NOTE: For a PDF copy of this segment, please click here. This will enable you to print out the entire text of the article. [Rev 0]
Key Concepts of Mishlei 11-17 (Futility)
When a person is engaged in a demanding activity, he hopes it will be worthwhile and lead to some beneficial result. This will be the case if the activity has a spiritual motive, such as serving Hashem or helping other people. But the activity of a wicked person (rasha) is motivated by his selfish interest. Such activity is inherently futile and all the effort that he puts into it is wasted.
(יח) רָשָׁע עֹשֶׂה פְעֻלַּת־שָׁקֶר וְזֹרֵעַ צְדָקָה שֶׂכֶר אֱמֶת:
(18) The rasha performs an act of falsehood [because it has no permanence], but sowing righteousness earns a true reward.
Mishlei describes the futile activity of the rasha as being false since his reasons for doing the work are only illusory. Even though his work seems to show early promise, in the end the rasha will be disappointed.
This is contrasted with activity that is spiritually motivated. Such activity is described in terms of sowing, because it is comparable to the act of planting a field. Scattering tiny seeds does not seem intuitively useful, but it can yield bountiful crops. Similarly, the reward for righteous activity is characterized as as being true for the person who engages in it will reap a reward that is eternal.
(יח) רָשָׁע עֹשֶׂה פְעֻלַּת שָׁקֶר
וְזֹרֵעַ צְדָקָה שֶׂכֶר אֱמֶת:
The activity of a rasha does not lead to a lasting result. Although he appears to be busy, the rasha is actually performing an act of falshood — רָשָׁע עֹשֶׂה פְעֻלַּת־שָׁקֶר . But the activity of the tzaddik is an act of sowing righteousness — וְזֹרֵעַ צְדָקָה , which has the durability of its spiritual truth. It therefore earns a true reward — שֶׂכֶר אֱמֶת , that is, a reward which endures.
A series of insights illuminating this proverb are presented below. The numbers identifying the insights refer to the listing of sources at the end of the segment.
(1) The activity of a rasha is inherently false because he is performing it with the expectation of success, and the end result is that it will ultimately fail.
(2) The rasha who devotes himself to building up financial wealth is wasting his energies because his wealth will not endure. A stranger will get the benefit of the work he has done.
(3) The rasha thinks he is getting his reward through the pleasure he gets in this world, but it is a false reward since he is exchanging transient pleasure for the retribution he will have to face in the next world.
(4) Righteous activity has validity because the person will surely receive his reward, if not in this world, then in the World to Come.
(5) Righteous activity is like planting a field. The seeds appear to rot in the ground and the fruits are not necessarily visible initially. It is only after the passage of time that the crops are seen to grow.
(6) Righteous activity such as learning Torah and developing one’s character will yield success that is evident in acquired knowledge and middos (refined behavioral traits).
(7) The rasha has engaged in accumulating material goods, an activity which seems productive. However, he has accomplished nothing, for his work is futile unless it serves a spiritual end. In contrast, the act of sowing righteousness is certain to lead to true life, both physical and spiritual. This is a true accomplishment that will endure for all time.
The primary sources used for the additional insights illuminating this segment are listed below.
(1) – רש”י, רבינו יונה
(2) – אבן יחייא
(3) – הגר”א
(4) – רש”י, רבינו יונה
(5) – רבינו יונה, הגר”א
(6) – רלב”ג, חנוך לנער
(7) – מלבי”ם