Mitzvot: Not Just Rules, But Wings to Fly

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

In Parashas Acharei Mos, the Torah instructs us on the famous principle of living by the mitzvot (commandments). The pasuk (verse) itself says:

“וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה’ – and you shall guard My decrees and My laws, that a person shall do them, and he shall live by them (vachai bohem), I am Hashem” (Vayikra 18:5).

But what exactly does וחי בהם (vachai bohem), “and he shall live by them,” truly mean?

Rashi’s Interpretation:

  • Focus on Eternal Life: Rashi (and also Onkelus) interprets “live by them” as referring to the afterlife, eternal life in the World to Come (olam ha-ba). Rashi explains: חי בהם. לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, שֶׁאִם תֹּאמַר בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וַהֲלֹא סוֹפוֹ הוּא מֵת (“And he shall live by them” (vachai bohem). In the World to Come (olam ha-ba), for if you say [it refers to] this world, behold, its end is death.) This emphasizes the ultimate reward for following G-d’s commandments.

The Sages’ Interpretation:

  • Preservation of Life: Chazal in Sanhedrin 74a understand it as “live by them, not die by them.” (Sanhedrin 74a): וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם – ‘that he shall live by them’ The Sages emphasize that preserving life takes precedence over some commandments in certain situations.
  • Desecration for Observance: This principle allows for the temporary violation of a mitzvah (like desecrating Shabbat in an emergency) to ensure long-term observance (being alive to observe many future Shabbats). חַלֵּל עָלָיו שַׁבָּת אַחַת כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשְׁמוֹר שַׁבָּתוֹת הַרְבֵּה (“Desecrate one Shabbat on his behalf so that he will live to observe many Shabbasos.”) (Yoma 85b)

R. Menachem Mendel Morgenstern’s (The Kotzker Rebbe) View:

  • Living with Enthusiasm: The Kotzker Rebbe suggests “live by them” means performing mitzvot with “חיות (chiyut)” (enthusiasm) rather than rote obligation. The purpose is to derive meaning and purpose from fulfilling G-d’s commandments. יש לקיים את המצוות בחיות בהתלהבות ולא כמצות אנשים מלומדה (“One should fulfill the mitzvot with liveliness and enthusiasm, not just as a mechanical observance.”)

In Summary:

The phrase “vachai bohem” goes beyond simply following commandments. It emphasizes:

  • Eternal reward for following G-d’s will (as highlighted by Rashi).
  • Preserving life is a priority.
  • Fulfilling mitzvot with passion and deriving purpose from them.

This makes observing mitzvot not just a duty, but a way to live a meaningful and purposeful life, with both earthly and eternal benefits.

Live with fire! The mitzvot aren’t meant to be a dull routine. Don’t just follow the rules, let the mitzvot set your soul ablaze. They’re not chains, they’re wings that lift you to a life of purpose. Choose to fly.


About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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