Intentions and Rewards of Mitzvot – Weekly Words of Torah, Ekev 5773

Insights into Parshat Ekev of Mr. David Silber of Yeshivat Sha’alvim, by Rav Re’uven Ungar of Sha’alvim.

There’s a well known idea that when one intends to perform a mitzvah but ultimately cannot do it, he/she is considered to have fulfilled the mitzvah, whereas with respect to an averah the opposite is true. Yet in this week’s parsha, Rashi explains that in the first pasuk of perek chet (ch 8) when the pasuk says “kol hamitzvah” it’s meant to be taken literally- that you only get the s’char for a mitzvah if you complete it. How do these two ideas coexist? How can it be that you get s’char for intent to do a mitzvah, but not get s’char for actually doing part of a mitzvah?

The first few pesukim of Ekev explain some of the great depth that exist in our mitzvot, and the following two ideas can help us understand the inconsistency mentioned above. On the first pasuk of the parsha, Rashi comments that the Torah chooses to use the seemingly superfluous lashon of “ekev” in order to show that the reward being mentioned applies even to the mitzvot that people usually overlook; ie. that people usually step over with their “heels”.

The Sfat Emet (Rav Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, d. 1905) however, understands Rashi on a deeper level. He explains that the purpose of mitzvot is to find a connection to Hashem in everything that we do, and that the chiddush in the pasuk is that even the lowliest of acts- comparable to the heel, a reference to the lowest, most physical and least spiritual areas of life- if used to see Hashem in this world, can bring all the tremendous s’char mentioned.

The last pasuk in the explanation of reward for mitzvot tell us that the reason for the mitzvot is “ki lo al halechem livado yichyeh ha’adam, ki al kol motzi pi Hashem yichyeh ha’adam”- that in the midbar, by giving us the ‘maan’, we learned that we do not live on bread alone, but rather off whatever it is that Hashem gives us. The Maharal (Judah Loew ben Bezalel, d. 1609), in Sefer Netzach Yisrael, explains that “lechem” is a reference to parnasah (livelihood), and that there are three levels of “lechem”: The first level is the minimal amount required in order to live, the second is giving a person a little extra so one feels satisfied with his work and secure with what he/she has, and a third level is there for us to be mitaken, to fix for a better use. We see from here a tremendous lesson: in everything that Hashem gives us our job is to fix it, to perfect it.

Our original question was how can it be that one gets s’char for simply intending to do a mitzvah, but doesn’t receive s’char for actually doing part of a mitzvah. However, with these two ideas in mind we can now understand the reasoning: there is much more to a mitzvah than the s’char attained by having done it. The parsha is teaching us what mitzvot are all about- not simple means to gain points in olam haba, but rather they help us see Hashem in every aspect of our lives, and they are the tools that Hashem provided us so that we can be mitaken this world. Thus when someone intends to do a mitzvah properly, he has already accomplished part of the goal of the mitzvah by understanding that Hashem is a part of every aspect of his life and that he needs to do the mitzvot in order to fix this world. But when someone does only part of a mitzvah, it is a sign that his intent is not the proper intent of mitzvot, he simply wants to rack up points.

With the message of this week’s parsha, that one should be doing mitzvot not for his/her own sake, but rather for the sake of the community, to be mitaken the world and be mifarsem Kavod Shem Shamayim (publicize the honor of Heaven), hopefully we can create more ahavat chinam and bring Moshiach bimhera viyamenu amen!