A man was once taking a leisurely stroll along the seashore. Scanning the beautiful and relaxing sight of the ocean waves, he suddenly noticed a treasure chest that had washed up and spilled onto the shore.
A man was once taking a leisurely stroll along the seashore. Scanning the beautiful and relaxing sight of the ocean waves, he suddenly noticed a treasure chest that had washed up and spilled onto the shore. He ran over to grab the treasure, but saw that the tide was washing the pearls and gemstones back into the ocean. It would not be long before all of them would wash back into the sea. Upon realizing that he would not be able to collect all of the stones in such a limited time, he became discouraged and walked away without any of them.
The last verse in this week's Torah portion (Deuteronomy 7:11) states, "And you should guard the mitzvot, the laws and statutes that I am commanding you to perform today." From the verse's reference to doing the mitzvot today, the Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 22a) derives that we only have today, namely this world, to perform them. This world is designated for the performance of the mitzvot and tomorrow, in the World to Come, is the place where we receive reward for them. Therefore, we should be careful to do mitzvot now, so as to reap the greatest rewards later, in the World to Come.
The Steipler Rav, a towering figure of world Jewry who passed away in 1987, explains that it is for our own benefit that Hashem waits for the World to Come and does not directly reward us for our mitzvot in this world. One reason for this is that the reward in the World to Come is greater than we can imagine. The Mishnah teaches us (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:17) that one hour of pleasure in the World to Come is greater than an entire lifetime in this world. It is very difficult for us to envision this, because we have no perception of the World to Come. The Orchos Tzaddikim, a medieval work on Jewish ethical behavior, analogously explains that a fish and a bird have no concept of the pleasures the other experiences because each one cannot experience the environments in which the other resides. In the same way, we, as physical beings, have no concept of the spiritual pleasures that are existent in the World to Come. Were we to be given reward in this world, it would be limited to that which we could physically experience now, and could only last until the end of our lifetime. Therefore, as a kindness, Hashem holds our reward for us to experience in the World to Come, where it will be fully appreciated. In the meantime, we must prepare ourselves with mitzvot in order to earn this great reward.
With this premise, we can understand an incredible concept from earlier in the Torah portion. The Torah describes (Deuteronomy 4:41-42) how Moses set up three cities to act as cities of refuge. When a person accidentally killed another, he would flee to one of these cities for protection. Eventually, there would be six such cities, three in the land of Israel and three across the Jordan River. Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, is perplexed by Moses' actions. The law is that none of the cities of refuge would function until all six were ready. This would not happen until the land was conquered and divided among the tribes. What was Moses accomplishing by setting up these cities now if they would not be used until years later?
Rashi answers that even though the cities would not function until much later, Moses still wanted to establish them now. He wanted to do as much of the mitzvah as possible even though he would never see his actions through to their completion.
The Chofetz Chaim, the foremost leader of Torah Jewry at the turn of the century, explains that the desire to decline from performing mitzvot because of the rationalization that we will not complete them is a classic technique of the evil inclination. It seduces us into thinking that since we will never be able to fully perform a mitzvah, why bother trying? For example, being careful not to speak lashon hara (negative or slanderous speech) involves knowing the applicable laws and can sometimes be difficult to follow. The evil inclination will ask a person why he is even trying. The person knows that it is difficult and that he is likely to get it wrong sometimes, so why even begin the effort?
Recognizing this tactic can enable us to counter the evil inclination. We may feel that we will never keep a certain mitzvah properly and thus be discouraged from trying. An example of this is our daily prayers. If we realize towards the end of the shemoneh esrei (silent benediction) that we have not been concentrating, it is easy to feel that the opportunity was lost, and then finish the remaining part without intent. The answer is that every little bit more that we can accomplish is so great that it is worth the try. Even if we may fall short and not finish properly or entirely, it is worth our while to do what we can. We will still get credit for whatever part of the mitzvah we have done.
The Chofetz Chaim illustrated this point with the analogy mentioned above of the man who gave up the treasure on the seashore. When analyzing the man's actions, we would view him as an utter fool. He was discouraged because he would not be able to collect all of the treasure. However, regardless of that, he would have become rich with whatever portion of the treasure that he could have collected. Instead of walking away, he should have tried to take as many gemstones as he could before the tide washed them away. If this is true of precious stones, then certainly in spiritual pursuits we should try to "grab" as much as we can.
If we view our mitzvot like the gemstones on the seashore, we would grab every opportunity to do them however incomplete they may seem. This is what Moses was doing when he set up the three cities of refuge across the Jordan. Even though he would never see the project through to its fruition, he performed whatever part of the mitzvah he could. We have a limited amount of time to perform the mitzvot, so we want to do as many as we can. In addition to this, we understand that every mitzvah is itself a precious gem. Therefore, just because we cannot perform a mitzvah entirely or perfectly, this should not deter us from doing what we can. Whatever amount that can be done, however small or incomplete, will benefit us with indescribable reward later. By realizing this, may we all merit to perform many mitzvot, and accumulate the spiritual gems that will earn us eternity.
Special thanks to Yechiel Ben-Ari for his help with the electronic delivery of this and many other of Mendel's articles.
Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.
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