If you walk in my laws, and you keep my commandments and do them….(Leviticus 26:3)

What happens if we intend to perform a mitzvah, and are prevented from doing so?

This week’s double parashah, Behar-Bechukotai, brings us to the end of Sefer Vayikra, to the end of the Book of Leviticus. Particular mitzvot are taught here; we learn here to keep the laws of Shmitah and Yovel (to abstain from agricultural work every seven years, and to return ancestral lands to their original owners and release Jewish slaves every fifty years). We are also taught the laws of hekdesh, of sanctifying goods, land, or money to Temple use. Outside of those laws, these parshiot focus on the concept of Divine rewards for keeping the mitzvot and the punishments for not keeping them.

The early Chassidic work Kedushat Levi makes a distinction between the terms “Im bechokotai telechu (if you walk in my laws)” and “ve’et mitzvotai tishmoru (and if you keep My commandments)”. They seem at first glance to be two ways of stating the same concept. Drawing on the Talmud (Kiddushin 40a), the Kedushat Levi says that when one has sincere thoughts of carrying out a mitzvah, but is prevented from fulfilling it, God counts it as though one has actually done the deed. This is the meaning of “if you keep My commandments.

This is certainly the case for many Jews during this time of social distancing. Many of us intend to pray with a minyan, or to hear the Torah read in shul, but are prevented for good reasons from doing so. Some of us are avelim who need to say Kaddish, and cannot. God counts it as though we have done those things.

“If you walk in my laws” refers to action, not thought or intent. Here, the Kedushat Levi teaches that when we fulfill one mitzvah, and we attain the bit of spiritual uplift and personal elevation that comes of it, we are more inclined to do other mitzvot. This, he says, is the meaning of mitzvah goreret mitzvah, that doing one mitzvah impels us to do another.

I often tell the children who I teach that the foods we like are the ones that we are used to eating, and that the things that are easy and enjoyable to do are often the ones that we are used to doing. 

When we are prevented from doing one mitzvah, there are others that we can perform. We may not be able to pray with a minyan, but we can pray. We may not be able to visit sick people in person, but we can call them or talk to them by video-conferencing. We may not be able to hand tzeddakah to people face-to-face, but we can donate. There is a great deal that we can do, and every mitzvah that we do perform inspires us to do another.

Shabbat Shalom!

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