One of the fixtures in the shtetl was the “maggid,” the preacher, a wise and witty fellow who always has a good anecdote, a great story, and an inspiring message to share. At shul on Shabbat, at your cousin’s bar mitzvah, and at your best friend’s wedding, there’s always that modern-day maggid who can get up on the fly and inspire the masses.

One wry observation about such preachers is that they can never truly learn, or “hear” anything. Every time they learn or hear some new idea or vignette, they immediately say to themselves, “Ah, that’s a great idea—I’m going to use it at my next bar mitzvah or in my next column!” As perennial “preachers,” they can never truly stop and simply take in something new for the sake of study alone.

As one who regularly writes and teaches, I can kind of relate.

But even if you’re not regularly teaching or preaching, this sort of phenomenon comes up all the time. Say you’re a busy lawyer, and you must choose how to spend your small amount of spare study time. Is it OK to take a course in Jewish studies that also provides you with CLE credits (a convenient gain), or must you seek out a random course with no personal gain?

Or, more broadly speaking, say you’re ready to take on a new religious commitment, a new positive resolution. Can you begin with something you like to do anyway? Or must you tackle a tough choice beyond your usual preference? If you’re a nurse and you’re going to volunteer time, can you do it in your natural habitat of the hospital, or must you offer your services in the neighborhood soup kitchen?

What’s the Jewish view on convenient or popular positivity? Must the “right” or “good” thing always be hard, or is a quick fix just as good?

The Met Mitzvah

This week’s parshah opens with the laws of kohanic purity. As servants of G‑d dedicated to working in the Temple, the priestly clan are commanded to maintain a heightened sense of purity, taking care to—aside from seven close relatives—never come in contact with a dead body, which imparts tumah, ritual impurity.1 We read: “And G‑d said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people, except for his relative who is close to him.”2

The High Priest is placed under even stricter guidelines: “And the kohen who is elevated above his brothers… shall not come upon any dead bodies; he shall not defile himself [even] for his father or his mother.”3

But there’s one exception: a met mitzvah, the “mitzvah corpse.” This is the unfortunate case of an unidentified, unclaimed dead body. With no one else to tend to its burial, any Kohen—even the High Priest—must ritually defile himself to ensure that the body is properly buried.4

While this law speaks volumes about the importance of a proper Jewish burial, I would like to point to an interesting interpretation that reveals a surprising relevance this law imparts far beyond discussions of purity and burial protocol.

In his work Sefer Chassidim, the author5 applies the notion of met mitzvah to certain mitzvot that other people leave for dead. You know, the unpopular stuff.

The author’s examples are those portions of Mishnah that most people skip, such as the latter two orders that speak of sacrifices and ritual impurity. The first four orders of Mishnah that speak of more common laws—finance, litigation, lifecycle events, holidays, prayer, family law, etc.—are obviously more popular. In our current era when the Temple no longer stands, it is understandable that full tractates discussing matters of sacrificial law are not exactly best sellers.

And it is these tractates that the author exhorts his audience to study. Why? Because they are the “dead mitzvot” that no one else studies.

To Move Yourself

Why, indeed, is it so important to study matters others do not? Why is it critical to perform mitzvot most others aren’t?

Because it is precisely that subject matter and those mitzvot that will move you and change you.

You see, as long you stay in your comfort zone and do what everyone else is doing, sticking with the popular stuff, the fun stuff, the stuff that feels good, you’re not going to move beyond your comfort zone. In the context of Judaism and its efforts to bring us into a relationship with the Almighty, being stuck in the comfort zone is the death knell of the relationship.

Think about it: If you’re just doing what’s convenient for someone you love without putting real effort into it, without breaking yourself a bit and doing something uncomfortable or difficult, what kind of relationship is that? If you truly love someone, it will compel you to move mountains and do some pretty uncomfortable things—because it is exactly in those matters where you have worked on yourself and demonstrated your true commitment and connection.

And so it is with G‑d: Stick to the easy stuff, and your relationship will be stuck in a primitive place. Those who do the heavy lifting and study obscure subjects or do unpopular mitzvot—they are really investing in the relationship and connecting with G‑d on a deep level.

So next time you have a spare moment to learn some new Torah, try this: Study something totally random with no agenda. Pick a new topic you’ve never tried before with no expectation to share your inspiration later that evening with your friends. Dive into Torah for the sake of Torah itself.

Pick a mitzvah or a custom you’ve never tried before, one that most of your friends have never even heard of. Google it—there’s plenty to pick from. And true lover that you are, go into it with no expectations. You’re going to try reciting the entire Shema before going to bed or adhere to the laws of chalav Yisraelfor a full month with no expectation that your hat is going to light on fire and the walls of your house will glow with Divine light. Nope. You’re going to do it just because you’re committed and because few other people are doing it.

When you do, you’ll have graduated to the next level. Congratulations.6