Translator’s note: The following text is an adapted translation of an essay composed from three different Sichos of the Rebbe Shlita on Yud-Shvat, Yud-Gimmel Shvat, and Tu BeShevat. At that time the Rebbe presented a “Siyum” (address given on the conclusion of a Talmudic tractate) on Pirkei Avos (the Ethics of the Fathers). He spoke of the importance of studying Avos as well as the entire realm of Torah ethics. He explained that some scholars choose to ignore this realm of study with the intent of concentrating only on Halachah. He stated that one of the purposes of the address was to emphasize how the study of Torah ethics can also produce deep insights in the Halachic sphere.

The Rebbe focused his attention on the Mishnah: Ben Hay Hay says: “The reward (for Torah practice) is given according to the suffering.”1

Rav Ovadiah of Bartonia explains the Mishnah as follows: “your reward will be measured according to your suffering (that you felt) during the study of Torah and the fulfillment of Mitzvos.”

Each Mishnah aims at teaching us a concept previously unknown. In this case, the Mishna’s intention is not merely to inform us that we will receive a reward for doing Mitzvos. That concept is a ‘Torah axiom, accepted as Halachah by all commentaries. G‑d is likened to an employer who has to pay his workers for their efforts. Rather, the Mishnah teaches us a new concept that the payment, the reward, we receive is determined by our suffering. Generally, there are two ways to determine a worker’s wages: by objectively evaluating the worth of his activity or by trying to appreciate, and compensate for his effort and the pain he felt while at work. The Mishnah teaches us that G‑d rewards us in the second manner, taking our feelings into concern.

At this point a question arises: The concept of G‑d taking our feelings and effort into consideration is not new — the Torah lauds the offering of a poor person as the Talmud comments: “Why does the Torah use the expression ‘a soul who will bring a Minchah’ (as opposed to the references to the other sacrifices where it uses the word “man”)? To teach you that G‑d considers the offering of the poor man as if he offered his soul.” Likewise, the Talmud states that a student who studies his lesson 101 times is called a “servant of G‑d”, unlike one who studies only 100 times. Why is this so? The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya that in those days it was customary to review each lesson one hundred times and by adding the hundred and first time he breaks his nature. Other, similar, examples abound.

Furthermore, according to Torah law, the only time an employer is allowed to pay a worker according to his production (and not his efforts) is when the employer never hired him to begin with (e.g. if someone planted another person’s field without his permission) or when he did not follow the employer’s instructions, (e.g. if the employer ordered him to paint a wall black and he painted it red) or when he purposely damaged the employer’s property (e.g. he painted with low quality paint). However, if the worker fulfilled the employer’s instructions even if he did not produce anything worthwhile, he must still be paid in full.2

If so what is the point of the Mishnah? Which new concept is it trying to communicate? G‑d (the employer) commanded the Jews (the worker) to study Torah and perform Mitzvos, it is obvious that they should receive a reward commensurate with their effort and pain.

Furthermore, a Jew’s inner struggle to learn Torah and perform Mitzvos is not a minor factor but a major part of Torah observance. The Rambam writes that “a person who has a desire to sin carries out a more complete service than one who doesn’t... We shouldn’t say ‘Sin is not attractive’ rather we should say ‘sin is attractive’ but what can I do, our Father in Heaven commanded us.” From this we see that we are commanded to undergo strain and effort to observe the Torah. If so, why does the Mishnah consider receiving reward for that suffering a new concept?

However, in our case, the Mishnah does not refer to the suffering and struggle that is connected with the ordinary performance of Torah and Mitzvos, rather it deals with extraordinary circumstances, cases where we take upon ourselves more suffering than necessary.3

This concept is alluded to in the name of the Mishna’s author Ben Hay Hay. The Midrash Shmuel explains that this was not his real name, rather a pseudonym adopted for his protection. He was a convert and afraid to use his true name out of fear of retribution from the Roman authorities. The very name Ben Hay Hay hints at his conversion, alluding to the letter ‘Hay’ that was added to the names of Avraham and Sarah who were the first converts.4

Conversion represents the epitome of the voluntary acceptance of pain and suffering, without G‑d’s command. There is no Mitzvah to convert. A convert accepts all the difficulties of Torah and Mitzvos totally on his own accord.

