January 28th-29th, 2000
Shevat 22, 5760
I remember participating in a discussion group once, when the topic of piecemeal
mitzvah performance came up. Someone asked whether the "orthodox view"
demands an all-or-nothing approach--and anything less is worthless, or at least,
hypocritical--or whether there is value in choosing to do even a few mitzvos while
neglecting the rest.
It's a long discussion (and the hour is late), but I basically shifted the focus
somewhat--with the help of a parable of the great Chofetz Chayim-and explained that
we should view mitzvos as precious jewels scattered at our feet. Just because
we do not feel able at the present time to spend many hours assiduously gathering up
all the ones in our vicinity, is it then logical to conclude that we should spend NO time
at all? Alternatively, because our sack can't hold hundreds of infinitely precious
diamonds, we should give up the opportunity to acquire two or three infinitely precious
diamonds? That would be sheer madness!
I went on to say (with superb eloquence) that we should do every mitzvah that we
can, and rejoice both during and after its performance. Pat yourself on the back for
every "small" STEP in the right direction, so long as your direction is
UP-towards a closer relationship with G-d and the Torah. While it's true that the
classical Jewish view is, unambiguously, that all the mitzvos are obligatory, and that the
Torah--with its 613 commandments, and rabbinic ordinances--is a unity, I was trying to
stress that, in practice, a person should simply focus on whatever he can do at the
present time, and not get bogged down or discouraged by the thought of what he is not yet
observing. G-d rewards every good deed. (The masterpiece of Jewish ethics,
Chovos HaLevavos, offers a similar religious strategy for the aspiring Torah-observer:
fulfill whatever is in your present capability, and beseech G-d sincerely to help you grow
to the level of fulfilling--or of wishing to fulfill!--the rest.)
However, one sharp man at the discussion was not going to surrender so easily to my
inspirational sermon--however brilliant I might have thought it was! He challenged
me with the following pointed question: "What if I keep ALL the mitzvos.but I
don't believe in G-d!?"
It was not readily apparent to this man that the
question is a contradiction in terms. How can there be anything called a
"mitzvah" (from the Hebrew root, to command) if there is no "mitzaveh
(commander)?" Isn't the very definition of a mitzvah, "an action,
utterance or thought commanded by G-d, as recorded in the Torah?" How else can
we define it?
His confusion probably stemmed from the colloquial usage that simply equates
"mitzvah" with any good deed, as in "Do a mitzvah and help the old lady
across the street." Which is a mitzvah, by the way.not because your teacher
says it is a nice thing to do, however, but because specifically G-d commanded us to
emulate His ways by performing acts of chesed, or kindness.
Without believing in G-d, there is just not much sense in talking about "doing
mitzvos." (I don't remember the man's reaction to this idea. No
punches were thrown, in any case.)
In any case, this week's parsha deals precisely with this issue.
What's the first of the ten statements famously known as the "Ten
"I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out of the
land of Egypt, from the house of slavery." (20, 2) After this
introduction, which--it's true--sounds more like a declarative statement than a
commandment, G-d goes on to enunciate nine more obvious imperatives: "You shall have
no other gods besides me.you shall not take the name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain,"
There is much discussion as to whether that first statement is technically one of the 613
biblical commandments, or merely the foundation of the other mitzvos. Rambam and
Ramban, among other great authorities, hold the former position--that the verse
constitutes a positive commandment to believe that Hashem is the free-willed and
omnipotent Creator of the universe and everything in it, Who displayed His mastery of all
natural forces, His involvement in human history and His special Providence over the
Jewish people through the miraculous Exodus from Egypt. It is not a mitzvah that
requires action, and it can be fulfilled at all times, wherever you are; it is a mitzvah
of the mind and heart.
In a long passage in his commentary on the Torah, the great medieval biblical
commentator and thinker, Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-circa1164), examines the connection
between this first commandment and the other nine. He declares it to be the primary
or root mitzvah from which all the other nine--and, indeed, all the other 612!--stem, for
".someone who doesn't believe in his heart in Hashem, has no mitzvah on him (eyn alav
mitzvah)." In other words, there can't be any mitzvah in the true sense without
a belief in G-d.
The Midrash (Mechilta) makes the same basic point in
examining the relationship of the first two commandments:
"[Consider] a parable of an earthly king who
entered a country. His servants said to him, 'Make decrees for them [the
inhabitants]!' He said to them, 'When they will accept my kingship, I will
make decrees for them, for if they don't accept my kingship, they will not accept my
decrees.' Thus the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: 'I am Hashem your G-d.
[and then added] you shall not have any gods besides Me.' [As if to say], 'I am the
One whose Kingship you accepted in Egypt?' They said to Him, 'Yes.' 'Then just
as you accepted My Kingship, so you should accept My decrees.'"
The decrees--the mitzvos--were given only with the
assumption (or, better, the assurance!) that the Jewish people accepted G-d's kingship.
Let's emphasize one point in conclusion. Most of
the commentators explain that there is much more to this first commandment than just an
intellectual "belief" in a "Deity." After all, the verse doesn't
just say, "I am Hashem;" it says, "I am Hashem, your G-d." In
the unmatched words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the first commandment is expressing:
"Not the fact that there is a G-d, also not that
there is only one G-d, but that this One, unique, true G-d, is to be my G-d, that He
created and formed me, placed me where I am, and goes on creating and forming me, keeps
me, watches over me, leads me and guides me; not that my connection with Him should be
through ten thousand intermediaries as a chance product of a universe which He brought
into being eons ago, but that every present breath that I draw and every coming moment of
my existence is to be a direct gift of His Almight and Love.in a word, not the knowledge
of the existence of G-d, but the acknowledgment of G-d as my G-d, as the exclusive One in
Whose hands is the disposal of all my fate, and as the exclusive One guide of all my acts.
It is only with this, only with the acceptance of this
truth, that I can lay the foundation of a Jewish life." (Hirsch, Commentary on
the Torah: II, p. 258)
May Hashem help us to acknowlege Him as our King, and
to keep as many mitzvos-that is, pick up as many priceless diamonds--as we possibly can!
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director
of the the Savannah Kollel and the
Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP).
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
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