Half-measures (VaEtchanan)

This Shabbat we read Parshat VaEtchanan in which Moshe reminds the people about the importance of maintaining their commitment to G-d and Torah especially once they enter the Land of Israel.

Yet it is noteworthy that Moshe – who was to die in just five weeks – interrupts his stirring words to designate three of the cities of refuge. And why? Because these cities – which provided a place of refuge for those who mistakenly killed – would not be operational until the Jewish people conquered the land of Israel and designated three further cities for this purpose.

So why was this such an important thing for Moshe to do?

The Gemara (Makkot 10a, as cited by Rashi on Devarim 4:41) answers this question by explaining that Moshe wished to maximize his mitzvah performance opportunities during his final days. As the Gemara remarks, it is as if through these actions Moshe was saying ‘a commandment which is possible to fulfil, I shall fulfil!’. From here we learn a valuable lesson that each of us should look for mitzvah opportunities in every situation where we find ourselves.

Sforno (on Devarim 4:41) looks at this interruption slightly differently, and he explains that Moshe was using this as a teaching moment for the Jewish people. Instead of this just being a mitzvah that Moshe wanted to perform for his own spiritual benefit, Moshe was putting his words into practice and was teaching the people about valuing mitzvot. From here we learn a further lesson that the best teaching moments are when we lead by example and model what we want others to do.

However, as Sforno implies – and as is noted explicitly by the Pardes Yosef (on Devarim 4:41) and the Nachalei Afarsemon (on Parshat VaEtchanan) – there is a further conclusion that we can draw from here.

To explain, there is a complex Talmudic debate about the severity of committing a partial transgression (or what is known as ‘chatzi shiur b’issur’ – literally, a half measure of a forbidden act or substance). For example, what is the law if a healthy Jew eats a very small amount of food on Yom Kippur? Or how liable is someone if they only perform part of an act which is forbidden on Shabbat? However, what is less well known is that there is a parallel Talmudic debate about the value of performing a partial mitzvah (or what is known as ‘chatzi shiur b’mitzvot’ – literally, a half measure of a required act). For example, is there any value in holding only some of the Arba Minim (four species) on Sukkot, or in eating less than the proscribed amount of matzah on Pesach?

When Moshe designated three of the cities of refuge, he only fulfilled a partial mitzvah. Therefore, as the Pardes Yosef and the Nachalei Afarsemon explain, from here we can conclude that even the performance of part of a larger mitzvah has spiritual value.

Reflecting on the above, I believe that each of these three explanations are particularly important as we move on from Tisha B’Av.

As we know, a major theme of Tisha B’Av is to reflect on how we relate to other Jews who may be different to us, and sadly it is commonplace for some observant Jews to think less of non-observant Jews. But if we ever mistakenly reach such a conclusion, I suggest that we ask ourselves the following three questions:

Firstly, do we – like Moshe did – look for mitzvah opportunities in every situation where we find ourselves?

Secondly, do we – like Moshe did – lead by example and actively encourage and inspire others to value and keep mitzvot?

And thirdly, even if we know Jews who don’t fulfil the mitzvot, it is likely that they fulfil aspects of particular mitzvot, and what we learn from Moshe’s example is that even the performance of a partial mitzvah has spiritual value.

May we each continue to strive in our mitzvah observance, to inspire others through our love of Torah, and to see the value in the good deeds of our fellow Jews.


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