Observation does not necessarily mean participation - at least in an
etymological or grammatical sense. My dealings with Jews who do not keep
Torah law have led me to hear one quip, "of course Rabbi, I am an observant
Jew. If someone performs a mitzvah in my presence, I observe a mitzvah!"
Of course, in our vernacular, when one is called an observant Jew, he does
much more than watch! He or she participates in mitzvah
performance; watching is not enough.
So that is why I was troubled this week, when I noticed a particularly
expressive exhortation to mitzvah performance u'shmartem es mitzvosai,
v'aseesem osum -- watch the mitzvos and do them" (Leviticus 22:31).
What does "watch mitzvos" mean? If one does a mitzvah, he is surely doing
more than watching them. Why then does the Torah tell us to watch the
mitzvos in addition to performing them?
This past winter, in honor of 7 Adar, a day designated to honor the
yahrzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu, it was decided to give recognition to the community Chevra Kadish (burial society). Rabbi Paysach Krohn addressed a large
gathering at Brooklyn's Bais HaChaim Chapel. His inspiring talk, (which I
highly recommend) concerned the delicate issues of death, dignity, and
decorum. He related the following story: (I may have skewed some details
and invite my Dutch readers to correct my embellishments!)
Rabbi Yehuda Laib Lewis is the Rav of a beautiful kehilla in Amsterdam. As
in every kehilla, the community has a Chevra Kadisha which tends to the
needs of the dead and dying, insures a dignified burial for the deceased,
and helps the mourners through the process of bereavement.
Membership is a privilege and only outstanding members of the kehilla are
selected. There is one group of people who, no matter how outstanding they
are considered in the community, are never asked to serve as part of the
Chevra. You see, kohanim (priests) are not allowed to come in contact
with a dead body, so burying the dead is one mitzvah that they rarely perform!
It so happened that Rabbi Lewis's community purchased a plot of land to
consecrate a new cemetery for the kehilla. The kohanim, as well as other
members of the community participated in this great mitzvah and designated
the first plot that was to be used. Not long after the purchase, a member
of the kehilla passed away. He would be the first to be buried in the new
cemetery. The next day the friends and mourners arrived with the deceased
at the cemetery. Shovels in hand, they approached the grave to begin
burying the inaugural plot for the deceased.
They were shocked to see that the plot had been dug!
After burying the man, they found out the true story. Moshe Cohen, a
member of the community and a kohen, wanted to participate in the great
mitzvah of burying the dead, all his life. However, there are very few
limits to the restriction of a kohen coming in contact with a dead
person. But when Mr. Cohen heard that there was a new cemetery being
consecrated and that there was no one interred in it, he saw the
opportunity that he had watched and waited for. And the first one buried
in the new cemetery had his grave ready and waiting, dug by none other than
The Chasam Sofer reminds us of another time the Torah uses the word
watch. The Torah tells us of Yosef's dreams of glory and that his father
Yaakov, "watched the incident" Rashi explains that watched means waited in
anticipation of fulfillment.
The Chasam Sofer explains that the Torah in this week's parsha tells us to
do more than perform mitzvos. It tells us to watch for them. It exhorts
us to anticipate their fulfillment. It teaches us to wait for the
opportunities that arise, ready and able to perform when opportunity knocks!
Rabbi Akiva, his body raked by burning iron combs, told his students, "all
my life I waited for the mitzvah to give one's soul for the Almighty. I
wondered, 'when would it come to my hands so that I may fulfill it?'"
The Torah tells us this week, Watch for the mitzvos and then observe them!
It is not enough to be a Jewish observer, rather one must be a Jewish
anticipator as well! Good Shabbos!
Dedicated in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Elazar Gershon Kessler the son of
our dear friends, Dr. Martin and Shaynee Kessler
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