Beginning a Mitzvah and Completing it

The Torah Portion of Matot

A mitzvah is a precise and finite task, the Torah is an endless ocean – what about Mashiach?

The Battle against the Midyanites

The Torah portion of Matot deals mainly with the war that the Children of Israel fought against the nation of Midyan. God gave Moses the explicit command to, “Avenge the vengeance of the Jewish People from the Midyanites.” Many of the laws given for this war were unique and do not hold for future generations. Yet, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that every account in the Torah offers an eternal message that is always relevant. What ideas can we glean from this war?

In the article for Parashat Pinchas we saw how Pinchas’ immediate and accurate reaction exemplified his quality of alacrity. In Parashat Matot, God commands Pinchas to initiate the war against Midyan. Rashi states, “The Almighty said, whoever begins a mitzvah… should complete it.” Pinchas began taking revenge on the Midyanites with his zealous act against the Midyanite princess, Cosbi. Now, he must complete the mitzvah by taking the initiative against the rest of the Midyanite nation. “A mitzvah is only named after the one who completes it.”

Pinchas thought that he had completed the mitzvah of vengeance against the Midyanites who wrought havoc amongst the Jewish men with their promiscuity. He remembered the law that a Jewish man who cohabits in public with a non-Jewish woman can be killed on the spot without a court ruling. But, after his successful battle against the Midyanite army, he forgot the general rule that a non-Jewish woman who seduces a Jewish man is liable to the death penalty. His innate alacrity made him prone to this mistake. He was swift to take up arms, and was quickly victorious in battle. He knew how to do the mitzvah and complete it. But, in this case, he overlooked the finer details, leaving them unfinished. In contrast, as we saw in the previous Torah portion, Joshua’s quality of patience is likely to lack the sense of immediacy when the correct timing is essential.

Decades earlier, Joshua had been the one to make war against the Amalekites. Moses, Aaron and their sister Miriam’s son, Chur stood in prayer throughout the battle, while Joshua fought. Joshua’s war against Amalek was not the final showdown. Eventually, it will be Mashiach who completes the task. Now that Aaron and Chur had passed away, Moses had no partner in prayer. He chose Joshua, who, as Moses’ successor would turn to the spiritual battle through prayer. Indeed, the Talmud equates prayer with war.

The rule of thumb that we learn from Pinchas regarding mitzvot is, if you begin a mitzvah, complete it! Joshua apparently took to heart a contradictory statement in the Mishnah, “It is not for you to complete the task, neither are you permitted to refrain from doing it.”

How can we reconcile these two ideas? The answer is, once again, patient alacrity.

Mitzvah or Torah

Essentially, a mitzvah is a precise act, with a definite beginning and an end. If I did it correctly, I observed the mitzvah and fulfilled my obligation. If not, then despite all my attempts and good intentions, I did not accomplish the mitzvah.

In contrast, the Torah is “longer than the measured earth and wider than the sea.” Studying Torah is like navigating the ocean. Setting out to study the revealed dimension of the Torah is embarking on a voyage. You can row, float and swim – but you never touch more than the surface of the ocean. Delving into the inner dimension of the Torah is a fathomless underwater excursion. Torah study is a boundless task. We can never hope to finish studying it. Yet, we can never stop doing so. There is no “exemption rule” to studying Torah, and no boundary. We are obligated to study more and more. Without Torah, we are like fish out of water. There is no water other than Torah.

Despite the fact that a mitzvah is a precise act, the “Torah” relating to the mitzvah may be unlimited. From the intellectual perspective of the Torah, every mitzvah is a multifaceted gem. “Your mitzvah is very broad” and the reasons why we are commanded to carry out the mitzvah are also unfathomable. Nonetheless, in practice, the mitzvah is cut and dried. You do it and that’s it.

In Chassidic thought, a mitzvah is “up to and including” and the Torah “is up to but not including.” “Up to and including” means advancing to the destination and reaching it. The approach to every mitzvah in the Torah is that it has a beginning and an end; we can do it and complete it. Another expression of the finiteness of a mitzvah is the statement, “One who is involved in doing a mitzvah is exempt from doing another mitzvah.” We must fulfill our obligation before advancing to the next mitzvah. In this way, “One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah” in an infinite chain.

There is no mitzvah that can be defined as “up to but not including.” If I begin a mitzvah, I must have in mind that I will fulfill the requirement by completing it.

