Friday, May 19, 2017

Bechukosai, Bamidbar 26:21. Meta-Mitzvos.

Original version posted in 2011. This is slightly edited.

Although generally the Torah tells us what we must and what we must not do, there are some concepts and attitudes that we are expected to know without being told.  These are so fundamental that that in their absence, the mitzvos we do are essentially crippled.


In Greek, the word Meta means after or beyond.  In English, it can be used to mean a fundamental truth beyond the self-evident, an abstraction that transcends and informs the reality with which it is associated.  It is both transcendent and fundamental.

Our 613 Mitzvos are defined clearly enough for us to know exactly whether we have or have not fulfilled them.  But there are meta-Mitzvos.  By this I mean an underlying attitude or a manner beyond the legal definition of any particular Mitzva.  Even if one fulfills a mitzva, he may have failed in the Meta-Mitzva.  Sometimes, failing the Meta is worse than not doing the Mitzva at all.

Here's an illustration: Reb Chaim's pshat in Kavanas Hatefilla.  Reb Chaim says that more fundamental than the Kavana of "what the words mean" is the Kavana of "standing before the King."  Even if you could get away with mouthing words and not thinking about what they mean, you cannot be said to be davening at all unless you are aware that you are standing before Hashem.  That, to me, is Meta-Kavana.

Three examples of Meta-Mitzvos come to mind.

1.  The Yerushalmi (Brachos 2:5) says that a laborer who eats during his work day cannot say the usual long form of Bentching, but instead says the first bracha and a shortened version of the rest.  The Yerushalmi says that even though we all are capable of working while we say the words of birkas hamazon, this is prohibited.  Because it is assur to work while you Bentch, the only option is to truncate Bentching,
The Taz (OC 191:1) says that this is true by all tefillos and by all mitzvos:
ודאי בכל המצוות לא יעשה אותם ועוסק בד"א כי הוא מורה על עשייתו המצוה בלי כוונה אלא דרך עראי ומקרא וזה נכלל במאמר תורתינו ואם תלכו עמי בקרי שפירושו אף שתלכו עמי דהיינו עשיית המצוה מ"מ הוא בדרך מקרה ועראי
He says that this behavior falls under the heading of walking with Hashem with indifference, the passuk in our parsha, Bechukosai  (Bamidbar 26:21), וְאִם תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי וְלֹא תֹאבוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ לִי, if you walk with Me with indifference and do not desire to listen to Me.  Even if a person does all the mitzvos, if he does them with a casual attitude, an attitude of indifference, he has failed the Meta-Mitzva.  We should keep this in mind when, during bentching, we distractedly begin brushing the crumbs off the table and stacking the plates.  Or patchkeh'ing with your phone when it buzzes during Shmoneh Esrei.  (The Magen Avraham there says it applies even to easy melachos.)

2.  What is worse, occasionally being Mechallel Shabbos, or scrupulously keeping Shabbos but not believing that Shvisa is a mitzva from the Ribono shel Olam?
In Devarim (27:26) it says אָרוּר אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָקִים אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם
Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah to do them.  The Ramban explains this to pertain to a Jew who does all the mitzvos, but does not believe in his heart that the mitzvos are divine obligations, that Hashem rewards their observance, that Hashem punishes their desecration.  The Ramban says that if a person does the mitzvos but doesn't believe they are min hashamayim, then he is subject to the curse.  If, on the other hand, a person simply violates commandments, that is, a person who eats chazir or does not keep the mitzva of Sukkah or lulav, but still believes they are true and that ultimately there is reward and punishment, that person is not subject to the curse in the parsha.  In other words, it is worse to do mitzvos but not believe they are from Sinai than to not do them but know that you are being a sheigitz.  (See the words of the Ramban below.)
This, by the way, should give pause to those that believe that Judaism is a religion of actions, Orthopraxy, and that belief, Orthodoxy, is not so important.  Unless, of course, they disagree ("He's a Rabbi, and I'm a Rabbi") with the Ramban.

Here is the Ramban.
"אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָקִים אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת". 'כאן כלל את כל התורה כולה וקבלוה עליהם באלה ובשבועה' - זה לשון רש"י.  "ולפי דעתי, כי הקבלה הזאת, שיודה במצות בלבו ויהיו בעיניו אמת ויאמין שהעושה אותן יהיה לו שכר וטובה והעובר עליהן ייענש ואם יכפור באחת מהן או תהיה בעיניו בטלה לעולם, הנה הוא ארור! אבל אם עבר על אחת מהן, כגון שאכל החזיר והשקץ לתאוותו, או שלא עשה סוכה ולולב לעצלה, איננו בחרם הזה, כי לא אמר הכתוב 'אשר לא יעשה את דברי התורה הזאת', אלא אמר: "אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָקִים אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת..", כטעם: "קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים" (אסתר ט, כ"ז) והנה הוא חרם המורדים והכופרים'.

