“The Impact of Performing Mitzvot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, has more mitzvot than any other parasha in the Torah, featuring a total of 74 mitzvot, 47 negative and 27 positive.

In her always astute and penetrating analysis of the Torah portions, Nehama Leibowitz, remarks that since Kee Teitzei contains the most mitzvot, it is entirely appropriate to focus on the overall aim and purpose of the Divine commandments, the mitzvot.

The beautiful mitzvah of, שִׁלּוּחַ הַקֵּן, Shilu’ach Ha’kain, of sending away the mother bird before taking the chicks or the eggs from the nest, that is contained in parashat Kee Teitzei, is a primary example of a most meaningful mitzvah.

The Midrash, Deuteronomy Rabbah 6:3, regards the role of mitzvoth, as serving as “good angels.” The good angels accompany those who perform mitzvot, gracing their daily acts and consecrating their earthly deeds.

Mitzvot elevate even a person’s most mundane daily actions, such as tilling the soil, earning a livelihood, acquiring clothing, grooming one’s hair and building one’s house.

The Midrash concludes by saying, “G-d said: Even if you are not engaged in any particular work, but are merely journeying on the road, the precepts [mitzvot] accompany you. From where do we learn this? For it is said: ‘If a bird’s nest chance to be before you in the way,’ etc.” That is why Scripture, in Proverbs 1:9, refers to the performance of mitzvot as לִוְיַת חֵן הֵם לְרֹאשֶׁךָ, that mitzvot are a crown of glory, a beautiful adornment, a decoration of honor for those who perform them.

Professor Leibowitz points to another approach to understanding the aim of the mitzvot that is found in the Midrash on parashat Shelach. The Torah in Numbers 15:38, declares וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת, that “they make for themselves tzitzit,” fringes on the corners of their garments.

The Midrash states that the Torah and the commandments were given to serve as an inheritance to Israel in the hereafter. Every earthly action and deed is somehow associated with a Torah commandment. An Israelite who goes out to plow, sow, knead dough, who sees a bird’s nest, plants a tree, buries a dead person, builds a house, or wraps himself in a cloak, will invariably encounter a mitzvah that directly pertains to that action.

The Midrash Rabbah in Numbers 17:77 compares it to a case of a person who falls into the water. The captain throws out a rope and shouts to the drowning person, “Take hold of the rope, do not let go, otherwise you’ll lose your life.” So, says the Midrash, G-d says to Israel, “Cleave to the commandments. Adhere to them, for they are your life.”

The first Midrash sees mitzvot as serving as ornaments, adding grace and beauty to a person’s life, as he or she walks through the garden of the Holy One blessed be He, in pursuit of his or her own personal advancement. The second Midrash sees the performance of mitzvot as far more crucial than an ornament. Mitzvot are an essential ingredient of life, saving those who are drowning in the stormy seas of their own selfish passions and pursuits.

Professor Leibowitz cites two mitzvot in the parasha to demonstrate the powerful impact of mitzvot. The first, is the mitzvah of Shilu’ach Ha’kain, of sending away the mother bird, as an example of extraordinary compassion, the compassion shown to a mother bird when taking her chicks. Much more however, does this mitzvah serve as an example of the compassion that human beings are expected to show their fellow human beings, far beyond what might be normally expected.

A second example is the return of lost property. This mitzvah is first mentioned in Exodus 23:4, כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ תֹּעֶה, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ, When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him. The mitzvah of returning lost property is repeated again in Deuteronomy 22:1, לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים, וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ, You shall not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and hide yourself from them; you shall, in any case, bring them again to your brother.

Ramban points out that there’s a subtle, but critical, difference between the two verses. The verses in Exodus uses the expression טוֹעֶה, to’eh, lost, whereas the verse in Deuteronomy uses the expression נִדָּחִים, Nidachim, if they were pushed away, implying that they had wandered far afield, requiring much time and effort to recover them.

Nevertheless, no matter how great the effort, the Torah insists on the obligation to restore the lost property to its rightful owner.

The expression in Deuteronomy 22:1, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם, You shall surely return them, is interpreted in the Talmud to teach that even if the finder brought the lost animal back, and it ran away again, even four or five times, the finder is obligated to bring it back again, and again, until it is restored to its owner.

Rashi says that the phrase, “You shall surely restore them,” teaches that the finder must make certain that there is something to restore to the original owner. While waiting in the finder’s home for the rightful owner to claim his lost property, the lost animal must not be allowed to eat the equivalent of its entire value. Therefore, the finder should rather sell the animal, after a short while, so that there will still be value left to return to the proper owner.

The story is told in the Midrash Rabbah Deuteronomy 3:5, that on one occasion several men came to the city where Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair lived, and deposited with him two measures of barley. Unfortunately, they forgot about their deposit and went away.

Concerned about restoring the value of the barley to the original owners, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair proceeded to sow the barley every year, harvested the crops and stored them. After seven years, when the original owners returned to claim their lost measures of barley, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair called them, and instructed them to take several granaries full of grain, that was harvested from their original two measures of barley.

These exceptional stories vividly demonstrate that the mitzvot can surely be a diadem, a crown, on the human head. Mitzvot help Jews behave in a manner that goes way beyond the call of duty.

As extraordinary as that seems, tradition seems to say that these actions should not be considered extraordinary. Rather, they are to be the Jewish way of life, and without them, we will surely drown.

May you be blessed.