Backman’s Corner: When to do mitzvot

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By Eli Backman
For Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

What if you had a choice of which mitzvah to do? But for real, you can just choose one to do and that’s it.

How do you decide, and what does that tell you about why you do mitzvot?

Scenario:

Reuven was imprisoned in jail and was not able to leave to pray with [a minyan (quorum) of] ten, nor to fulfill other mitzvot. He beseeched the governor yet was not granted permission other than for one day a year – a day of Reuven’s choice. Which day of all the days of the year should Reuven choose to go to Beit Kneset (synagogue)?

Think about it for a minute.

Yom Kippur might be a good response, maybe Passover, dancing on Simchat Torah or reading the Megillah on Purim.

Now what criteria would you use to figure out your answer?

Ok. So with your criteria, you now can tell Reuven what day to choose.

But, should you even be choosing at all?

You see, if religion is G-d’s expression, you have to base your answer on G-d’s criteria, not on a criteria based on your feelings. Basically, which one you feel better or more inspired with doing.

Confusing?

The Talmud tells us that we cannot pass up on any mitzvah. We have to do the one that comes our way.

Practical applications include how to place items in a way that we will reach the mitzvah item we want first and not have to reach over the item that is used for what comes next. For example, on the Passover seder plate, or how to hold the two Challah on Shabbat.

Now if I use that idea, the answer should be that Reuven has to leave jail the very first day possible and do what ever mitzvah is on that day. He cannot ‘pass over mitzvot’ and wait for another one. We do not pay attention to whether the first mitzvah he encounters is a “light” or a “weighty” one, for one cannot know the reward or value of any given mitzvah.

Indeed, 500 years ago, a leading rabbi was asked this exact question, and he used this Talmud to form his response. He rejected other rabbinical answers which tried to see which day might have more ‘weight,’ like Yom Kippur.

In true ‘Yeshiva’ Rabbinic fashion, over the years since, other rabbis have sought to validate his opinion or  have asked questions or refuted it.

But as one points out, it is here that a profound point begins to emerge. If we were to give preference to one mitzvah over another, we  then become final arbiters of the purpose of commandments. To rank one law above another might not seem like a crime, but whenever we call one thing more important than the next, we also diminish the one not chosen for highest priority.

Treat all mitzvot equally, because to do otherwise is to say, “I think that this particular law is not so important.” If I like the ethical parts of the Torah, but do not feel constrained by the rituals, then of course I will say the former is what G-d really cares about. Do I find rituals rich in symbolism, pageantry and beauty, but laws restricting business practices too confining? Then obviously, G-d only meant to be taken seriously when He told me to pray to Him, but He was not serious when He insisted I not pray upon my fellow man.

Selectivity is the transgression that allows us to pick and choose from the law and hence to redefine it.That is the point of the Mishnah used as the basis for this response to the Jew forced to “select” a day of religious observance. Choose the first day possible so that you don’t in fact choose, but rather G-d chooses for you. Choose the first day possible, because if you are granted the freedom to practice your religion on any one day, you dare not defer it to another and thereby declare that you are “looking for something better.”

Mitzvot are the points of connection between us and G-d. The value ascribed to them are from G-d, not from us. So, we should not put ourselves in the position of choosing what to do, rather of doing what we are supposed to do. It might not be our concern with what is accomplished rather with what we do and in the end result G-d will make sure the necessary things are taken care of.

Of course, we should and must study, understand and develop feelings and excitement for what we do. This allows all of us to be engaged in the act of the moment.

In summary: An age old question might shed light on what a mitzvah is and how we should approach doing them. More importantly, it teaches us the value of each and every act we do. So, what are you waiting for? Do a mitzvah, any mitzvah, today!

Eli Backman is the rabbi at UMD Chabad and can be contacted at chabad@umd.edu.

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