Chapter 1, Mishna 15(b)
Actions, Not Words
"Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and
receive everyone with a cheerful countenance."
Last week we discussed Shammai's first statement - that we make our Torah
study "fixed." As we discussed, in spite of the often inspirational nature
of Torah study, we must at the same time view our study as "fixed" - a
steady and unchanging obligation. We cannot always wait for inspiration. It
will come in its good time, but our obligation to the Torah must be fixed
and unwavering regardless.
Shammai next tells us to "say little and do much." Rather than pumping
yourself up with boastful and vainglorious promises, deliver on your
promises, or better: deliver without the bragging. What counts is what you
accomplish, not how much you promise. If a company forecasts modest earnings for its upcoming quarter, chances are it will meet its forecast, and its stock will have nowhere to go but up. The more growth it anticipates,
however, the more it will have to deliver -- or suffer the consequences.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) sees Abraham as the prime and shining example of this quality. When angels, disguised as human beings, arrive at Abraham's tent with the news of Sarah's upcoming pregnancy and of the birth of Isaac (see Genesis 18:1-15), Abraham begs them to accept his hospitality, offering them a little water and a loaf of bread. In actuality he brought them "a young bull, tender and choice" - which the Talmud says consisted of tongues seasoned with mustard - together with fresh butter and milk.
Abraham's antithesis we meet a short while later. After Sarah's death,
Abraham approaches the inhabitants of Chais in order to purchase a burial
plot from Efron (Genesis 23). Efron, the big talker whom Rabbi Yissocher
Frand (www.torah.org/learning/ravfrand) referred to as the father of all
used-car salesmen, makes his magnanimous offer: "I have given you the field and the cave within... in the presence of the members of my nation, I have given it to you..." All Abraham's for the taking, nothing down. In the end, however, without terribly much haggling, Efron names his true price: 400 silver pieces - which Abraham dutifully pays. (The Talmud actually does not
even call this saying much and doing *little*. It states quite frankly that
Efron didn't do anything at all. After his magnanimous but hollow offer, he
did not budge in the slightest from his atrocious asking price. A little
independent research done by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (_The Living Torah_) reveals that the Hamurrabi Code, of approximately Abraham's time and location, states that the average yearly wage for a working man was 6-8 silver pieces!)
As a heart-warming aside, our tradition tells us that G-d Himself possesses
the quality of saying little and doing much. Rav Saadiah Gaon, 10th Century
Babylonian scholar, observes the following: In Genesis 15 (13-14), G-d
informs Abraham of Israel's future exile and servitude in Egypt. The
prophesy concludes: "...the nation they will serve I will judge." Thus, the
entire Exodus from Egypt, in all its spectacular signs and plagues, the
dramatic splitting of the sea - all were foretold with the single word
"judge." G-d would simply "judge" them -- and the world would never again be the same. If we could point to a single historical event which is
responsible for rendering the majority of mankind believers in G-d today, it
is the Exodus. Millions of individuals, both Jew and Gentile, saw G-d's Hand
revealed in all its power and fury, and the entire civilized world was
shaken to the core. Egypt, the then-superpower, was crushed, and the nations of the Land of Canaan trembled in fear. And though man has always been slow to change his ways, today, 3300 years later, most of us are believers on account of that single watershed event. And all of this was alluded to in the single word "judge," a mere two-letter word in the Hebrew. If so, concludes Rav Saadiah, we can only begin to imagine the magnitude of the future redemption, about which scroll upon scroll of wondrous and
inspirational prophesy has been recorded. Perhaps we've been waiting long,
but it will be every bit worth the wait.
My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) asked a very simple question. We can understand that one should do much, but what is the value of saying little? Why not say what you intend to do? One should not overstate his intentions, but what really is wrong with simply being
He answered that this applies primarily to what we do for others. And when
you offer to help your fellow, do not stress how much you are doing for him.
Rather, downplay the amount of effort you are making. The more the recipient feels you are putting yourself out for him, the more awkward and
uncomfortable he will feel. Kindness at its highest level is not helping
others in order to feel *you* have performed great deeds. It is helping
others in order that they most effectively be "helped." True kindness means
making your guest not realize the effort you are making. Make him feel you
have done nothing out of the ordinary. Or better: it was a *pleasure* having
him at your table. You enjoyed his honoring you with his presence and
company. (For this reason, explained my teacher, the Talmud places such
emphasis on escorting a guest upon his departure (Sotah 46b). He is not the
beggar who received his handout and is now slinking away. It was such an
honor having him over - *he* did *you* such a favor - that the least you can
do is accompany him a bit along the way.)
We have thus far studied the first two statements of Shammai. On the one
hand, we may not always find our Torah study inspiring. We must rather study fundamentally from a sense of obligation to G-d. Acts of kindness, on the other hand, we view *not* as an obligation to G-d, but as one to our fellow. We help others not to make us - or even our G-d - feel good. We do it simply because we want the other person helped. Our primary consideration is our obligation to our fellow -- and only then do our deeds truly become Divine.
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright C 2003 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.
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