What if You Cannot do a Mitzvah?
Essays 2018 / Finalists
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
I know that every mitzvah(1) I do is very precious to G-d, and connects me to Him. So, I am very disturbed, dejected, discouraged, disappointed, and distressed that there is one particular mitzvah that I cannot do, even though I want very much to do it. How should I approach this situation, and what should be my attitude about this situation?
You are indeed correct that mitzvos connect you to G-d. The Alter Rebbe(2) explains(3) this concept in detail in his book, “Tanya”. He describes the connection between G-d and a Jew as a rope with 613 strands, such that each strand represents one of the mitzvos of the Torah. It could surely make you feel very bad if one of these strands seems to be missing and you want so much to connect to G-d through this strand.
We’ll examine sources in the Torah to find out how to deal with this situation, and how to feel about being in this situation. We’ll examine two stories from the Torah to see how to act when seemingly prevented from doing a mitzvah. They show that you must seek guidance from a qualified Rabbinic authority, and you can expect to receive from him a plan of action. When you carry out this action plan, how should you feel? Is this course of action a sort of “Plan B”, a second-best approach, or is it a fully acceptable approach, desired by G-d?
To answer these questions, we’ll delve into deeper levels of Torah, as explained in the teachings of Chassidus. We’ll look at a general approach presented in Chassidic writings about to how to feel about this situation. Then we’ll examine Chassidic teachings about three particular challenges that are faced by many people in contemporary life. You will find a clear approach for how to act and how to feel when faced with an obstacle to doing a mitzvah.
There are two stories in the Torah about people who were unable to do a particular mitzvah that was commanded to the entire Jewish people. These stories show us how to deal with situations in which we cannot do a particular mitzvah.
The first story is about Pesach Sheini(4). G-d had commanded the Jews to bring the Pesach offering on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan. One of the laws of this offering is that someone who is ritually impure must not bring it. Some people were ritually impure when it was time to bring the Pesach offering, so they would have to miss that year’s opportunity to bring it. They felt bad about that, so they approached Moshe and asked him, “We are impure due to contact with a dead body of a notable person. Why should we miss out on bringing the Pesach offering in its proper time, as all the rest of the Jews do?”. Moshe asked G-d how to respond. G-d then told him the laws of Pesach Sheini, the second Pesach, which is a month later than Pesach, on the fourteenth day of the month of Iyar. If any Jew, for any valid reason, cannot bring the Pesach offering in its proper time, he may bring it on Pesach Sheini.
The second story is about the daughters of Tzelofchad(5). According to the laws of land inheritance that G-d had given the Jews, a deceased man’s property is inherited by his sons. What if he has daughters but no sons? This was the dilemma of the five daughters of Tzelofchad. Their father passed away, and they had no brothers. They felt bad that their father’s land would go to someone else, and his name would be forgotten. They approached Moshe and asked him, “Our father died in the desert and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name not be perpetuated just because he has no son? Give us a portion of land among our father’s brothers.” Moshe asked G-d how to respond. G-d told him that Tzelofchad’s daughters speak correctly, and that if a man has only daughters, then they inherit his land.
In both stories, because of people’s strong desire to do the mitzvah, a new mitzvah was given to the entire Jewish people. From this we learn that if we strongly desire to do the mitzvah, we should approach the leading authority and ask, “Why should we be left out?” Based on these two stories, we can trust that we will get an answer as to how we, too, can fulfill the mitzvah.
Even though we can be confident that there is some way to do the mitzvah, we may feel that the way we are told to do the mitzvah seems “second best”. It may seem like it’s not the way to fully do the mitzvah. How should we feel about this situation? The revealed part of Torah – the Tanach (Bible), the Talmud, and books on Jewish law – tell us what to do. But to find out how to feel – for that we need to delve into the hidden part of Torah, as explained in the teachings of Chassidus.
How to Feel? General Principle
A general principle for how to feel about obstacles to mitzvah observance can be found in a discourse(6) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe as explained(7) by Reb Yoel Kahn. The general principle is that in every situation, you should look for opportunities to serve G-d. If you encounter an obstacle to serving G-d in that situation, you must keep in mind that G-d creates the entire world, including this very obstacle, anew every second. The purpose of this creation is so that the Jews can fulfill the mitzvos. Therefore, it must be that this obstacle is being created for this same purpose. Knowing that this obstacle was placed there just to provide another opportunity to serve G-d makes it much easier to overcome the obstacle.
Let’s see what our Chassidic masters have written about three particular situations in which a person cannot perform a mitzvah.
Example 1: Simchas Torah Joy for Women
On Simchas Torah, we celebrate our completion of the yearly cycle of Torah readings. One of the main features of the celebration is dancing with the Torah. Why is it so important to dance on Simchas Torah? In a Chassidic discourse(8), the Lubavitcher Rebbe mentions the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s explanation that through dancing with the Torah, a Jew becomes the Torah’s feet: he helps the Torah dance with unlimited joy. During the entire year, we learn Torah and derive joy from Torah study. However, that joy is limited. However, on Simchas Torah the joy is unlimited and gives the potential to feel the joy derived from Torah in the year to come.
This explanation is very inspiring, except for one thing: All of this dancing occurs in the men’s section of the synagogue. The women just sit and watch. As a woman, I feel each year on Simchas Torah that I am missing out on the central theme of the holiday. I wonder, “How could I too tap into the unlimited joy of Simchas Torah?”
