Perhaps you noticed the little problem at the start of Super Bowl LII: the NFL forgot to paint hash marks over the logos.
Because the Super Bowl was in Minnesota, a crew had to remove the Vikings logos from the field and paint in those of the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, plus two Super Bowl logos and the NFL shield. It was realized, a mere two hours before kickoff, that the crew had neglected to put hash marks over the Super Bowl logos and the NFL shield. This necessitated another crew coming onto the field to finish the job.
For those who may be unaware, hash marks are the two rows of lines near the middle of a football field that mark the one-yard increments between the five-yard lines. Football plays start with the ball on or between hash marks. For example, if the ball is downed between a hash mark and the sideline, it is placed on that hashmark for the next play. In other words, hash marks are a necessary component of professional football.
Logos, on the other hand, are nice to have but they’re hardly indispensable for game play. The field crew, in their zeal to paint the logos, overlooked the far more important hash marks. There’s a lesson in here for us: don’t overlook the necessities in favor of bells and whistles.
A quick story: I lived in a certain community where, on Rosh Hashana, many people would go say tashlich by a certain shul that had a large fountain. (Let us leave aside the question of how efficacious it is to recite tashlich by a fountain; this is what happened.) The shul had a sign posted, “Please don’t throw bread in our fountain.” I once observed a father telling his son to throw bread. “But the sign says not to,” the son protested. Nevertheless, the father insisted that his son was “supposed” to throw the bread, sign notwithstanding.
Throwing bread isn’t a real thing. If you recite tashlich during the Ten Days of Repentance and it makes you happy to throw bread, go ahead. But if you recite tashlich on yom tov by a body of water that has fish, one should absolutely not throw bread because we’re not allowed to feed wild animals, birds or fish on yom tov. The same is true about not clogging a shul’s fountain, especially if they specifically ask you not to.
Moving from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, let’s address kapporos. Kapporos is a fairly recent custom, being measured in hundreds rather than thousands of years. And there’s no compelling reason to use live chickens for the ritual. Tzar baalei chaim (not causing needless suffering to animals), however, is a serious transgression. Nevertheless, many people insist on using live chickens but they mistreat them through neglect, leaving them crated in the hot sun without water or allowing them to be mishandled by children. They overlook the larger responsibility in favor of an optional custom.
Purim time, it’s fun to grag and klop during the reading of the megillah but it’s an obligation to hear every word. If you drown out the names of the ten sons of Haman (or anything else), you are letting the game supersede the actual mitzvah.
There are innumerable such examples we could give where our excitement to do something conflicts with our real obligation. If we come home after dark on Friday night, we may want to light Shabbos candles but at that point doing so would be a violation of Shabbos. If it’s pouring rain on Succos, one is not only exempt from eating in the succah, he’s actually not supposed to do so. (The Talmud Yerushalmi calls one who does so a “simpleton.”) The list goes on and on.
It’s good to be excited by our mitzvos and minhagim but we have to keep the big picture in mind. We cannot allow ourselves to get so invested in painting logos that we overlook our hashmarks.