3.  Devarim 28:47, תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָבַדְתָּ אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב.  A person does all that is expected from him; but he does it grudgingly and resentfully, feeling that Mitzvos are an imposition he would prefer to be free of.  This is a sin that can chas ve'shalom tip the balance to the tochecha.  Imagine that!  The attitude makes such an enormous difference!   I remember hearing Reb Shalom Shvadron speak about this on the psukim in Malachi 3:13-14.  חָזְקוּ עָלַי דִּבְרֵיכֶם אָמַר יְהוָה. וַאֲמַרְתֶּם מַה נִּדְבַּרְנוּ עָלֶיךָ. אֲמַרְתֶּם .שָׁוְא עֲבֹד אֱלֹקְים וּמַה בֶּצַע כִּי שָׁמַרְנוּ מִשְׁמַרְתּוֹ וְכִי הָלַכְנוּ קְדֹרַנִּית -  The people said "It is futile to serve God, and what profit do we get for keeping His charge and for going about in anxious worry ( because of Hashem's commandments)."  Rav Shvadron asked, how can the people say "what did we say that was wrong?"   And the Gemara says that not only the people were clueless, even the Malachim didn't understand why Hashem was upset.  If they said shav avod Elokim, if they said ma betza, if they said halachnu kedoranis, it should have been obvious that there was a problem.  The answer is that they did every mitzvah, they did everything with hiddur, but they did it with sour faces and an attitude that the mitzvos were a burden.  They didn't chas veshalom say a negative word about the mitzvos, but their faces and slumped shoulders screamed out their dislike of the mitzvos.

(I later realized that the Chasam Sofer at the end of Vayechi says it is a deoraysa exactly based on this analysis. I wrote about it here.)

Summing up, I say that there are three Meta-Mitzvos: Reverence, Obedience, and Joy.

1.  Respect and reverence that focuses your attention exclusively on the Mitzva while you do it.

2.  Awareness that this Mitzva is Hashem's will as He taught us in His torah min hashamayim, and that we do the mitzvos because we are obligated to do as Hashem commands us.

3.  Joy that we have the opportunity to serve Hashem in a way that makes us into great and holy people.

Slightly off topic:  We find a similar idea in the context of Kibbud av.  Devarim 27:16, אָרוּר, מַקְלֶה אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ.  Cursed is he who belittles his parents.  Reb Meir Simcha in his Meshech Chochma- explains that this is a person who belittles his parents because he knows they will be mochel.  Mechila might help; this person has not transgressed the mitzva of Kibbud.  He's not even like the Ma'achil petumos veyoreish Gehinom, because here, the parent is mochel.  But that doesn't help him.  His disparaging attitude is as great a sin as actual bitul asei.

(On the topic of Kavana, see the Chayei Adam on the Sefer Chareidim, discussed here.)


  1. I enjoyed and agreed with the general מהלך of your post, but I think the Ramban's words need to be represented more carefully. He did not say (as you wrote) that " it is worse to do mitzvos but not believe they are from Sinai than to not do them but know that you are being a sheigitz." Rather, he said that the person "A" is subject to a [specific category of] curse to which person "B" is not subject. That doesn't mean that person "B" is better off, for he may be subject to an entirely different set of consequences, which are not the subject of the current discussion.
    On a related point, wouldn't you agree that in the realm of בין אדם לחבירו it is better that the mitzvah (tzedokoh, etc) gets done even without kavana, rather than it being not done at all? Ultimately, I think the same has to be said of בין אדם למקום too. Of course, it's best to do everything לשמה, but its better to at least do the mitzvah, even without all the right כוונות ("meta" or not), rather than not doing it at all.

    1. I enjoy the way you state your first point, and I absolutely disagree with your reading. It seems to me that he is saying like Rabbeinu Yona in ShT 1:6 and the Maharal in Tiferes Yisrael (who argues on the Ramban saying that Arrur is not enough for such a "Min" - ולפי דעתו הנה ארור זה על דבר שהוא בלב בלבד והוא הכופר בכל התורה כולה וזה טעות כי אין שייך במי שהוא כופר ארור כי הוא מין גמור... וכי בארור סגי ליה?) I know that Baalei Mussar, such as Rav Avrohom Jofen, learned that way, too - הרי זה ענין לעמוד בארור כענין החרם על המורדים והכופרים בלבן או תהיה בעיניו בטלה לעולם שהוא גרוע מאוכל מאכלות אסורות לתאותו.
      Your second point I agree with, as the Beis HaLevi says (first drasha, on Tzedaka, on the basis of אין צדקה משתלמת אלא לפי חסד שבה שנאמר זרעו לכם לצדקה וקצרו לפי חסד.

  2. A few points:

    1) Let's say "Moshe" has two neighbors, "Berel" and "Shmerel".

    a) Berel believes in the Torah and mitzvos, but he succumbs to temptation and commits adultery with Moshe's wife, eats treif, steals, lies and so on. All sins are לתאוותו, for he believes that Torah and mitzvos are true, and that he will be rewarded/punished for his deeds. He believes that he will be punished, but he sins anyway.

    b) Shmerel has a hard time believing that the mitzvos are מסיני, but unlike Berel, he only eats kosher food, and leads a good, decent, moral life. He is very kind, charitable, etc. However, he doesn't believe that he will be rewarded in shomayim for his deeds.

    Are we to believe that Shmerel is worse than Berel? Really?

    2) By the way, I do not see how the sources that you brought back up your point. Yes, they underline the severity of not believing in Torah and mitzvos, but they do not state that it is better to believe while "sinning like a sheigitz" than it is not to believe while leading a life of performing acts of Torah and mitzvos.

    3) Anyway, upon re-reading the Ramban, it seems to me that he is drawing a contrast between someone who sins because he is a כופר and someone who sins לתאוותו. He is not talking at all about someone who is a כופר but does not sin.

    1. 1b - Berel is definitely a worse neighbor. Secondly, as you yourself pointed out, what I said applies to bein adam lamakom, not to lechaveiro, and the force of your response was because of aveiros bein adam lechaveiro.
      But even granting the relevance of your critique, if we're attacking straw men, what would you say about an ehrilicheh pagan and a weak-willed ma'amin? Who is more beloved by the RBSO?
      2. Reb Avrohom Jofen's certainly does.
      3. It's a free country, but that's an okimta, not a pshat.