The Greatness of Mitzvot and Steadfastness in Times of Trial
On the verse that states, “If you walk in My decrees and observe My commandments” (Leviticus 26:3), Rashi explains in the name of the Sages that this refers to Torah study, for the observance of mitzvot is mentioned elsewhere. Further on in the parsha it is written, “But if you will not listen to Me” (v.14), and there as well Rashi explains it to mean, “If you do not study Torah.” The text cited in v.14 cannot refer to the observance of mitzvot, for mitzvot are mentioned immediately afterwards: “and [if you] will not perform all hamitzvot.” Consequently, since mitzvot are specifically singled out, the text in question must refer to Torah study.
Now we know that someone who does not study cannot properly observe mitzvot, for they must be carried out with the intention of performing a mitzvah (Berachot 13a). As well, Rambam says that this intention consists of understanding the nature and essence of the mitzvah. Without this understanding, there cannot be any intention, and a mitzvah without intent has no great value.
Some of the questions that we may ask ourselves concerning this subject are as follows:
1. Why does the Torah express itself in the plural (“If you walk [plural] in My decrees”) rather than in the singular, since we often find the singular used in such a context?
2. Why is the study of Torah called a “decree” and not a “mitzvah”? Moreover, the exact nature of a mitzvah must be understood.
We will now attempt to answer these questions. Regarding the verse that states, “As for G-d, His way is perfect; the word of the L-RD is tried. He is a shield for all who take refuge in Him” (Psalms 18:31), Rav said, “The mitzvot were given only to perfect created beings, for what does it matter to the Holy One, blessed be He, if a beast is slaughtered on the neck of the nape?” (Bereshith Rabba 44:1). The mitzvot were thus given only to refine us, a concept that must be understood.
In addition, the performance of the mitzvot leads man to recognize G-d, which leads to the fear of Heaven. How does this happen? When someone meticulously observes the mitzvot, this is a sign that they are important to him. But if he treats them lightly – in the spirit of the interpretation given by the Midrash (Tanhuma, beginning of Eikev) on the verse, “And it shall come to pass, eikev [because] you will hearken” (Deuteronomy 7:12), namely that it refers to the mitzvot that man tramples underfoot (under his eikev, heel) – this is a sign that they hold no importance in his eyes, and that he even tries to find loopholes for not doing them. Needless to say, he is far from a fear of Heaven.
A man should realize that a mitzvah is like a decree, which does not require an explanation and cannot be modified. And not only is a mitzvah compared to a decree, the study of Torah is also compared to one, as it is written, “This is the decree of the Torah” (Numbers 19:2). This, as well as the following, refer to Torah study: “This is the torah [law]: A man that dies in a tent…” (v.14). The study of Torah is an immutable decree, a task for which one must die in this world, as the Sages explain: “The words of Torah endure only among those who die for them” (Berachot 63b). In addition, in performing mitzvot, a man demonstrates that he is G-d’s servant. We find a similar idea concerning Adam. At the moment he was created by the Holy One, blessed be He, the angels thought that he was divine (Bereshith Rabba 8:9), up until G-d gave him a single mitzvah to observe (which he transgressed). It was at that moment that the angels realized that he was but a servant of his Lord and not divine.
This teaches us that when we observe mitzvot, we must do so in accordance with our abilities and nearness to G-d, for the Holy One, blessed be He, does not make unfair demands of His creations (Avodah Zarah 3a). He also never loads them beyond their abilities (Shemot Rabba 34:1). He is cognizant of human abilities, for when He gave the Torah to Israel, if He had done so with respect to His own power, no one could have born it, as it is written, “If we continue to hear the voice of the L-RD our G-d any longer, we will die” (Deuteronomy 5:22). He spoke to the Children of Israel in relation to their own power, as testified to by the verse that states, “The voice of the L-RD [is] in power” (Psalms 29:4). It is not written, “In His power” but rather, “in power,” which means the power of each and every person. A certain power, or ability, is thus given to everyone to serve G-d and perform His mitzvot.
Yet in this performance of mitzvot, a person must understand which mitzvah he must give priority to, which one will help him in relation to the root of his soul. We find support for this concept with the Sages concerning Moses (Sotah 13a), since when all the Children of Israel were busy despoiling Egypt, he hurried about looking for Joseph’s casket, and concerning him it is written, “The wise of heart seizes good deeds” (Proverbs 10:8). Now despoiling Egypt was also a mitzvah, and “The one who is busy with one mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah” (Sukkah 25a). Yet if so, why did Moses forsake the mitzvah of despoiling Egypt to go and perform another mitzvah?
