I Have a Little List
By Joel M. Hoffman
“These things have no limit,” begins a nearly 2,000-year-old list in the Mishnah, our earliest collection of Jewish law. The list details commandments for which more is always better.
Leaving unharvested crops (“pe’ah“) for the poor, for instance, is the first item there. Leviticus (23:22) asks farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor can — free of charge and anonymously — gather food. The more crops left for the poor, the more people eat. Feeding some hungry people is good; feeding more is better. That’s why there’s no limit.
But the real point of the list is that good things come in two varieties. For some, the more you have the better. That’s what we all expect. But it turns out that some good things — perhaps even most — are only good in moderation, and even turn detrimental with quantity. They not only stop being good, but they can actually become bad.
Food, for example, falls in this second, non-intuitive category. We think of food as a good thing because it’s yummy and we need it to survive. But while 2,000 calories of food a day is twice as good as 1,000, 4,000 calories is not twice better than that. 16,000 calories a day will kill most people. After a certain point, otherwise life-sustaining food becomes a health hazard.
Modern readers may be surprised to find that prayer is not on the ancient list of things that have no limit, because prayer is like food. You should have enough, the rabbis say, but don’t overdo it. By contrast, g’milut chasadim, being kind, does appear. You can never be too kind or kind too often.
A related list, traditionally juxtaposed with the first, comes from the Talmud. It details things that offer inherent reward in return for doing them: honoring parents, for example, or helping people work out their differences. Honor your parents and you’re more likely to be happy yourself. It’s the right thing to do, but even if it weren’t, it would still be a good idea, because it just so happens that it will make your own life better. Similarly, help two people stop fighting and you don’t have to live amid strife.
The second list even details how these good acts will reward those who do them. Good deed doers earn interest on their investment of beneficence “in this world,” and enjoy the principal “in the world to come.” In other words, you get a little bit of benefit for doing the right thing now, and you get even more benefit later.
We find g’milut chasadim (“being kind”) from the first list on the second list as well. Not only can you never be too kind, but the more kindness you can show, the better things will be for others and for you as well. Karma, some people call it.
Studying Torah is also on both lists. Unlike food, whose benefits turn deleterious after a point, more learning is always better. That’s why it’s on the first list. Its role in the second list is more oblique. We read: studying Torah “is like” all the other things on the list. (A common translation misses the whole point, wrongly claiming that studying Torah “is equal to them all.”) The list doesn’t tell us in what way studying Torah might be “like” honoring parents, helping two people get along, or being kind. Perhaps one has to study Torah to find out? That’s why we spend so much energy on studying Torah, giving children and adults alike a path into Jewish learning. We may not know why, but somehow, the more we study, the more we augment the world’s supply of the other good things, too.
Considerable unhappiness comes from mixing up lists like these. Addiction, for example, is the inability to keep things off of the first, short, list. What about money? Is more always better? Capitalism says yes, but Judaism says no. Wealth isn’t on the list. Maybe, like food, after a certain point money stops improving our lives and even makes them worse.
These complex and important issues are masked in a deceptive facade of simplicity. So as we celebrate a new year together, let’s also find time to reevaluate the lists of our lives.