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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shelach: Some are more equal than others
The Torah consists of 613 commandments. Just as the physical existence of a person depends on how the parts of the body function, so does the spiritual existence of a person depends on the fulfillment of the commandments. "And you shall observe My decrees and My laws that man shall do and live by." G'd did not want to reveal the reward for fulfilling the commandments, so that we should not choose only to observe the more rewarding commandments. Every positive commandment is the source of life to its corresponding part in the body and will make a major difference in the World to Come. Certain commandments equal all other commandments combined. The Talmud teaches that the commandment of tzitzis equals all other commandments. If we would be rewarded with a medal or an award of distinction, we would proudly display it so others could see it. The Talmud relates how a certain person was tempted to visit a house of ill-repute, where a very beautiful harlot resided. The Torah teaches that when we look at the tzitzis it reminds us of all the mitzvos and helps us conduct ourselves as befitting for a member of the Jewish people.
It is well known that the Torah consists of 613 commandments: 248 instructions what to do and 365 prohibitions what not to do. The Talmud (Makkos 23b) teaches that this is hinted in the Torah itself. In the very last Parasha, Vezos Haberachah, it says (Devarim 33:4) "Moses commanded us the Torah." The numerical value of the word "Torah" is 611. This, says the Talmud, corresponds to the commandments G'd taught the Jewish people through Moses. The first two of the Ten Commandments, "I am HASHEM your G'd" and "you may not have any other gods", our ancestors heard directly from G'd at Mount Sinai. This adds up to a total of 613 commandments.
Essential body parts
The Talmud further teaches that the 248 positive commandments correspond to the 248 parts in the human body, whereas the 365 prohibitions correspond to the 365 days in the solar year. The Chofetz Chaim, in his introduction to the third volume of Mishnah Berurah, explains the significance of the similarity to the human body. Just as the physical existence of a person depends on the functions of every part of the body, so does the spiritual existence of a person depend on the fulfillment of every commandment that is applicable. In the body, every part is important, but some parts are more essential than others. For example, one can live without a hand or a foot. It may be difficult and inconvenient but it is not fatal if a person loses one of these parts of the body. On the other hand, there are parts of the body that are so vital that it is impossible to survive without them. It is obvious that one cannot live without a heart or brain, and if one of these parts ceases to function it is definitely fatal. Says the Chofetz Chaim, the same applies in regards to the positive commandments. Although every commandment is a source of spiritual life to a corresponding part in the body, some commandments are more essential than others.
Observe the commandments
With this insight we gain a deeper understanding of why the Torah often connects our lives with the observance of the mitzvos (commandments). In Parashas Acharei Mos (Vayikra 18:5) it says: "And you shall observe My decrees and My laws that man shall do and live by." Similarly, it says in Parashas Nitzavim (Devarim 30:15-20): "See, I place before you today the life and the good … that I command you today to love HASHEM your G'd… and to observe His commandments … for this is your life and the length of your days." We allude to this verse every night in our evening prayers before we say Shema, when we say, "For they are our life and the length of our days, and we will occupy ourselves with them day and night."
Not reveal reward
When the Torah says that the mitzvot (commandments) are both "our life" and "the length of our days", it refers to the two worlds. "Life" refers to our limited existence in this world, whereas "length of days" refers to our eternal life in the World to Come. Rashi (Vayikra 18:5) points out that "length of days" cannot refer to this world, for those who observe the commandments pass away like everyone else. It is interesting to note that we do not find any reference to the reward in the World to Come in the Torah. Rashi quotes from the Midrash that G'd did not want to reveal the reward for fulfilling the commandments, so that we should not choose only to observe the more rewarding commandments. As it says in Pirkei Avos (2:1): "Be scrupulous in your observance of the easy commandments as with the difficult commandments, for you do not know their reward."
