If You’re Only Going to Do One…

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The juiciest nuggets often come in the digressions in a lecture. Having discussed the two substantive parts of the sixth drasha, let’s look at the fascinating way in which Ran opens the talk. It’s a complete digression, bearing no clear connection to the rest, except that it’s building off of another point made by the verses he cited. Since he was Ran, even those of his remarks he obviously delivered for both introductory and ancillary reasons offer much food for thought.

One Mitzvah Can Be Enough

Prior essays in this series

The verses with which he opened the drasha, as we’ve seen, were Michah 6:6-8. But verse 8 figures in another Talmudic discussion, Makkot 23b, and it’s that discussion Ran brings up first.  The Gemara there (which I discussed in more detail in Were Missing the Point) says, without explanation, that Moshe brought 613 mitzvot down from Sinai, that David HaMelech reduced those to eleven (derived from Tehillim 15), Yeshayahu reduced them to six, Michah to three, Yeshayahu another time to two, and Habakuk to one.

Ran will get to that, but he starts with Rambam’s view that the full and proper performance of even one mitzvah, with no ulterior motives or interests other than love of Hashem, suffices to earn a share in the World to Come. For Rambam, that’s what the last Mishnah in Makkot means when it says Hashem gave us many commandments for our benefit. The more commandments there are, the more likely each of us will find one to perform in the best way.

Great Reward Isnt the Same as Perfection

Ran notes that Rosh?? accepted that view, and applauds it himself, but adds an element. He does not accept that any one mitzvah earns us a share in the World to Come (although it does seem that any one mitzvah, done consistently for a lifetime, will earn such a share), although they all bring some reward, Ran held that differing mitzvot earn different rewards—some mitzvot might only give us a few more years of life in this world, some might give us a small share in the World to Come, and some might give us a share equal to that given for several smaller ones.

Hashem didn’t tell us the rewards for each mitzvah because people would zero in on the most rewarding ones, whereas Hashem wanted us to engage the full panoply of them.  Instead of our hoarding reward, Hashem wanted us to achieve as complete a perfection as we could, and that comes from working on all the mitzvot, not just the most important ones (this concern with achieving well-rounded service rather than quantitative reward is already articulated in Rabbenu Yonah’s commentary to Avot; Ran doesn’t acknowledge that, but I suspect it was his source).

To Ran, that explains what Makkot 23b-24a was telling us: Moshe Rabbenu gave the whole shebang of commandments, not differentiating among them, in the hope that we would fulfill all, or almost all, without regard to more or less important.

Sometimes You Gotta Prioritize

What David HaMelech (and the rest of the figures in that Gemara—Yeshayahu, Michah, and Habakkuk) saw was that people weren’t keeping enough of the range to justify withholding information about what was important. If people were keeping a small portion of the 613, but were including the most important ones, there might be no need to clarify. But in David’s time, they were neglecting some of the most important ones.

To rectify that, David came up with a list that could lead to a perfection of its own. It wouldn’t be the perfection of the 613, but it would be something meaningful. Before that, while the people of his time thought they were observing the Torah, they in fact were missing some or all of the most crucial parts. This itself is worth noting, that people can think of themselves as observing the Torah and yet be missing what’s most important and essential. Avoiding that is the primary reason to make clear that which qualifies as most important and essential.

In Ran’s view, then, Michah was saying to the people of his time that, whatever they were observing, they had lost sight of the necessity of justice, kindness, and modesty to any meaningful definition of Torah observance.

Ran notes that the examples the Gemara gives for doing something modestly are weddings and funerals. Preferably even those events would happen with the unavoidable minimum of public fanfare.  Therefore, he says, after the custom spread to have an address at a wedding, it should happen in the wedding hall, not a more public place, because the Torah told us to act in privacy even with those activities no one else does privately.

Modesty as a Central Part of the Religion

The comment suggests Ran was giving this drasha at a wedding, which makes for interesting speculation about his pastoral choices. Here he is, at a wedding, and he takes the opportunity to suggest it would have been better to situate the lecture part of the wedding in a more private or modest venue.  He seems to have been confident his audience would take his comments in the vein in which they were given.

Aside from that, he has made two interesting points. First, he reminds us that significant authorities held that there are in fact more and less important mitzvot, even as we know that Hashem prefers the well-roundedness of doing all the mitzvot.

Second, Ran reads great figures of our past as having noticed when the ideal was unattainable and having carved out ways to produce a meaningful religiosity within the powers of the members of their generation.

Last, Ran has reminded us that avoiding publicity was one of the three, according to Michah. When we’re down to articulating all of the service of God in three principles, one of those three is not living our lives in public.  I wonder how many of us see that preference for privacy as even a desideratum, let alone one of three indispensable linchpins of any meaningful observance.

Each of these points, which really aren’t connected to Ran’s main thrust, are nonetheless as relevant and challenging to us today as I would imagine they were to whoever showed up at that wedding almost six hundred years ago.

About Gidon Rothstein

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