Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 20 February 2021 / 8 Adar 5781

Infinite Potential (Part 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

“These are the precepts that have no prescribed measure to them: the corner of the field, the first-fruit offerings, making a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple, acts of kindness and the study of Torah.” (Tractate Peah 1:1)

Notwithstanding the Rambam’s remarkable insight into the Mishna about pushing ourselves beyond our natural instincts to earn more spiritual reward, there still remains an uncertainty as to why it is that these particular commandments have no prescribed measure to them.

Sefer HaChinuch, a timeless classic work of deceptive simplicity, written anonymously in the thirteenth century, catalogs the 613 commandments according to where they appear in the Torah, adding a brief legal and philosophical description to each commandment. With his customary dazzling brilliance, the author explains that the commandments found in our Mishna are deliberately left undefined, because each one represents a concept that is far greater than merely the action we are obligated to do according to the commandment. Specifically, each one carries with it a message that is supposed to remain with us constantly throughout our lives.

The Torah instructs us that a person who owns a field must leave over a corner of the field unharvested when harvesting his crop. The crop in that part of the field is not even considered to be the property of the owner. Rather, it belongs to the poor and the needy. They may enter the field and take whatever is growing there — in the section that has been set aside for them — without permission. The message to the owner is that everything comes from G-d. Even when a person toils arduously to make his field productive, he is always dependent on G-d for success. Leaving over a part of the field teaches the owner, and us, that G-d’s bountiful blessings must be shared with those less fortunate. And it instills within us sensitivity to the needs of others.

The first-fruit offerings carry a similar lesson. Farming is an extremely labor-intensive occupation. After many months of hard work and sleepless nights worrying whether the elements and roaming creatures might ruin his harvest, the farmer is thrilled to finally see his trees beginning to bud. The fruit begins to appear on the tree, slowly but surely, and the farmer’s anticipation is palpable. Very soon, the yield will be ready to be picked and he will literally eat the “fruits of his labor.” His sense of achievement is acute and it is very easy for a successful farmer to mistakenly imagine that his talents alone were the reason for his accomplishments. This would be tragic, as it would cause him to ignore the real Source of his success — G-d. Therefore, he is commanded to set aside the very first delectable fruits in his vineyards and orchards; not to eat them himself, but to bring them to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Because we must never lose sight of the One Who truly sustains us.

The Mishna also teaches us about the centrality of the Holy Temple and the obligation to spend time there. Why was travelling to the Holy Temple so incredibly significant that it, too, had no defined limits? During its existence, the Holy Temple served as a magnet for Jews from far and wide. It was the location that demonstrated the eternal and enduring connection that exists between G-d and His nation. Regardless of whether a person stayed for a fleeting amount of time or for an extended period, the Holy Temple was always the spiritual epicenter of one’s life. In effect, the Holy Temple connected each individual to the Jewish Nation and to G-d. And, now that we have no Temple, our obligation is to remain permanently committed to G-d and His Torah through our actions and thoughts.

“Acts of kindness” is the fourth item on the list. Why are acts of kindness also unlimited? The Mishna is teaching us a fundamental lesson. When we are not involved in other pursuits, there is an obligation to be involved in thinking of others and helping them. Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878-1953), referred to universally as the “Chazon Ish,” the title of his magnum opus, was one of the most brilliant and discerning Torah scholars from the previous century. He points out the essential difference between charity — whose limits are defined within Jewish law — and kind deeds, whose limits are not. The Chazon Ish explains that the commandment to give charity can only be fulfilled when it is given to a person in need, whereas kind deeds can be done to anyone at any time. The Mishna is teaching us that there are no limitations whatsoever to whom one can perform kind deeds, and when they can be done.

In the same way, Torah, the last of the five mentioned in the Mishna, has no limits. For one person, learning just a few minutes a day may be sufficient to fulfill his obligation, while for another it may require many hours of intense study. It all depends on the “standing” of the person. On being asked if he learned Torah by someone who did not know him, the Chazon Ish, whose diligence while learning was legendary, famously replied that when he had free time, he studied Torah. And, in truth, that is exactly what the Chazon Ish did. It is just that the Chazon Ish’s “free time” occupied almost the entirety of his day. In fact, the Chazon Ish was known to invest so much intellectual energy into learning Torah that he was often completely exhausted and would fall asleep on the floor next to his bed because he was physically incapable of finding any extra strength to climb into it!

Each one of the five commandments that appear in our Mishna carries a variation of the same message — the imperative to build a healthy and permanent bond with G‑d. And, perhaps even more crucially, the importance of constantly toiling to strengthen that relationship so that it is always in a perpetual state of growth. And, for this reason this specific Mishna was chosen as representing the Oral Torah within the blessings. Its underlying theme is that we must open up our hearts to allow G-d’s Presence to saturate every aspect of our lives.

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