Corresponding part of body
The Chofetz Chaim explains that the fact that every positive commandment is the source of life to its corresponding part in the body will make a major difference in the World to Come. If, G'd forbid, we neglect to observe a commandment, it will cause that we will eternally be missing the corresponding part of our body in the World to Come. This, says the Chofetz Chaim, will be most embarrassing since everyone will know which particular commandment we did not observe. How much more severe is it if we neglect to observe one of the commandments that corresponds to a vital part of our body. Our whole future in the World to Come is thus jeopardized. (Obviously, this only refers to someone who had the opportunity to learn and fulfill the commandments, and knows what G'd expects him to do.) With this we gain a better insight into the above statement of our sages in Pirkei Avos and the Midrash. G'd does not want anyone to enter the World to Come as an invalid or cripple. Therefore, He never revealed to us the rewards for any particular commandment, so that we should strive to observe every single commandment applicable to us.
Torah study and Shabbos observance
However, in the Oral Torah our sages teach that certain commandments equal all other commandments combined. Every morning after the blessings on Torah study, we quote from the Talmud (Shabbos 127a) that Torah study is equal to all other commandments. Similarly, the Midrash Rabbah (Beshalach 25:12) refers to the observance of Shabbos as being equal to all other commandments. This is very understandable. For if someone does not study Torah, it is impossible to observe any of the commandments correctly. Similarly, it is obvious that Shabbos observance is very essential and vital. For when we observe this day of rest we accept and testify that G'd created the world in six days and "rested" on the seventh day. Our belief in G'd as the Creator of the world is the foundation of our observance of the laws of the Torah, so we can well understand why Shabbos is equal to all other commandments.
At the end of this week's parasha, G'd tells Moses to instruct the Jewish people about another commandment that is equal to all other commandments. It says (Bamidbar 15:38-39): "And they shall make themselves tzitzis on the corners of their garments … and they shall see it and remember all commandments of G'd and perform them." The Talmud (Menachos 33b) teaches that since the commandment of tzitzis helps us somehow to remember all the mitzvos, therefore it equals all other commandments. This is a classic example of the above quote from Pirkei Avos, that instructs us to be as scrupulous with an easy commandment as with a difficult one, since we do not know the reward for the commandments. We would never have thought that such an easy commandment as putting on tzitzis is considered in the same category as Torah study and Shabbos observance. No wonder that we observe this commandment beyond the call of duty. The Torah only obligates that if we wear a four cornered garment, we must place tzitzis on each corner. However, the Jewish people have accepted upon themselves to fulfill this commandment in an extended form. Not only do we wear our tallis during the morning prayers, but throughout the day we wear a small four-cornered garment to merit to fulfill this commandment constantly and receive its great reward.
Proudly display tzitzis
The Chofetz Chaim (Mishnah Berurah 826) exhorts those who hide their tzitzis in an inappropriate way. The Torah commands us to wear them in such a fashion that we can look at the tzitzis. If that is not practical, such as in case one works amongst non-Jews, one can put them into the corners of the garment in a respectful way. The Chofetz Chaim states that if we were rewarded with a medal or an award of distinction, we would proudly display it so others could see it. How much more should we proudly display this sign of distinction as members of G'd's chosen nation.
Hit in the face with tzitzis
We find an additional benefit from wearing tzitzis all day. The Talmud (Menachos 44a) relates how a certain person was tempted to visit a house of ill-repute, where a very beautiful harlot resided. She demanded that he send her exorbitant fee of four hundred gold coins in advance, and then he travelled overseas to visit her. He finally arrived and was about to commit his sinful act. Suddenly, he saw the four corners of his tzitzis. They seemed to hit him in his face and he sat down on the floor, unable to sin. The woman could not understand what had happened to him and would not let him go until he explained what had transpired. She was so impressed with what she heard, that she decided to convert to Judaism herself, and at a later stage she married this man.
The Torah teaches that when we look at the tzitzis it reminds us of all the mitzvos and helps us conduct ourselves as befitting for a member of the Jewish people. But, says the Chofetz Chaim in his commentary on this week's parasha, it is impossible to remember the laws of the Torah if we do not study them. The benefit of the tzitzis is great but it must go hand in hand with Torah study. Only then can we live up to G'd's expectations. As it says (ibid 14): "So that you will remember and perform all My commandments and be holy to your G'd."
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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