We see from this that when two mitzvot present themselves at the same time, one must ask which of the two will be of greater benefit to one’s soul, and which will be of greater benefit to one’s body. And if it is impossible to perform both at the same time, one must choose the mitzvah that will be of greater benefit to the soul, and only then the second. It was in this way that Moses acted, for he began by occupying himself with Joseph’s casket, which was of benefit to his soul, since it was by means of Joseph’s casket that the sea split before the Children of Israel, as it is written, “The sea saw and fled” (Psalms 114:3). As well, the Sages have said, “What did it see? It saw Joseph’s casket” (Midrash Shochar Tov 114:9). Thus it was because of him that the Children of Israel left Egypt, and they finished by arriving at the giving of the Torah.
Yet at the same time we note the greatness of the mitzvot, for it is written that Esau respected his father Isaac more than Jacob did, which is why Isaac wanted to bless him (Zohar I:146b). A man should realize that the performance of mitzvot alone is not enough. Someone can be known for his generosity (as Esau, who was known for his way of honoring his father), but without Torah nothing prevents him from being completely wicked! Thus Balaam, who was a great prophet – to the extent that concerning him the Sages said that a prophet like Moses had arisen among the nations (Zohar II:21a), a man who knew the exact instant when the Holy One, blessed be He, becomes angry (Berachot 7a) – was despite everything a great scoundrel. He was so wicked that he advised Balak to make the Children of Israel fall into licentiousness (Sanhedrin 93a). Why did this happen? Because he had no Torah at all! And without Torah, one has nothing.
Despite everything, one must think clearly, for there exists another way to elevate oneself, independent of the Torah and mitzvot. This is the path of steadfastness in times of trial. When a man overcomes a trial, he elevates himself even more. We find this concept with Jacob, who “departed from Beersheba and went towards Haran” (Genesis 28:10). Why did he go there? He could have sent a messenger to take a wife for him, since it is possible to marry a woman through the intermediary of a third party (Kiddushin 41a). However, because of the imperfections that he sensed within himself, he desired to go to the place of wrath in order to be subjected to hardship. Why did he want to do this? It was because he knew that Esau wasn’t wicked enough to enable himself to grow, for Esau also studied and observed mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah of honoring one’s father. Laban was more wicked; he was the father of deceivers (Tanhuma Vayishlach 1). Jacob therefore decided to go to Haran to be tested and emerge victorious from his trial. But those who heard that he had gone to Haran believed that he too became wicked like Laban. Consequently, even Esau did not pursue Jacob to kill him, for Esau believed that he taken to a bad path and had become truly wicked. Now the wicked are called dead even during their lifetime (Berachot 18b), and he therefore considered Jacob as being dead, without any merit, and thought it useless to fight him.
However when Jacob returned from being with Laban, he sent messengers to his brother Esau (Genesis 32:4) and said, “I have sojourned [*;9#] with Laban, all while observing 613 [#*9;] mitzvot, and I have not learned from his behavior” (Midrash Aggadah on beginning of Vayishlach). Jacob desired to observe the mitzvah to be “guiltless towards the L-RD and towards Israel” (Numbers 32:22), and so he made it known to Esau that even though he didn’t perform the mitzvah of honoring his father during that time, he had nevertheless learned a great amount of Torah, as it is written, “The study of Torah is worth more than all other mitzvot” (Peah 1:10). This is an indication that he held steadfast during his trial.
We can draw a lesson and a rule for life from this. Whoever leaves his parent’s home and continues to serve G-d in his new dwelling demonstrates that the nature of his character has not changed. He shows that in every circumstance he will occupy himself with Torah, just as was the case with Jacob, who settled in the tents of Shem to study (Megillah 17a). Even when Jacob came to Beersheba after leaving Laban, it is written, “And Jacob settled” (Genesis 37:1), meaning that he continued to study.
We find an allusion to this idea in Parshiot Vayeitzei, Vayishlach, and Vayeishev, which all begin with the letters vav and yud. Now three times vav and yud is numerically equal to 48 (.(), which tells us that Jacob was not at all influenced by his wicked entourage, and that his heart always remained hot (.() in the service of his Creator. For only a man with a heart that is hot can study Torah and observe mitzvot in every circumstance. Little does this matter to the one whose heart is cold with regards to observing mitzvot or studying Torah. Even if he finds himself in a yeshiva or an observant home, the warm environment will have no influence on him, for inside his heart is cold. Thus the wicked Esau, even though he lived with two Tzaddikim, did not learn from their good deeds (Yoma 38b), and so he left the straight path. On the other hand, someone whose heart burns for Torah and mitzvot never changes, even if he lives among the wicked, for within him his heart is always hot for the service of the Creator, and it is Vayeitzei, Vayishlach, and Vayeishev. Even when we leave a place of Torah and are sent away from home, despite everything there remains Vayeishev, and we continue to be occupied with Torah.
How should one behave?
It is written, “My heart grew hot within me, in my contemplations a fire blazed” (Psalms 39:4), for only one who has a heart that is hot for the service of G-d can continue to observe mitzvot and study Torah in all circumstances and in every place, even outside of the yeshiva or the home. It is always for this that one should strive, for it is in this way that one can overcome all trials.