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Do Not Tarry; You Must Run to Do the Mitzvot

May 16, 2011 By:
Rabbi Howard A. Addison
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BEHAR, Leviticus 25:1-26:2

Following Pesach, it's customary to study a chapter of Pirke Avot, the "Ethics of the Fathers," each Shabbat for six weeks. These talmudic aphorisms show how to live more godly lives as we prepare to receive Torah anew when the Ten Commandments are read on Shavuot. Among my favorite sayings is Ben Azzai's dictum: Run to perform a light mitzvah.

What is a "light" mitzvah? Perhaps it is a mitzvah one can easily accomplish, like giving a few coins to charity. Perhaps a light mitzvah is one that might seem to have little impact on our spiritual lives. If repentance and fasting on Yom Kippur constitute "weighty" mitzvot, refraining from wearing clothes made of linen and wool -- the biblical prohibition known as shatnez -- might be construed as a "light" mitzvah.

However, the most insightful interpretation indicates that the "lightness" isn't determined by the effort required or its importance. Such a mitzvah might be lightly regarded because we presume there are limitless chances to perform it. If I don't go to shul this Shabbat, I'll go next week. If I don't make amends today with those I've hurt, there will always be time tomorrow.

To combat this mindset, Ben Azzai tells us not to walk, but run to do these mitzvot. Given human mortality, the idea that we have endless time is an illusion. If we abstain from grasping the moment, we'll never know if it could have transformed our lives.

In 1913, a young Franz Rosenzweig, sure that he was about to convert to Christianity, entered an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin on Kol Nidre night. Convinced that this would be his last Yom Kippur observance, Rosenzweig was so moved by the experience that he changed his plans and became one of the 20th century's most profound Jewish philosophers. Finally, if we do procrastinate, those who could benefit might be irreparably harmed.

Most of us are acquainted with this week's Torah reading because its most telling passage is inscribed on the Liberty Bell. Discussing the Jubilee year, which marked the release of indentured servants and the return of family patrimonies every 50 years, the Torah states: And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof. However, the portion does not stop there; it speaks about responding to those in need.

Aid at the First Sign of Need
In successive paragraphs, Behar tells us that if those close to us become impoverished and need to sell family land, their loved ones should buy back the property. It then directs us to employ such persons to help them satisfy any further debts and, in extreme circumstances, to ransom the debtors back if they were forced to sell themselves into indentured servitude.

Rashi, commenting on this progression, teaches that the Torah tells us to offer aid at the first sign of need and not wait until the situation worsens. Like a pack animal whose harness has loosened, it's easier to secure the load immediately than restore it once it's on the ground.

Whether it's reciting a brachah, righting a wrong, reaching out to one in need or acting to honor God's creation by helping to restore our environment, Ben Azzai tells us not to walk but to run. In the words of Hillel's poignant challenge, cited earlier in Pirke Avot: ... If not now, when?

Rabbi Howard Addison is the leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. Email him at: rabbia363@gmail.com.

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