Which Is Better: Doing Something You Have To? Or Doing Something You Don’t Have To?

?Ayin Tove
September 29, 2010
Which Is Better: Doing Something You Have To? Or Doing Something You Don’t Have To?

I have a feeling that the modern answer to this question is that doing something you don’t have to do is better than doing something you have to do. You’re going above and beyond. But I also have a feeling that the rabbinic answer to this question is that it is better to do something you are already obligated to do. In other words, it is inherently good to fulfill an obligation.

You might object: If I’m obligated to do something, then aren’t I already doing it? The answer is not so simple. Forgetting about keeping kosher, religious obligations like “Honor Your Father and Mother” or “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” can be difficult to interpret and to follow.

And now the contradiction: It’s a “mitzvah” to love your neighbor as yourself. “Mitzvah” has two meanings: to do a good deed and a commandment. To love your neighbor is both commanded and is a good deed.

So the things that we might think of as good deeds that you don’t have to do, may already be commanded. You have to do the things that you don’t have to do. How can this be?

We are commanded to do good deeds, mitzvahs, of various kinds, but the amount of them is left up to us. The Talmud teaches us that there is no prescribed measure for deeds of lovingkindness. Mishnah Peah 1:1.

Another word that covers these good deeds, especially the ones we are not obligated to do, is “tzedakah” which we think of as charity. And at the same time we are commanded to do “tzedek” or righteousness: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (“Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue.”) (Deut. 16:20).

We may not be obligated to do particular acts of lovingkindness, but we may be obligated to do some.

Ayin Tove is a contributing writer for Gather The Jews.