When is a mitzvah not a mitzvah? When is it actually a sin?
In this week's Torah portion (Vayikra) we find this verse, "When a person sins unwittingly from any of Adonai’s mitzvot, a thing not to be done, and does one of them…” (Leviticus 4:2). It would be simple to interpret the verse to refer to the sin of doing something forbidden. But Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev thought it would be more interesting to think about it another way: Can a person sin by doing a mitzvah?
When you commit a transgression and you know it, you feel your heart break inside you and you return to God in repentance. However, when you do a mitzvah and you glorify yourself in it, you think highly of yourself and fill yourself with pride over it. You say to yourself, "I have added to the riches of the Holy Blessed One."
Attitude counts. From the perspective of Jewish tradition, attitude can matter more than the actual deed. A mitzvah, after all, is a commandment — something that we have been asked to do by God. If we turn it, instead, into a cause for celebrating ourselves, we're not really listening to God. We're only listening to our own egos.
Does that mean that a person should not feel good about writing a check to help the needy? Does it cancel out the good you have done if you take pleasure in studying Torah? Of course not. The mitzvot are intended to bring joy into our lives, but it is the joy of joining ourselves to God, not of inflating our opinion of ourselves.
This is the difference between the emptiness of self-serving joy, and the fullness of joy that connects us to others. It is a distinction that is subtle, but real. It is the difference between the person who makes a large donation to the synagogue and angrily insists upon the plaque dedicated to his or her honor, versus the person who gives merely for the pleasure of helping his or her community.
So, the next time you do something wonderful, make sure you know for Whom you are doing it. Get the full joy out of your mitzvah by doing for the sake of giving back to your Source, not for the sake of feeding your ego.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Vayikra: The Joy of Contrition
Bamidbar: A Song of Humility