In contrast, the mindset of Torah study is “up to but not including.” We constantly advance in Torah study, yet as far as we might reach, as much as we might study and understand, the Torah remains “whole.” We can never touch more than the tip of the iceberg. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that only when we study Torah with this consciousness can it “revive our soul.”

Yet, like all mitzvot, the mitzvah of Torah study has a minimum requirement. One limiting factor is the extent that we are personally capable of studying Torah. Our knowledge of Torah is further restricted by the measure of our memory. Nonetheless, every individual is required to set a time during the day for Torah study, and also at night. Here we see that even the mitzvah of Torah study has its definitions.

The Torah of the Holy Land

Maimonides and Nachmanides differ in their opinions regarding inheriting and settling the Land of Israel. The Torah states, “And you shall inherit it and you shall settle it [the Land of Israel].” In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides allocates a finite set of laws that stem from the importance and value of settling the land. Nonetheless, in his enumeration of the 613 mitzvot, he does not define settling the Land of Israel as an independent commandment. Nachmanides is irked by this apparent omission. He emphasizes that settling the Land of Israel is a mitzvah that, like any other mitzvah, is relevant to all generations and obligates every Jewish individual.

Apparently, Maimonides associates the connection to the land to our connection to the Torah. Perhaps this was Joshua’s patient view too. Just as one lovingly and boundlessly studies Torah, so too, living in our beloved homeland is an unmeasurable and ongoing reality. The relationship between the Torah and the Land of Israel is explicit: “There is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel” and “the air of the Land of Israel makes one wiser [so that we become wise in Torah].” Just as we swim in the waters of the Torah and cannot survive out of water, so too, our feet are planted firmly in the Land of Israel. Outside of Israel, the mitzvot are merely “signposts” to remind us where we belong. In our natural habitat, the Land of Israel, we can carry them out in full. In the future, the Land of Israel will expand over all continents. Settling the land is therefore a never-ending task that is more like Torah study than a well-defined mitzvah with a beginning and an end.

The Mitzvah of Mashiach

The opinion of Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, is that one can complete the mitzvah of knowing the 613 commandments of the Torah. For this reason, the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) initiated the daily study of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, which enumerates all the commandments and their details. Similarly, it is possible to complete the study of the Bible, and the Oral Tradition as recorded in the Talmud. If we set out to complete each component of the Torah as a separate mitzvah, we can succeed. But, immediately, we must begin studying anew.

How then, should we relate to Mashiach? Should we relate to his arrival as a mitzvah with a beginning and an end, or is it something indefinable that can never be totally achieved?

Some relate to Mashiach mainly from the perspective of the Torah. Mashiach is an ongoing issue that we are always approaching, gradually… If we take this approach, we are never in much of a hurry to get things done. Just as we plod along with Torah study without worrying that we might never complete it, the same is true of Mashiach. “Even though he tarries I will [patiently] wait for him to appear.” Following this approach, there is no sense that we are obliged to do anything to catalyze his arrival. Mashiach can remain a philosophical hypothesis, and we will never need to prove it.

On the other hand, Maimonides treats Mashiach like any other mitzvah, with a clear and precise definition. Appointing a king is one of three mitzvot that the Jewish People are commanded to do upon entering the Land of Israel. The definition of Mashiach is a righteous king of the Davidic dynasty who succeeds in annihilating the Jewish archenemy – Amalek – and reconstructs the Temple in Jerusalem. As simple as that.

Studying the Torah with Mashiach in mind will always produce more and more Torah. But, this cannot suffice. We want a flesh and blood Mashiach, a soul in a body, as Rebbe Shmuel Schneerson, the Maharash once said to his father, the Tzemach Tzedek. Once Mashiach is revealed through accomplishing Maimonides’ definition, then he can reveal the “new Torah” with infinite new insights. But, first, he must arrive! Mashiach is a mitzvah!

A mitzvah is alacrity, the Torah is patience. Yet, the Alter Rebbe’s opinion is that even the Torah has a definition as a mitzvah. Similarly, every mitzvah has its own wealth of unfathomable Torah mysteries and insights. Integrating the mitzvah aspect of the Torah and the Torah aspect of every mitzvah in this way is the key to redemption. The ultimate revelation of Mashiach will be the embodiment of the mitzvah to appoint a king, who is also the wisest and most prolific Torah scholar of all time.

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