The Importance of a Minor Commandment
Commenting on the verse, “Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25), Rabbi Elazar said: “He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous, their money is dearer than their body. And why is this? Because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery” (Chullin 91a).
In this same section, the Talmud recounts the opinion of Rabbi Yitzchak: “A scholar should not go out alone at night,” since Jacob was attacked while he remained alone that night on the other side of the river. Why did Jacob put himself in danger by going to retrieve such insignificant objects? Should he not have taken better care of himself than these objects? Furthermore, is it possible that a man like Jacob could forget to gather up such trivial items, since we know that “to the righteous, their money is dearer than their body”? How could he have forgotten them on the other side of the river?
The partiality that righteous men show to their possessions stems from the fact that they realize that their bodies are but instruments that allow them to serve G-d. The Sages teach that “the wicked…in their lifetime are called dead” (Berachot 18b), for they fail to use their strength to serve G-d. Thus their body is considered to be dead, even during their lifetime. Such is not the case with upright men, who even after their death are called living (ibid.), for they continually progress in the service of G-d. They do so without any ulterior motives, and their every deed extols His glory. Their possessions are of more value to them than their bodies, for the former give them the means to do much good, such as helping people, supporting them materially, redeeming captives, teaching Torah, etc. Their only goal is to carry out G-d’s will, and they possess nothing that stems from theft. Their possessions are not sullied by fraud, and everything they own is honestly acquired.
Righteous men also know that without money, they would not be able to accomplish things that require an expenditure. They would also fail to perform other commandments, such as acquiring the four species that make up the lulav of Sukkot, or obtaining matzah for Passover. Every cent counts, and “a law-suit involving a mere perutah must be regarded as having the same importance as one involving a hundred mina” (Sanhedrin 8a). Money gives them the ability to do things that they could not otherwise do. It enables them to provide for their needs, to consecrate themselves to the service of G-d, and to spiritual elevate themselves.
This allows us to understand why Jacob returned to gather these insignificant objects, precious but without value. It is because he often used them for a sacred purpose and had no reason to discard them. He could therefore continue using them, giving them to the poor or selling them and distributing the money to the needy. This is why he returned from the other side of the river, alone and at night, to look for these trivial items.
We see that Jacob was worried about his fellowman and that he constantly thought of helping others. Such was his purpose in life, as was the purpose of the Patriarchs, who were G-d’s chariot (Bereshith Rabba 82:6). All of them strived to help others in this world as much spiritually as physically, and their actions were aimed exclusively at pleasing their Creator. Jacob went out alone at night to search for objects with apparently no value, for the smallest kindness was so important in his eyes that he was ready to risk his life for it. The fact that Jacob was ready to do this for something whose benefit was questionable in our eyes is astonishing. We can thus imagine just how enthusiastically he performed the stricter and weightier commandments. We have no way of knowing how the Patriarchs lived their daily lives, yet we can draw a great lesson from their attitude of self-denial and their spirit of self-sacrifice. The Sages teach, “Be as careful of a minor mitzvah as of a major one, for you do not know the reward given for the mitzvot” (Perkei Avoth 2:1). There are no criteria for determining which commandments are more important than others, for a gesture as simple as relieving the pain of another can have enormous consequences.
Let us add that all the implements of a righteous man – even insignificant objects without any apparent value – are as important in their eyes as “religious” objects, especially those used by Jacob, which had special sanctity. He used them to serve G-d, which is why he risked his life, alone and at night, to retrieve them. He was afraid that Esau would find and profane them through evil use. Jacob therefore chose to put his life in danger in order to prevent Esau from spreading evil in the world through their inappropriate use. G-d, Who knows the depths of the heart and mind, knew that Jacob’s intentions were pure. He therefore gave Jacob the strength and courage to conquer Esau’s angel, who fought with him during the entire night (Chullin 92a), for that angel also came to profane Jacob’s sanctity. With G-d’s help, Jacob fought bravely. Not only did he conquer the angel, he also retrieved his “religious” objects so they would not fall into the hands of someone who would use them incorrectly, thus saving them from being profaned by impure hands.
Righteous men attach more value to their possessions than to their own bodies. This is because their goal is to ensure that their money and possessions do not fall into the hands of those who would profane them through wrongful use. Hence they seek to deprive them of this possibility.
We must demonstrate an attitude of great self-sacrifice in order to sanctify G-d’s Name in the world, and we must realize that it is forbidden to minimize the value of any commandment or delay its performance. On the contrary, we must perform each commandment immediately, even if it seems of little importance to us or we do not see the advantage of observing it. We are unaware of the reward for each commandment, even the least, and we must perform all of them with the intention of responding to G-d’s will.
Who was greater than Jacob, immersed as he was in Torah at every moment of his life? He practiced the commandments and performed good deeds. He divided his people into two camps and said, “If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camp will survive” (Genesis 32:9), thus continuing to serve G-d. In spite of this, he risked his life for insignificant objects by going out at night, doing so in order to help others afterwards. Even when they are absorbed in spiritual meditation, righteous men do not forget others. They put themselves in danger to help them, which serves as a lesson for us all.
We may offer yet another explanation:
Righteous men try to serve G-d fairly by doing difficult things under difficult circumstances. They do so in order to confront the evil inclination that is constantly hounding them, for it is precisely in this fight that they express their great love for G-d. They put all their efforts into serving G-d by overcoming the evil inclination and its temptations, and in this way they elevate themselves in Torah, in the fear of G-d, and in holiness and purity.
