Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you cannot know the rewards of the mitzvos.

Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1


On the surface, the mishnah's point is simple enough: do not weigh and categorize G‑d's commandments. But upon closer examination, its words seem fraught with ambiguity and contradiction.

Are there or are there not differences between mitzvos? The mishnah seems to saying that there aren't, but it itself uses the terms ``minor'' and ``major'' (kaloh and chamurah) - terms which are used to categorize mitzvos in the Talmud and its commentaries and in the various codes of Torah law.

For Torah itself differentiates between mitzvos. For example, a leading indicator of the ``severity'' of a mitzvah is the punishment prescribed for its transgression: a penalty of death, kares (``a cutting off'' of the soul), lashes, a monetary fine, the bringing of a sin-offering to the Holy Temple, etc. Indeed, since these punishments were rarely carried out by an earthly court of law (the conditions the Torah sets for their execution virtually precluded this from ever happening), their main function seems to be to establish the relative values of mitzvos. Hence, we know that the observance of Shabbos (whose violation is a capital offence) is ``greater'' than that of circumcision (whose neglect warrants kares), and that an even more ``minor'' mitzvah is the obligation to fence in one's roof (the transgression of which carries a penalty of lashes). These differences also have pragmatic implications, as the severity of a mitzvah is often a factor in deciding a question of Torah law.

So when the mishnah speaks of ``major'' and ``minor'' mitzvos it does not mean mitzvos that are wrongly considered to be greater or lesser than others; it is referring to their true, Torah-defined status. And yet, in the same breath, it tells us that one should be equally diligent of them all because we ``cannot know the rewards of the mitzvos''!

One Is All

Furthermore, our sages tell us that G‑d's mitzvos all share a singular essence.

It is for this reason that the Talmud rules that ``One who is preoccupied with a mitzvah is absolved from the obligation of another mitzvah.'' For example, if a person is ministering to the sick during the festival of Sukkot, he need not step into a sukkah to eat his meals. Since he is already actively performing a mitzvah, he need not interrupt it, even for a few minutes, in order to fulfill another.

This applies to any two mitzvos, regardless of their (apparent) greatness or marginality - any mitzvah can take the place of any other! This is because the mitzvos are all but the various expressions of a singular essence.

According to this, when our mishnah states that we ``cannot know the rewards of the mitzvos'' it does not mean (as we might perhaps have understood it) that we must treat them all with equal reverence as if they were all equal, since we cannot presume to know their true value in relation to each other. No---it means that their relative value is intrinsically unknowable, since, in essence, they are all of equal significance.

This even further intensifies the apparent contradiction in our misnah: how can we speak of ``major'' and ``minor'' if the ultimate significance of one mitzvah is the same as that of all others?

The Commanding Connection

Let's get down to basics. What is a mitzvah? The word means ``commandment'': Do this, says G‑d, and don't do that. Observe the Shabbos, give charity, eat matzoh on Passover. Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not eat cheeseburgers.

But why does G‑d care? Can anything we do or refrain from doing affect Him in any way? Can man, finite, mortal and deficient, do or undo something for the paragon of infinity and perfection?

This brings us to another meaning of the word mitzvah---``connection.''

In commanding us a mitzvah, G‑d has made that a certain deed should constitute the fulfillment of His will. Strictly speaking, one cannot attribute the phenomenon of ``will'' or ``desire'' to G‑d, since nothing can contribute to or detract from His perfection. But He wanted to extend Himself to us, to enable us to relate to Him---something that no human endeavor can achieve on its own. So He willed Himself a will; He communicated to man a set of directives which He deemed to constitute His want and desire. He chose to command the mitzvos to serve as the vehicle by which we may establish a relationship and connection with Him.

Perfecting Path, Refining Word

But why these particular mitzvos? If the entire point of the mitzvah is that a human act should become an instrument of the Divine will and thereby connect its performer to the Almighty, then any commandment would achieve the same end. What difference does it make what G‑d commands us to do?

Does this mean that the 613 commandments of the Torah are completely arbitrary? That there could just as well have been 6,000 mitzvos or a single mitzvah? That we could just as well have been commanded to steal from the poor, rest on Tuesday and eat spinach on Yom Kippur?

Our sages address this issue in the Midrash:

``G‑d, His way is perfect, the word of G‑d is refined...'' Said Rav: The mitzvos were given in order to refine the human being. For what does G‑d care if one slaughters (an animal) from the throat or one slaughters from the nape? But the mitzvos were given in order to refine the human being.

In other words, there are two dimensions to the mitzvos. On the most basic level, a mitzvah, by virtue of its being commanded by the Almighty, binds its performer (as well as the resources which he utilizes in its performance) to its Commander. In this, all mitzvos are indeed equal. A mitzvah that takes tremendous sacrifice and many years of spiritual development to fulfill connects us to G‑d no more than one which is observed with a single, effortless act.

In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, ``Had we been commanded to chop wood,'' we would do it with the same joy and enthusiasm with which we perform the most spiritually gratifying mitzvos. For the ultimate significance of the mitzvos—that they enable man to connect and relate to his Creator—would be no less realized in the most mundane and mechanical deed---if such was the Divine command.

But G‑d did more. He not only opened a channel into our lives by which we may connect to Him, He also made this path a ``perfect way,'' a way of life which improves and perfects those who travel it. His word not only conveys His will and command, it is also a ``refined'' word---a word that refines those who heed it.

This is the second, ``specific'' dimension of the mitzvah. When we give charity, we not only fulfill a Divine command, we also develop in ourselves a sensitivity to the needs of others and learn the proper perspective on the material resources which have been entrusted to us. With our observance of Shabbos, we structure our lives according to G‑d's 7-day cycle of creation; thus we not only implement G‑d's will, but also ingrain in our minds and lives the source and objective of our own creativity and accomplishments.

The same applies to all the mitzvos. The Torah teaches us compassion for all G‑d's creatures with the laws of schitah, which dictate the painless way in which animals are to be slaughtered. From the mitzvos that pertain to human sexuality, we gain a sanctity and purity of family life. By observing the kashrut dietary laws, we safeguard our moral and spiritual health. Each and every mitzvah, in addition to its role as an expression of the Divine will, has its particular function as a refiner of the human being - morally, socially, psychologically, and in every other aspect of our lives.

On this level, there will be—and ought to be—differences between mitzvos. There will be inherent differences between a mitzvah which perfects a major aspect of the human character and one that deals with a more minor area of life. There will also be subjective differences, for each individual responds to Torah in his own unique manner: certain mitzvos have a profound effect upon him, while others relate less to his personal talents and aptitudes. If the mitzvos refine and develop the entire spectrum of the human experience, they will reflect its diversity and its disparities.

However, warns the Ethics, never lose sight of the deeper import of the mitzvos. Employ the Divine commandments to build a better self and world, thus experiencing them as an entire array of major and minor influences on your life, but remember that they all share a deeper, unified truth. Be equally careful of them all, for their true reward is beyond knowledge and experience.