In this week’s parsha we learn of the episode of the “Mekoshaish Aitzim”, the individual who violated Shabbos and was subsequently put to death. Rashi, quoting Chazal tells us “bigenusan shel Yisrael diber hakasuv” – “The Torah speaks in disparagement about the Yidden” (Bamidar, 15:32). For the implication is that the Bnai Yisrael as a unit only kept the first Shabbos, whereas on the second Shabbos it was desecrated by the aforementioned Mekoshaish. This language of Chazal (genus) vis-à-vis the inability of the Yidden to continue upholding a mitzva is eerily similar to a statement of theirs cited by Rashi in last week’s parsha regarding the Korban Pesach. There, too, they tell us, “…Shehu genusan shel Yisrael…” It was a disparagement about the Yidden that they only offered the Korban Pesach once (the first year) during their forty year trek through the Midbar.
If one looks around there are unfortunately many of our brethren who do not perform mitzvos. And there are many reasons why this might be so. Some have never been introduced to a lifestyle of mitzvos and when they finally are, they are leery of getting their feet wet. Some have kept mitzvos but have become bored with them due to superficial observance. Others, though not bored, have put aside their performance of mitzvos because it crimps their lifestyle. I believe that by analyzing the above-mentioned episodes (in this parsha and the last) and grouping them together, it exposes another unfortunate reason for a lack of mitzva observance.
You see, in each instance the Yidden had embraced a mitzva, and then dropped it like a hot yam. Obviously when one does so after just one time it is not out of boredom. Even though a Shabbos might be understood to crimp ones worldly lifestyle, it is far-fetched to say that the offering of the Paschal lamb is also so. What we see from these two incidences is a lack of understanding of the whole concept of what it means to keep mitzvos. On some level the Bnai Yisrael misconstrued shemiras hamitzvas as merely a list of things one must do during ones lifetime. As if (after 120 years) when one is at his big court case in the sky there will be an angel standing there with a checklist and pen in hand reading out aloud. “Emunah?’ he will ask. And man will respond “Yes, I got that done one fine spring day in October ’64 after narrowly missing being sideswiped by an 18 wheeler on Interstate 84.” And the angel checks the box next to Emunah. “How about Tefillin?” “Oh yes” man enthusiastically responds, “I was at the base camp of Everest early 1981 when a nice man helped me put them on.” That box too, gets checked. And so on. You get the idea. The world likes to make foolish lists of things that they want to do before they die. Swim with a dolphin, be on a T.V. show, write a novel, spend a night in a haunted house, etc. Stupidity after stupidity. That is not what the 613 mitzvos are all about. They are not some list of accomplishments that after one performance one can check a box or notch a stick. They are a way of life. They have to be done over and over again and as often as possible in order to allow our neshama within to peacefully co-exist with our earthy exterior. And that seems to be the mistake of the Bnai Yisrael. That is the genus. “We have done these once, no need to do them again.” “Shemiras Shabbos?” “Check.” “Korban Pesach?” “Check.”
With this analysis we can understand another difficulty at the end of the parsha. After the Mekoshaish the Torah tells us about Tzitzis. It says, “Ure’isem oso uz’chartem es kol mitzvos Hashem va’asisem osam…L’ma’an tizkeru va’asisem” -”You should look at them (the Tzitzis) and you should remember all the mitzvos of Hashem and perform them… In order to remember and perform” (Bamidbar, 15:39-40). Is this not a repetitive message? The answer is a resounding “Yes”, it sure is repetitive, for it is in response to the mind-set of the Mekoshaish and his ilk that mitzvos are of the one-and-done variety. Nothing more than a list of things that can be checked after a single performance. Says the Torah, Va’asisem……. va’asisem” Do them and then do them again,
And then again!
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.