Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 13 February 2021 / 1 Adar 5781

Infinite Potential (Part 1)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

These are the precepts that have no proscribed measure to them: the corner of the field; the first fruit offerings; making a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple; acts of kindness; and Torah study (Tractate Peah 1:1)

Ostensibly, the reason why the first Mishna in Tractate Peah was chosen to represent the Oral Torah within the Torah blessings is because it contains a reference to Torah study. However, as with so many different facets in Judaism, under the surface is a profound message, one that touches on every aspect of our relationship with G-d.

At face value, our Mishna is somewhat perplexing. The legalistic aspect of Judaism is very exact and didactic, and the laws are normally defined absolutely. For example, without going into the details, the first Mishna in the first Tractate of the Talmud discusses the correct time to recite the Shema at night. The various options suggested there are meticulously precise — as are most of our religious obligations. And, yet, our Mishna lists five requirements that have no defined quantity according to Torah law. This means that according to the Torah, all obligations mentioned can be fulfilled in the most minimalistic way possible, or in their maximal way, according to the whim of the person performing them. And, apparently, the outcome is always the same: the obligation has been fulfilled equally in each manner. The entire structure of the Mishna seems to be counterintuitive. It is paradoxical that the Mishna is distinctive, not because of an abundance of guidelines and directives, but because there are no indicators as to what exactly our obligations are.

Maimonides explains that the Torah is teaching us a startlingly innovative concept. It is true that a person can fulfill their obligations by doing the barest minimum. But, the more they do, the more praiseworthy they are, and the greater is their spiritual reward. What an astonishing and thought-provoking idea: to push beyond what is “enough,” to want to aspire to more and more. We should not be satisfied with the “bare-bones” fulfillment of our obligations, but, rather, we should strive to overcome our feelings of having done “our bit.” We should embrace the concept of adding extra layers — with the additional time and effort that that entails — to bring us to a loftier and more sublime understanding of serving G-d.

G-d is holding out His Hand and making us an offer that we should not refuse — the opportunity to receive far more reward than we would have if we had just followed the letter of the law. It is like the story of the mother of a needy family who gave some money to her seven-year-old son to buy some groceries. Before leaving the shop, the boy was looking at the candied nuts, wishing he had money to buy some. The shopkeeper told him, “Take a handful. You can have it for free.” The boy didn’t budge. The shopkeeper urged him again, “Take a handful for yourself.” But the boy did not respond. Finally, the merchant himself took a handful of candied nuts, poured them into a bag and gave the bag to the child. When the boy came home, he told his mother what had happened. She asked, “Why didn’t you take the nuts immediately when he offered them to you?” And he replied, “I have small hands. How much can I take? But the shopkeeper has large hands. I was waiting for him to give me his own handful, which is so much more!”

To be continued ....

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