ALL MITZVOT ARE CREATED EQUAL
If you had to choose only one mitzvah, what would it be? Imagine a prisoner who is granted one day of reprieve in which he can fulfill any mitzvah he wants.
If you had to choose only one mitzvah, what would it be? Imagine a prisoner who is granted one day of reprieve in which he can fulfill any mitzvah he wants. Should he choose Rosh Hashanah so that he will get a chance to hear the resounding sound of the shofar? Or perhaps he should choose Yom Kippur so that he can pray to Hashem for mercy and forgiveness? Maybe he should choose Shabbat so that he can recite the kiddush and bask in the innate holiness of the day?
This perplexing case actually occurred in the 16th century and was brought before the Radvaz, the chief rabbi of Egypt who wrote a classic collection of halachic responsa. Quite surprisingly, he answered that the prisoner should choose the first available day -- whether it be a holiday, a Shabbat, or merely just a weekday. His reasoning was based on a mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers, 2:1) which states: "Be as scrupulous in performing a minor mitzvah as you are with a major one, for you do not know the rewards given for mitzvot." The mishnah is teaching us not to discriminate between the mitzvot. We must be as scrupulous with a difficult mitzvah as we are with an easy one. We therefore cannot treat one mitzvah as having priority over another one.
Where do we find this concept in the written Torah itself? The Torah strongly veers from ever attaching a reward to a specific mitzvah. If each mitzvah had a corresponding reward, it would be very easy and convenient for us to be selective in our actions, simply picking to do the mitzvot which we want to do. Therefore, the Torah only mentions a reward for two specific mitzvot. In this week's Torah portion, we read the filial fifth commandment to honor ones parents, about which the Torah earlier stated that the reward is long life. The other mitzvah -- to shoo the mother bird away before taking her eggs -- is also linked to the reward of longevity.
What is so significant about these two mitzvot that there is an explicit reward attributed to them? The Talmud teaches us that honoring one's father and mother is the most difficult mitzvah to properly perform. It recounts numerous illustrations of rabbis trying to fulfill this mitzvah. One story tells of Rabbi Tarfon who would bend down and allow his mother to step on him every time she climbed into bed. Even that, the Talmud states, did not fulfill even half of his obligation! What is the easiest mitzvah to fulfill? Imagine yourself walking down the road and you see a mother bird perched on top of some eggs. The Torah commands us to shoo the mother away before taking her eggs. That is so easy to fulfill -- it is just a simple wave of the hand. It takes no effort at all. It doesn't cost us anything. As the Talmud in Tractate Chulin succinctly states, it is the easiest mitzvah to fulfill.
These two mitzvot are the only ones mentioned with a reward next to them because, in effect, they encompass all of the remaining 611 mitzvot. By telling us that the reward for both the simplest and most difficult mitzvot are one in the same, Hashem is teaching us that all mitzvot are created equal. There is a reward given for both of these mitzvot and every one in between. If we had to choose one mitzvah, what would it be? The first one that comes our way. Don't miss the incredible opportunity.
For a more elaborate discussion of this fundamental topic, please see Understanding Judaism: The Basics of Deed and Creed by Rabbi Benjamin Blech.
Benyamin Cohen, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently a sophomore at Georgia State University.
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