Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah, Averah Goreret Averah
מצווה גוררת מצווה; עברה גוררת עברה
“One good deed will bring on another good deed, one transgression will bring on another transgression,” (Sayings of the Fathers 4:2)
One of my favorite teachings in Mishna Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) is this Mishna attributed to Ben Azzai. It is grounded in solid human nature and captures the personal experiences of our noble Jewish patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
When Abraham raised his hand to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, nothing would ever remain the same regarding Isaac’s relationship to the world and to those family members close to him. Something irrevocable happened to his psyche which would influence, not only his life, but the lives of his children and grandchildren. Abraham, one could say, initiated the first “sin” by traumatizing his son Isaac while holding that knife over his head. But that one sin seemed to bring on additional sins – from Abraham to Isaac; from Isaac to Jacob. Not exactly what we usually mean when we say: “from generation to generation”.
Fast forward to Isaac’s children, Jacob and Esau and their overly dominant mother Rebekah. Isaac, the walking wounded victim of the attempted sacrifice (sin?), is enamored of Esau because Isaac relished life’s simple pleasures like a good meal and Esau, the hunter, kept him satisfied. Blinded, literally and figuratively, to the family dynamic playing out before his very (weak) eyes, Isaac was easy prey to the conniving and sinister motives of his wife Rebekah.
As we learned in last week’s Torah portion, Jacob, with the assistance of his crafty mother, and with no small measure of trickery and deception of his own (yet another sin?) beguiles the birthright from his brother Esau. More trickery and deception by Jacob, this time at the expense of his father Isaac (yet another sin?), and Jacob flees his home, birthright in hand, headed to take a wife in the house of his uncle, Laban.
It is nearly impossible to read our weekly Torah portion Va-Yetzei without appreciating how past events (sins?) influence present action (more sins?). How Jacob’s previous trickery and deception of his father Isaac is now turned on him when he awakes the morning after his wedding and discovers that the woman he thought was Rachel all during the night turned out to be Rachel’s older sister, Leah.
The Rabbis, in a half comic half tragic Midrash, build a creative justification for how Jacob could have been deceived in such a delicate situation as his wedding night. According to the Midrash, Rachel warns Jacob that her father Laban was a trickster himself and they needed to be careful lest Laban tries to trick Jacob by giving him Leah (the older sister as tradition dictated) and not Rachel for marriage. Jacob, filled with the arrogance of a proven trickster, tells Rachel not to worry. And when asked by Rachel whether it was permissible for a righteous man to practice deceit, he exclaims: Yes, my dear, and quotes a passage from the Prophetic Book of Second Samuel (22:27) which says that even God, with the pure, behaves with purity, but with the crooked acts with shrewdness.
So, Rachel and Jacob arranged certain signals they would use in their wedding bed to prevent any acts of trickery by Laban. But, just before the wedding night, Rachel, feeling sorry for her older sister and not wishing to shame her (by marrying before she did) went and told Leah the signals agreed upon with Jacob. So, it was only in the morning that Jacob realized it was Leah: as the Torah itself says: “And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah….” The sin of trickery brings on another sin of trickery. Averah goreret averah.
As if to sharpen this point even further, the rabbis in another Midrash describe how Jacob, upon waking up to Leah and not Rachel, says to Leah: “Why have you deceived me, O daughter of a deceiver (referring to Laban, Leah’s father, who initiated the switch of sisters)? To which Leah replies: “Every scholar has pupils! When your father addressed you as Esau, did you not reply?”
I invite you to continue to read more from our weekly parasha to see further examples of trickery by Laban, by Jacob and even by dear Rachel herself. There is hardly a character in our narrative who actually plays by the rules. Averah goreret averah – one sin brings on another.
And, of course, in a few weeks we will begin to read the amazing drama of the Joseph narrative and how trickery and deceit continue on to the next generation when Jacob’s sons deceive their father into believing that Joseph is dead. More examples of the Pirke Avot text.
Whereas other religious civilizations might have edited out of their Holy Scripture such passages which painted a rather undignified picture of their noble religious leaders, our Jewish tradition has done nothing of the kind. Year after year we read these narratives of our patriarchs and matriarchs and learn the profound lesson that these are utterly human men and women, capable of greatness (keepers of the covenant with God) yet humanly flawed nevertheless.
And both the greatness as well as the flaws are passed on, from generation to generation. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah. We learn from Torah that our family lineage has a powerful claim on each one of us. We learn from Torah how our fathers and grandfathers, our mothers and grandmothers, live on through their progeny for better and for worse. The passing of the mitzvah as well as the passing of the averah. The acts of greatness which are taught as well as the impact of the averah, of the transgression.
We learn from Torah that the capacity for doing both the mitzvah and the averah are embedded in each of our families. Our challenge, as inheritors of the covenant, is to strive to pass on to our children and grandchildren mitzvot, not averot. Yes my friends, our task is to keep our eyes wide open regarding the nature of our own family heritage and learn the lesson taught to us in Pirke Avot – to strive to perpetuate the mitzvah, the righteous deed, by performing more and more of them.
Through our example our children learn. By our actions, our children learn. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. These are our family role models and teachers. From them we learn the mitzvot as well as the averot of our family lineage. May we grow in wisdom, each year we read Torah, to learn how to preserve and bring on more of the mitzvot and to leave behind the averot. This is the challenge we face as we journey through our new year ahead.
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah – averah goreret averah.
Keyn Yehi Ratzon. So May it be God’s Will.
About the author:
Rabbi Joel Osrean is the Vice President Emeritus of International Development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) and the Rabbi at Beth Hillel Congregation in Rome, Italy.