How wonderful, and indeed touching, are the words of King David, the beloved singer of Israel and “the fourth wheel of the Divine Chariot” (Zohar I:99a). The Sages said: “ ‘If you walk in My statutes’ [Leviticus 26:3]. This bears on the text, ‘I considered my ways and returned my feet to Your testimonies’ [Psalms 119:59]. David said, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Every day I used to plan and decide that I would go to a particular place or to a particular dwelling-house, but my feet always brought me to synagogues and houses of study’ ” (Vayikra Rabba 35:1). In the final analysis, King David went to houses of prayer and study each day in order to serve G-d with all his heart and soul. We must ask ourselves why at first he said, “Every day I used to plan and decide.” For what reason and with what purpose in mind did King David lose precious time by thinking about useless things (such as walking about in a certain place or going to visit a particular dwelling), which would add nothing to his service of G-d? When he was about to fulfill his plans, he stopped and instead went to those places where he could sing G-d’s praises. Why then did he first think about such useless things? Was there any benefit whatsoever in thinking of these things beforehand?
Indeed there was! King David, who greatly devoted himself to G-d, put himself to the test. He was not content with constantly fighting the evil inclination. Instead, he continually provoked it. Each day he thought of a certain sin, and so the evil inclination would awaken a great desire in him to commit it. Then, just when it seemed that David would submit to the advice to the evil inclination and transgress in that way, he gathered all his strength and overcame his desires, going to the house of study to devote himself to the Torah. King David served G-d in the most difficult way possible, exerting a supreme effort and permanently dominating the evil inclination.
This is quite surprising. It is stated that David fled from before Saul, who sought to kill him: “David fled and escaped, and came to Samuel at Ramah. He told him all that Saul had done to him, so he and Samuel went and stayed at Naioth” (I Samuel 19:18), which Rashi states was a house of study. There, David and Samuel studied together. The Sages state, “Rav Huna, the son of Rabbi Yossi, said that on that night, when David fled from before Saul, he learned from the prophet Samuel what no student of the highest level could learn in 100 years” (Yalkut Shimoni ad. loc.). This is puzzling, for at that point David was in danger of being killed, with a terrifying threat hanging over his head, and it would have been natural that he could not concentrate. However he overcame his fear and the danger, and he immersed himself in Torah study. That night he acquired what a student of the highest level could not learn even in 100 years. What he learned in that night was worth everything he had learned, and would learn, during his entire life (since he only lived 70 years). This shows us just how devoted and connected to the Torah he was, precisely at such a difficult time and under those trying circumstances, for this was his way of serving G-d.
The same applied to Jacob. He knew that Esau’s angel wanted to attack and wage war against him, to slander and accuse him, which is why Jacob provoked him. He intentionally left several insignificant objects behind so as to give Esau’s angel the impression that he could take and use them as he wished. He wanted Esau’s angel to believe that he could conquer Jacob if he caught him sinning, since it is forbidden to abandon objects that could have some use. It was precisely at that point, when the situation was the most tense, that Jacob returned to look for these objects. He did so without putting any of his own men in danger, for he himself went to retrieve them. He then deprived the Satan of his prey. He fought against him during the entire night, until the break of dawn, and by doing so he conquered him for good and took back all the holiness that the Satan had taken. Our father Jacob, just like King David, served G-d by provoking the evil inclination.
When righteous men serve G-d, they do not allow the evil inclination to get the upper hand. On the contrary, they confront it and make it believe that they are ready to make a mistake or transgress one of G-d’s commandments. However they only do this to deceive the evil inclination and deliver a fatal blow to it. G-d helps them to conquer the evil inclination, for He knows that their intentions are good and He is aware of their innermost thoughts.
Such was also the case with Rabbi Akiva. Just before dying, he was filled with sublime joy: “His disciples said to him: ‘Our teacher, even to this point?’ He said to them, ‘All my days, I have been troubled by this verse [Deuteronomy 6:5]: “with all thy soul,” [which I interpret as] “even if He takes your soul.” I said: “When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this?” Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfill it?’ ” (Berachot 61b). David, Jacob, and Rabbi Akiva all found themselves in extremely difficult situations. However we, who find ourselves in less difficult circumstances (perhaps even easy and favorable to serving G-d), can perform seemingly difficult commandments with intense joy, and we can express this joy to the whole world so as to sanctify G-d’s Name.
This is a lesson for every Jew. If Jacob fought and defeated Esau’s angel because of his Torah and the prompt performance of the commandments, this teaches us that every Jew has the capacity and ability to overcome the evil inclination by fulfilling his Torah duties. Jacob fought Esau’s angel until daybreak, and that “day” is the Torah, since the Torah is called “light” (Proverbs 6:23). This is the light of day, as the prophet said: “Then your light will burst out like the dawn and your healing will speedily sprout” (Isaiah 58:8). In addition, light symbolizes the deeds of righteous men, which demonstrates that the light of Torah allows a man to elevate himself (just as the day rises). The Torah gives a man the courage to fight, and the more he understands it, the more he arms himself in his daily fight against the evil inclination.
Before the Celestial Court, the Satan himself will admit that such and such a person fought and defeated him. That person will then become Israel, meaning Yashar E–L (upright before G-d), as it is written: “You have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome” (Genesis 32:29). This is because of the Torah that a person acquires during his life, for it enables him to conquer the evil inclination and merit great rewards, ones reserved for good men in the World to Come.
How Should We Conduct Ourselves?
The law is the same concerning small or large sums. We must therefore not scorn things that have little value, for anything of value, any amount, can be used for good and to help others.