How We Do Mitzvot Shows How Much We Love Them
At the end of Parshat Shoftim we learn about the Eglah Arufah (“axed heifer”) ritual. If a body is found outside of town and the murder remains unsolved, then the elders of the closest two cities gather for a ceremony, part of which includes the following declaration:
And they shall announce and say, "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]."
זוְעָנ֖וּ וְאָֽמְר֑וּ יָדֵ֗ינוּ לֹ֤א שָֽׁפְכוּ֙ אֶת־הַדָּ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵינֵ֖ינוּ לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ:
The Talmud in Sotah (45b) wonders: do we really think that these leaders were somehow involved in this murder?! And if not, why must they deny any involvement utilizing such stark terminology? The Talmud explains that the leaders are denying having any knowledge of this individual visiting their town. For had they been aware of this visitor, they would have been sure to provide him with accommodations, food for the trip and “levaya”, an escort for part of the way upon leaving the city. Our tradition emphasizes the importance of this escort: “Anyone who escorts his fellow four cubits – he does not suffer harm.” “One who hosts guests but does not escort them is considered as though he kills them.” Maimonides (Laws of Mourning) writes:
“This practice was instituted by Avraham Avinu, who would invite guests, feed them, and then escort them…. The value of hosting guests exceeds that of greeting the Divine Presence, and escorting guests is even greater than hosting them.”
Through the mitzvah of escorting guests, the Torah is teaching us that how we do mitzvot is just as important as fulfilling the mitzvah in the first place. When we escort our guests, we demonstrate that our concern for them doesn’t end when they leave our home. The way we complete the mitzvah sheds light on the entire interaction. By going the extra mile (or at least 4 cubits) by escorting our guests we exhibit a sincere love for the mitzvah and a sincere affection for our guest.
The mitzvah of “levaya” can inform our understanding of many mitzvot and challenge us to pay more attention to the “how” and not just the “what”. When we give charity to a poor person or organization, do we do so begrudgingly? Or do we do so with empathy and a smile? The way we give tzedaka sheds light on our essential attitude towards the mitzvah. At the end of Shabbat minyan, do we leave early or start talking in shul before the service is over? Or do we maintain our respect for our Sanctuary, our tefilah and our fellow prayer participant until after Adon Olam? The way we end our davening reflects on our overall attitude towards prayer. In the same vein, I am a fan of “keeping the song going”. When there is congregational singing (ie for Kedusha and Hallel) if the tune and the context allows for it, I encourage us to continue the niggun just a little bit beyond the words. In this way we show our true feelings, and our affection for enhanced prayer in shul.
Elul is the last month of the year. Tradition has it that if utilized correctly, Elul can make up for and repair the mistakes we’ve made during the previous 11 months. As one focus, let us commit to ensuring that we not only fulfill the technical details of mitzvot but do so with the right attitude. Like escorting guests, let’s make sure to end mitzvot on a high note, thereby showing our true feelings of love and appreciation for our religious and spiritual lives.