10 Shvat 5781 / Saturday, January 23, 2021 | Torah Reading: Bo
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The Measure of a Mitzvah    

The Measure of a Mitzvah

When the Bet HaMikdash stood, performing mitzvot was the norm. Today, many of the mitzvot require turning one’s back on so-called “norms” of modern-day life.


What a schlep!

As Baalei Tshuva, my family and I have been taking on the mitzvot gradually. This was the first year we put up a Sukkah. The job was big. First we had to buy all the bars, beams, covering, and tools. Unable to fit into the elevator, we brought everything up six flights of stairs. Finally, we began to build our temporary dwelling.
It was hard work.
All the time I am thinking to myself, we are certainly going to gain big points Upstairs for this!
Then I recalled something I learned in Ethics of the Fathers:
Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. (Pirkei Avot 2:1)
Does this mean that the reward we get for all that heavy lifting could be no different than the merit one receives for reciting modeh ani in the morning?
As I tried to soothe my sore back, one simple word kept rattling around in my head –
Pirkei Avot teaches us something else about the returns on our mitzvot:
Ben Ha Ha says, according to the exertion lies the reward. (Pirkei Avot 5:26)
People are different. A rich man may have an easier time donating a hundred dollars to charity than a poor man. A man who is lazy has to push himself harder to be on time for shachrit than a morning person would. A Jew who is just starting out on his path to Hashem has to make a bigger effort to discover the joy in every moment of the Shabbat where the “veteran” of mitzvot has developed a good routine of preparation and enjoyment for our holiest of days.
It took a lot of work to make our first Sukkah. Baruch Hashem most of the materials we will need to build another one are now in storage. I know exactly which supplies we have to get. Next year, this mitzvah will be a lot easier.
What if mitzvot have different rewards because it’s the TIMES that change? As things change, so do the challenges behind different mitzvot.
When the Beit HaMikdash stood, performing all of the mitzvoth was the norm. Today, performing many of the mitzvot, especially ones that are displayed physically, go against the norms of modern-day life. Performing the mitzvah of tzitzit most likely had a different degree of exertion than performing this mitzvah today.
It’s a much bigger challenge.
The reverse could be said for idolatry. We are commanded to never engage in idolatry.
How hard is that?
When King Menasseh was called to heaven for his idolatrous practices, he told the judges that the appeal of idolatry was so great, that had they lived in his age all of them would be doing it. Idolatry was so tempting, the sages begged Hashem to “eliminate its attractiveness” so we wouldn’t want to do it anymore. Their prayers were answered. This is why the exertion one needed back then to observe the second Commandment was immensely greater than what is needed today. The reward of resistance in those days must have been great as well.
Is there any way we can understand how exciting and inviting idolatry was then, and what was needed to resist it? What mitzvah is most comparable to the desire for a constant need for primal pleasure? What commandment has replaced this one in demanding the greatest personal exertion in each of us?
With the internet, cell phones, magazines, music videos, on demand movies, and a thousand channels on TV, it is estimated that a person is exposed to sexual suggestions over 14,000 times each year. In the words of Rabbi Ben-Tzion Schafier, “had the people of Sodom and Gomorah transported themselves to today, they would celebrate and proclaim that not in their wildest dreams could they come up with so much impurity!”
It was unheard of a hundred years ago for a woman to walk in public uncovered. Modesty was a universal value. It was a matter of personal dignity to walk around in a respectable manner.
This certainly made the mitzvah of guarding one’s eyes a lot more manageable.
Compared to ages ago it is much harder to keep the laws of sexual purity. This mitzvah, which brought great merit to the generations of King David, Rashi, and Rebbe Nachman, can realize even more spiritual potential today. This is the mitzvah where our generation can earn the greatest of rewards.
We are not King David, Rashi or Rebbe Nachman. We are their children. We have it within us to finish the work they began. We can give the greatest gift a child can possible give to his father. We can make their greatest dreams come true.
Perhaps this is the reason why there is so much nonsense out there in the first place?

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