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“Wherever You Go, the Mitzvot Go with You”

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Adapted by Matan Glidai
Translated by Kaeren Fish
“If a bird’s nest should chance to be before you in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether there be young ones, or eggs, and the mother bird is sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother bird together with the young; but you shall surely let the mother go, and take the young to you, that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.
When you build a new house then you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood upon your house, if any man falls from it.
You shall not sow your vineyard with diverse seeds, lest the fruit of the seed which you have sown, and the fruit of the vineyard, be forfeited.
You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey together.
You shall not wear a garment of diverse kinds, of wool and linen together.
You shall make yourself fringes upon the four corners of your covering, with which you cover yourself.” (Devarim 22:6-12)
Rashi explains the juxtaposition of these seemingly unrelated commandments:
“If you fulfill the mitzva of chasing away the mother bird, you will end up building a new house and [thereby come to] fulfill the mitzva of building a parapet – for one mitzva draws the next in its wake – and [in time] you will reach [the stage of having] a vineyard, and a field, and fine clothing. For this reason these units follow consecutively.” (Rashi 22:8)
According to this interpretation, the sequence of these laws is related to the promise of reward as formulated in verse 7: “in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.” In the Midrash Rabba (Ki Tetze 2), Chazal note that the chasing away of the mother bird is one of only two mitzvot whose reward is explicitly stated in the Torah. Rashi’s explanation adds to this that the reward is not only long life but also “upgraded” life (a new house, agricultural produce, fine clothing).
The Midrash itself offers a completely different interpretation:
“A different explanation: ‘If a bird’s nest should chance to be before you’ – this is as it is written, ‘for they are a graceful accompaniment for your head [and chains about your neck]’ (Mishlei 1:9). What is the meaning of the expression, ‘a graceful accompaniment’’? … R. Pinchas ben Chama said: Wherever you go, the mitzvot accompany you. From where do we learn this? As it is written, ‘When you build a new house….’ Once you have placed a door – the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ‘And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your home.’ If you wear new clothes – the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ‘You shall not wear a garment of diverse kinds….’ If you go to a barber – the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ‘You shall not round the corners of your head.’ If you have a field and you go and plough it, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ‘You shall not sow your field with diverse seed.’ If you harvest it, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ‘When your reap your harvest in your field….’ The Holy One, blessed be He, says, ‘Even if you are not busy doing anything at all, but merely walking on the way, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ‘If a bird’s nest should chance to be before you on the way….’” (Devarim Rabba, Ki Tetze 3)
Some people divide human existence into two realms: the “religious” realm of Divine service (e.g., sacrifices, prayer and repentance), and the “neutral” realm of human initiative and activity (e.g., commerce and agriculture). According to this approach, the two realms are mutually exclusive. A person’s Divine service has nothing to do with his everyday pursuits; conversely, matters of this world are not connected to serving God.
This view may be pursued a step further: since wholehearted, profound Divine service is possible only in the first realm, the importance of and involvement in the second realm should be minimized. A person who seeks to serve God should not invest his time and energy in developing, building and improving this world.
The midrash above negates such a position. “Wherever you go, the mitzvot go with you”: Halakha is intimately and intensively bound up with every area of life, “the entire world is full of His glory.” This goes far beyond asserting that even when a person engages in matters of this world, he will encounter a few mitzvot here and there along the way. It asserts that all areas of human existence and all human pursuits are governed and guided by Torah. If Torah has directives applying to all these different situations and contexts, then clearly one’s involvement in such practical endeavors is permissible and sometimes, indeed, even obligatory.
The midrash concludes by saying that even when a person is doing nothing in particular, merely walking on the way, the Halakha accompanies him. “There is no place devoid of Him,” and there is no time that is devoid of Him, either. This idea is explained at length by the Rambam in Hilkhot Deot (3:2-3) and in Shemonah Perakim (5), especially in light of the Mishna in Avot (2:12), “And let all your actions be for the sake of Heaven.”
Thus, one may engage in many different spheres, but one must always remember that the mitzvot accompany us in every endeavor we undertake. One’s goal should therefore be to build up one’s personality as a ‘ben Torah’ or ‘bat Torah’ and to express this in all of one’s pursuits. Religious Zionism proclaims the sanctification of all areas of life and the importance of active involvement in the world. It is important that such involvement be preceded by proper preparation. Paradoxically, it is specifically the person who plans to engage in spheres that lie far from the yeshiva world, who must be a ‘ben Torah’ or ‘bat Torah’ in the most profound sense and build his or her personality to the greatest degree during years of yeshiva study. Such a person must emerge with a powerful sense that the Halakha accompanies one wherever one goes and whatever one does.
(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Ki Tetze 5754 [1994].)