In a previous capacity, I used to attend a lot of conferences from various Jewish organizations. One person was a regular virtually everywhere I went: a gentleman who displayed posters and handed out information about building mikvahs and observing the mitzvah of taharas hamishpacha (“family purity”). I don’t know if he was a one-man operation or the public face of the organization but, in either case, I admired his tenacity and commitment to his cause. (I haven’t been at one of these conferences in years; for all I know he’s still attending them, promoting mikvah education.)
The zeal with which this gentleman approached his cause is approximated by many others, albeit in a variety of disparate areas. Some people, for example, are really into hachnosas orchim, the mitzvah of hosting guests. Their homes are constantly open, with dozens of guests sleeping over and hundreds of diners at their Shabbos tables throughout the course of the year.
Other people are really moved by the mitzvah of shmiras halashon, watching our speech. They set aside time each day to study the laws of this mitzvah and they dedicate hours to exerting extra zeal in guarding themselves from speaking poorly of others.
There are people who are similarly dedicated to raising money for hachnosas kallah (raising money to help needy couples get married), educational outreach to unaffiliated Jews (kiruv), promoting aliyah to Israel and Torah study – either in general or in some specialized area. (You would not believe the number of Torah series I have been pitched over the years on the basis that this particular thing is exactly what we need to fix the Jewish people.)
I hate to say it but each and every one of these individuals is wrong. Taharas hamishpacha isn’t the answer to all our problems, nor is shmiras halashon, hachnosas kallah, the daily study of Rambam or getting all Jews to keep “just one Shabbos.” None of these people is going to save the world.
In an article on another site, I once wrote:
It’s actually impossible to answer ‘what is the most important mitzvah?’ We intuitively ‘feel’ that mitzvos like Shabbos and keeping kosher are more important than most and we don’t spend as much time thinking about things like shaatnez (not wearing garments of mixed wool and linen), taking challah from our dough or not charging interest.
A reader there was shocked by my assertion as it did not jibe with her personal experience. She commented there:
Where he talks about Mitzvahs we don’t pay much attention to and he mentions Shatnez, OK, I was just reading along… but then he mentioned taking Challah and I gasped!!! Challah! Taking Challah! It never occured to me that taking Challah is not as important as Shabbos or Kashrus. When baking Challah for Shabbos – taking the piece of Challah embodies both Kashrus and Shabbos. … I get it about Shatnez. Its something you do without emotion. But a woman who takes Challah every week in preparation for Shabbos – or even if she only does it occasionally – taking Challah is an act of love. I know that doesn’t make sense. But it is.
I don’t question her experience at all, I just don’t think that it’s as universal as she may believe. And as passionate as this woman is about taking challah, there are people who are just as passionate about checking for shaatnez. You name a mitzvah and there’s someone who is passionate about it, even though many others may not share that passion.
It’s easy to see how such different tastes for mitzvos can develop. Our Sages extol the unique merits of each mitzvah. Since each of us is different, different things are going to resonate with each of us. (If you’re a guest in my house, I don’t care if there’s four feet of snow and I have a 104-degree fever – I’m going to walk you out. I may have an unusually strong dedication to the principle of escorting guests but what can I say? It’s imprinted on me.)
This situation is, in fact, an excellent thing for the Jewish people. What kind of world would we have if we were all passionate about minyan to the exclusion of business ethics? Or about matzah to the exclusion of teshuvah? Or about tzniyus to the exclusion of Israel? Or vice versa in any of these pairs? Very few people can be equally passionate about all mitzvos simultaneously. We need some people to be zealous about mitzvos that others of us might otherwise take for granted.
The mishna in Pirkei Avos (2:1) tells us to be as careful in what we perceive to be a “small” mitzva as we are in what we consider to be a “big” mitzva. This is because we don’t really know the relative importance of mitzvos. Underscoring this idea, we see two mitzvos that promise us a “long life” in the Next World: honoring our parents (Exodus 20:12) and sending a mother bird away before taking the young or eggs from her nest (Deuteronomy 22:7). Honoring our parents is very difficult – it takes a lifetime of constant vigilance! Shooing a bird away takes only a moment of our time. It’s very telling that the Torah promises the same reward for these two very different mitzvos!
The Torah is like a jigsaw puzzle with 613 pieces, and no one person has all of them. Some mitzvos are for just kohanim; other are just for Leviim or Yisroelim. Some are just for men or for women. Some are for beis din (the courts) and some are for the king. The more pieces we have, the more we can complete the picture as it appears on the box (i.e., in the Torah) but no one person can put the puzzle together alone. And sometimes we overlook a piece. That’s when we need someone to point it out to us. No matter how small a piece may seem, our puzzle just can’t be complete without it.
Are any of these things going to save the Jewish people? Sadly, no. So what’s going to change our world? All of them, working together.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.