts of kindness returning is pragmatic, how should we understand these words of Yeshua in Matthew’s Besorah”
So in all things, do to others what you would want them to do to you—for this is the Torah and the Prophets. (Matt. 7:21)
In the Babylonian Talmud, we read what is considered the flip side of Yeshua’s words, in comparing the different attitudes of Rabbis Shammai and Hillel.
The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study. (Shabbat 31a)3
Both of these seem to have a pragmatic aspect to them. In Luke’s Besorah, the idea of doing acts of kindness without expectation of a reward, but does he?
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are doing good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do this. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to take, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of Elyon, for He is kind to the ungrateful and evil ones. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate to you. (Luke 6:32-36)
I would suggest that there is an expectation as the last line clearly states, “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate to you.” Although not specifically acts of kindness, consider the passages of the Lord’s Prayer dealing with forgiveness,
And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt 6:9 and Luke 11:4)
In both passages, there is a relationship between HaShem forgiving the penitent with the penitent forgiving others, an expectation that we would be forgiven if we in fact forgive others.
In conclusion, consider these words of Moses to Bnei Israel,
“I call the heavens and the earth to witness about you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life so that you and your descendants may live, by loving ADONAI your God, listening to His voice, and clinging to Him. For He is your life and the length of your days, that you may dwell on the land that ADONAI swore to your fathers—to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob—to give them.
Would Bnei Israel have been acting pragmatically if they choose to obey HaShem? That could be one way of looking at it and for sure, some might have been motivated by the blessing the right choice would provide. However, notice the provisor Moses included, “…by loving ADONAI your God, listening to His voice, and clinging to Him. For He is your life and the length of your days….” Pragmatic or not, Moses expected the choice, at least on some level, to be built upon a relationship with HaShem, a relationship based upon love. So yes, ideally, we should perform the requirements found throughout the Scripture, simply because that is what HaShem desires of us (see Micah 6:8). But occasionally one needs to consider the possible benefit of performing what is required, to be motivated to do what is needed as well as hopefully to develop the habit of doing what is required.
Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!
1 Scripture readings are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
2 Zelig Pliskin. Growth Through Torah, Insights and stories for the Shabbos Table. Jewish Quarter, Old City Jerusalem, Yeshivat Aish Hatorah, 1988.
3 Tzvi Hersh Weinreb (EIC). The Noé Edition Koren Talmud Bavli: Volume 2: Tractate Shabbat, Part I. Jerusalem, Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd. 2012, p 145.