All mitzvot are of equal importance to the Divine and our lives

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Isaiah 49:14-51:3

“And it shall come to pass because of your hearkening to these ordinances and performing them carefully, that G-d will keep the covenant and the loving-kindness with you that He swore to your forefathers.” (Deut. 7:12)

The word used in this passage in the Hebrew for “because” is eikev; it is an uncommon word to express this meaning. There have been many explanations offered to interpret this word, eikev. Rashi points out in a homiletic interpretation that eikev can also mean “heel.”

Here the suggestion is that we must be cautious not to tread upon those commandments some people consider unimportant. In other words, if you hearken to the minor mitzvot that are stepped on by some with their heels, so to speak, then you will earn these rewards.

Although we know that all mitzvot are of equal importance (the seemingly “minor” ones as well as the major ones), the fact is that we do sometimes consider certain mitzvot as minor because we fail to realize what they involve. This can easily result in our doing forbidden acts and failing to do required acts, or doing things that are only a small facet of a mitzvah and overlooking the essence.

So the Torah is advising us: Only by studying and paying attention to all mitzvot, even those we assume to be minor ones, can we be certain that we will properly observe and perform and be worthy of the great rewards described by Moses in this parashah.

As a corollary, if we do mitzvot purely because they are divinely ordained, rather than because we ourselves judge them to be wise and valuable, we will see no distinction between minor and major commandments and we will observe all of them with equal gravity. When we observe the Torah because we believe we can understand and evaluate its worth, we fall prey to the mistake of judging some mitzvot more important than others. This is actually not observing the Torah at all, because our capricious considerations can lead us into doing what we want, rather than what the Torah demands.

Seventeenth-century South African Rabbi Moshe Swift comments on the expression “treading upon mitzvot.” He explains that trampling on something with the heel so that one’s full body weight crushes it represents a considerably stronger statement than simply stepping on something with one’s toes. Yet Rashi says that many of us maintain this attitude toward mitzvot. Some people focus exclusively on the humanitarian mitzvot, while relegating the spiritual service mitzvot to a distant second place, if they have any place at all. Others concentrate on the communal mitzvot like education, hospitals, JCCs, etc., but they have no problem expressing disdain for those who don’t see things their way.

Rejecting one mitzvah for another, or giving supremacy to one area of the Torah over another, is to stomp on mitzvot. Deleting a portion of the great mosaic that is the Torah perverts its integrity.

The Midrash quotes Reb Shimon ben Yochai, author of the Zohar, “For the observance of two mitzvot, the Torah reveals the reward explicitly.” One is thought to be an easy one, sending away the mother bird before gathering eggs from the nest, easy to do and no financial expense incurred. The other is terribly difficult to perform properly: honoring your parents. It requires constant awareness and vigilance and may even involve loss of funds. And yet these two earn exactly the same reward, “that you may merit long life” (Deut. 22:7 and 5:16) We cannot divine the significance of a mitzvah by determining the difficulty or ease involved in its observance.

Understanding and acting on these precepts will guarantee that G-d will keep His promise and His loving-kindness that He swore to our forefathers.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.