It is possible to think that a convert, or a Jew who fulfills a Mitzvah “beyond the measure of the law,” would not receive full reward for their service. Since this service was not commanded by G‑d, we might have thought that He would reward it without considering the suffering and effort involved. Ben Hay Hay teaches us that even in this case, the reward is commensurate to the Jew’s inner struggle.

There is still room for question. In the case of a worker who planted a field without the owners permission, if the owner states that he appreciates the worker’s efforts, he must pay him the full price for his labor (including his suffering). G‑d “appreciates” our service “beyond the measure of the law,” therefore, according to Torah law, He should provide us with full reward. We return therefore, to our original question: What new concept does our Mishnah teach?

According to Torah law once we have carried out a voluntary Torah practice three times or more, we become obligated to continue doing so forever even if that practice was originally “beyond the measure of the law.” Hence, if we carry out certain practices for a period of time and then stop, we are breaking Torah law. In such a case the original actions5 can no longer be considered meritorious. On the contrary, they have led to transgression.6 The Mishnah teaches us that even in such a case, G‑d gives us full reward for our original actions.7

From a deeper perspective, the above concept can be taken beyond such a restricted definition. From G‑d’s standpoint, in comparison to his “awesome greatness and magnificence,” the totality of our service, even in its most complete form must be considered inadequate and lacking. The Mishnah teaches that even so, G‑d grants us full reward.

The relationship between the above mentioned Mishnah and its author can be understood on a deeper level. In the case of a Jew, there is no service that he is not obligated to perform. The Mishnah teaches us that the purpose for a Jew’s creation is “to serve his Creator.” All his potential and energies must be focused on that goal. It is difficult therefore, to consider the struggle and suffering that a Jew experiences in the service of G‑d as something that he is not obligated to do. Even those practices that are “beyond the measure of the law” are not beyond his scope, since he must serve G‑d with all his energies.

A convert on the other hand has no obligation to become a Jew. On the contrary, Torah teaches us that he must be turned away. His acceptance of pain and suffering for Torah’s sake is totally voluntary.

Nevertheless, the Mishnah is relevant to every Jew. By taking on behavior “beyond the measure of the law,” especially when it is contrary to our nature, we open up a new dimension within ourselves, similar to the service of a convert.

What is the motivating principle behind the entire matter? What is the importance of our receiving reward for our service?8

Torah was given by G‑d to the Jewish people, hence it can be seen in two perspectives — the Giver’s and the Receiver’s. At certain times, G‑d’s perspective is emphasized, for example “Torah can never become impure.” Even if an impure person studies Torah, the Torah is not contaminated by his impurity because it is G‑d’s word. On other occasions, the perspective of the Jewish people is stressed, for example “A Rav may refuse honor.” Even though his honor stems from his Torah knowledge, that knowledge is considered his to the point that he may refuse the honor offered to him because of it.

The same concept exists with regard to the fulfillment of Mitzvos. From G‑d’s perspective the Jews have a complete and all encompassing obligation (either as sons or as slaves — see footnote H) to carry out the commandments. From the Jew’s perspective their obligation to fulfill Torah can be compared to that of a worker of a craftsman. Therefore, they feel justified in requesting (and Torah itself recognizes the need for) a reward.9

The entire Pirkei Avos is based on the perspective of the Jewish people. Pirkei Avos aims at teaching us to carry out Mitzvos “beyond the measure of the law.” The entire concept of “beyond the measure of the law” exists only from the perspective of the Jews. Hence, Avos begins with the teaching “Moshe received the Torah on Mt. Sinai.” From G‑d’s perspective, there is no limit to the commitment of the Jewish people. Therefore, the final Mishnah in Avos (see footnote A) stresses the concept of giving reward and not only reward according to the value of the service accomplished, but reward that is commensurate with the struggle and suffering of the individual — stressing, most obviously, the perspective of the Jews.

The stress on the Jew’s perspective is further brought out by the type of service rewarded — a service that the Jew performed voluntarily without G‑d’s command. This service and the suffering that accompanies it represent the input of the receiver (the Jews) and not the giver (G‑d).