The Greatest Mitzvahs
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
The greatest mitzvahs are those that help our souls reach their highest level, the purpose for which God created us.
These are precepts for which no fixed measure is prescribed: [leaving] the corner [of a field unharvested], first fruits, [holiday] Temple appearance, deeds of kindness, and the study of Torah.
These are precepts, the fruits of which man enjoys in this world, [while] the principal [reward] is preserved for him in the World-to-Come. They are: honoring father and mother, deeds of kindness, early attendance in the House of Study morning and evening, providing hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, participating in making a wedding, accompanying the dead [to the grave], concentrating in prayer, making peace between fellow men and between husband and wife— and the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Morning prayers, Mishnah Peah 1:1)
Commands of “no fixed measure” offer unique benefit, warranting their mention in mishna. And the second praise cited above are commands in which “the principle benefit awaits us in the World to Come.” This refers to the greatest perfection of the soul, as I will explain herein. These too are superior to other commands.
No Fixed Measure
What is significant about a command that has no measure? Such commands enable fuller immersion in an act of perfection: a quantitatively greater degree than other commands. Here, all one's energies are diverted from all other areas and are dedicated to mitzvah. Man is totally focused on God's commands with no other thoughts in mind. But when performing a command that has a duration or fixed structure, in the back of his mind, man knows he’ll return to work; his mundane activities remain conscious, diluting his total immersion in that command. Thus, commands with no limitation or measure offer a greater level of involvement and greater perfection. Furthermore, with no fixed measure, man may act more perfectly, and take upon himself to be overly generous in these mitzvahs.
Principle in the World to Come
The mishna then cites commands whose principle benefit exists in the World to Come. Although in all mitzvahs we gain, not all mitzvahs share this quality.
The first cited—honoring parents—obligates sons and daughters to suppress their personal wishes and plans. This obligation devolves squarely upon the children and not others. And although this applies too to children, not everybody has children, but everybody has parents. This mitzvah forces children to step outside their personal agendas and fully cater to another’s needs. More importantly, honoring parents—an authority—trains us in honoring the True Authority, as parents are a model for our subservient relationship to God. This was expressed in Marah, just prior to receiving Torah, when Moses taught the Jews the 3 laws of honoring parents, courts, and the Sabbath. The common denominator is that all 3 train man in accepting an authority. This was obviously necessary before receiving the Torah from the ultimate authority.
Other commands in this mishna are also between one and his fellow. They are situations where the self is not the beneficiary but it is solely another, such as accompanying the dead, visiting the sick and making peace between other people where others benefit, and not yourself. You are selfless. Attending weddings, one must forgive his own concerns for happiness and occupy himself with making another person happy. This too is a selfless act, as is providing hospitality to guests where your own privacy is invaded, not only in terms of sharing space with others, but tending to others’ needs and not your own.
Thus, selflessness is of great value. This is because when selfless, a person has removed himself from the convictions of self importance which are great blindspots in perceiving reality. Thus, correct morality is not only a value in itself, but also leads us towards objective truths: our lives are no more important than others. In this manner we recognize God's will to a far greater degree, we become more just and moral, as we view others as equally deserving, the opposite of when we are self-centered. We see others from God’s perspective, not our own.
Perfection is a two-step phenomenon where we must first correct our emotionally-biased state, and then engage our minds in objective truth, which is why Torah study outweighs everything. For it is Torah that gives us the objective of our lives: perceiving truths about God, His will, Torah and creation. But one must be earnest in his studies, as the mishna says, “early attendance in the House of Study morning and evening.”
Proper intent on prayer is included as well. This act engages us in a dialogue with God. When properly performed, one fully accepts God’s reality, as one literally talks to Him. He accepts God’s complete rule over the world, as he asks God alone to help him, not intermediaries. Again in prayer, we are in a state of mind where we accept objective reality over a subjective selfish mindset where we are the focus.
This mishna teaches wherein lies our greatest perfection, explaining why the rabbis incorporated it into our morning prayers. The mishna addresses perfection through a “quantitative” measure, where some commands are without measure. The second part of this mishna addresses commands of a higher “quality” which greatly contribute to the perfection of our souls, the meaning of “the principle awaits us in the World to Come.” In these commands, we forgo our self-centered attitudes and seek the good for others. This brings our minds into a more objective framework. The more we engage in this objectivity, the more clarity we have in all areas. Our decision are no longer emotionally-based or selfish, which means our intelligence can operate to a greater degree. This in turn perfects our soul, thereby securing a greater portion of the World to Come. Prayer is an even greater step in confronting reality, as we confront God, and talk to him, making Him real. But the greatest act is our study of Torah, which is a direct means of grasping reality…it is not a preparatory act like catering to others.
We must put this mishna into practice by praying properly, inviting guests, visiting the sick, participating in weddings, accompanying the dead, and certainly honoring our parents. This corrects our emotional focus, and by earnest Torah study, we correct our ideas and learn new marvelous truths.
“The principle awaits us in the World to Come” means when we pass on and our souls are detached from our bodies, our souls attain the highest level of our existence, when we perceive the greatest truths in heaven. This final state of being has been greatly enhanced by never catering to our egos, which allowed those energies to redirect towards God’s wisdom.
Learning Lishma: For Truth Itself
This is the highest level of perfection man can attain. Learning Torah Lishma—learning for no ulterior motive, or for the sense of accomplishment—but to simply appreciate the beauty of ideas, is the greatest level. Selflessness first contributes to objectivity, but the ultimate objective of selflessness is to allow the mind to be free from emotional considerations and decisions, to perceive wisdom for itself, and become attached to the Source of wisdom: Love of God. This can only be achieved when we are in full control or emotions, and do not follow them, but follow our minds. For until our minds are used to the full capacity, we cannot attain the fullest appreciation of wisdom, or God.