The Rebbe wrote a letter(9) to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who asked whether it is proper to allow women to dance with the Torah on Simchas Torah in a separate room from the men. The Rebbe replied that one may not change the established custom at all, and in particular, it is not at all permitted for the women to conduct hakafos with the sefer Torah. However, the Rebbe mentions that he intentionally refrained from using the word “limitation” in this context, because this decision is definitely not meant to impose a limitation. The Torah is referred to as the Torah of Kindness, and whatever may seem to be a limitation is definitely not that. On the contrary, this decision is for the tremendous benefit of those who are affected by it. The Rebbe quotes the saying of our Rabbinic Sages that just as we receive a reward for doing positive acts, we also sometimes receive a reward from refraining from an act.
The Rebbe did acknowledge the concern that some women would feel about this topic, but indicated that the women would receive a benefit and a reward for not participating in the dancing.
Example 2: Difficulty Finding a Shidduch
Many people have significant difficulty in finding their shidduch, i.e. marriage partner. Some people have to meet and date many people, and still have not found the right person to marry. Marriage and setting up a Jewish home is the very foundation of Jewish life. If a person has been unable to get married, he or she might wonder, “What can I do to get married and build my own home in the Jewish nation?”
The Rebbe has written many letters to people on this and similar topics(10). One letter(11) is particularly relevant. It was written to a young man who could not find an appropriate person to marry. The Rebbe advised him not to be lax in his search, but rather, to search for the right person with the enthusiasm of one who seeks a lost article. And he should keep in mind that every day that goes by without his shidduch, he is lacking in a certain measure. The Rebbe concludes the letter with a wish to hear good news from the young man.
The Rebbe tried to motivate the person to diligently pursue finding his shidduch, and ended on an encouraging note.
Example 3: Being in Jail or Other Limiting Situation
Some people are in jail, or in some other environment where full mitzvah observance is not possible. A person in jail has very limited resources of any sort, and may lack basic items needed to perform mitzvos. He or she might wonder, “Why can’t I do the mitzvos like other people can? Is there some way that I, too, can fulfill these commandments?” A story(12) about the conduct of Chassidic Rebbes who were in jail and could not perform mitzvos show us how to feel and act in such a situation.
The two Chassidic masters and brothers, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk and Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli, used to travel together, trying to help their fellow Jews however they could. During one of their trips, they were traveling with a group of wanderers. The police suspected one member of the group of robbery, and arrested the entire group including Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha. As they sat in their jail cell, the time came to say the afternoon prayers. Rabbi Elimelech prepared to pray, but Rabbi Zushe reminded him that since there was a bad-smelling pail nearby that served as a toilet, they were not allowed to pray in that area. Rabbi Elimelech felt bad, and perhaps he was thinking, “Why do I have to be in a place so dirty that I cannot say my prayers?”. Rabbi Zushe pointed out that although they were missing out on the commandment to say the afternoon prayers, they now had the opportunity to fulfill a different commandment – not to say prayers in such a dirty place! They were so happy to realize that they could still connect with G-d, though in a different way than they expected, that they began to dance. The jail guard came to see what’s going on. When he heard that they were dancing because of the smelly pail, he promptly removed it in order to diminish their joy. But then they were even happier, because then they could say their afternoon prayers after all.
Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zushe looked at even a bleak situation as an opportunity to connect with G-d. Their joy at serving G-d in that situation directly led to a situation of even greater joy. We see how one can connect with G-d by not doing something just as one can connect with Him by doing something.
The revealed Torah shows through the stories of Pesach Sheini and the daughters of Tzelofchad that if we are prevented from doing some mitzvah, we must take action. Seek advice from a rabbinic authority regarding how to fulfill the mitzvah in some way. Then, figure out how to feel about the situation by consulting the teachings of Chassidus to find discourses, letters, and/or stories on this topic.
Here are the steps to take when faced with a significant obstacle to doing a mitzvah, based on stories from the Torah and on Chassidic teachings.
1. Realize that the purpose of this obstacle is to somehow lead to the performance of more mitzvos.
2. Ask a rabbinic authority what you can do in your situation and obtain an action plan.
3. Be happy about the opportunity to serve G-d, even if it is in a way you didn’t expect.
4. Make your best effort to serve G-d in the way the rabbinic authority advised, as well as in any other permissible manner.
5. Realize that G-d rewards you for refraining from doing what is not allowed, just as He rewards you for doing what you must do when you are allowed.
6. Be happy, knowing that your joy in serving G-d however you can will bring even more opportunities to serve G-d with joy.
G-d sometimes gives obstacles to bring out inner strengths that we didn’t know we had. However, we eagerly look forward to the time when G-d will remove all obstacles to connecting with Him. This will happen when the true and complete redemption occurs, may it be very soon.
1. Mitzvah is the Hebrew word for commandment. It refers to any of G-d’s commanments.
2. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe.
3. Tanya, Igeret Hateshuva Chapter 6.
4. Bamidbar 9:6-14
5. Bamidbar 27:1-11
6. Likkutei Sichos vol. 6, Yisro 2 and fn. 35
7. http://www.merkazanash.com/sites/default/files/Seeing%20the%20Yes%20in%20Everything.pdf “The Chassidus Perspective” with Reb Yoel Kahn, Yisro 5778, Issue 135
8. From http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/2600898/jewish/Day-of-Simchas-Torah-5740-1979.htm
9. Letter of the Rebbe to Rabbi Riskin dated 13 Kislev, 5736 (1976). Cited in Episode 183 of My Life Chassidus Applied.
11. Igros Kodesh, Vol. XII, p. 195, cited in http://www.sie.org/templates/sie/article_cdo/aid/2427019/jewish/Chapter-Four-Overcoming-Personal-Obstacles-to-a-Shidduch.htm