Parshat Shelach Lekha
June 9, 2007
The rabbinic tradition marvels over the success of the Joshua\’s spy mission when compared to that of Moses. It sees clues to its success in the way that the story of Joshua\’s mission is told. The unsung heroes of Joshua\’s mission are left nameless while the antiheroes of Moses\’ aborted mission are named in all of their infamy. In a late midrash (8th century, Eretz Yisrael), which attempts to identify the heroes of Joshua\’s mission, we learn from the anonymity of these heroes the key to their success. The midrash asserts that these heroes remain nameless in order to emphasize the fact that they performed their mission selflessly. They acted as \”shlihei mitvah – those sent on a religious mission\” and according this midrash, God has a particular interest in their success. (See Bamidbar Rabbah 16:1)
The midrash, noted above, quotes a mishnah which shapes the entire discussion of the halakhic (legal) concept of \”shaleakh mitzvah\”: \”Those who are engaged in a religious (mitzvah) mission are exempt from [the obligations of] sukkah.\” (Sukkah 2:5) This mishnah prompts an interesting debate among the rabbis in the Talmud (Sukkah 25a; 26a) about the prioritization of the performance of mitzvot. What should a person do when faced with a situation where, while he is involved in the performance of one mitzvah he is confronted by the obligation to perform a second mitzvah? According to this mishnah, a person who is in the process of performing one mitzvah is not obligated to dwell in a sukkah.
Some authorities take this exemption, which is known as \”ha\’osek bemitzvah patur m\’mitzvah – one who is busy with a mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah\” to be operative only where the observance of the second commandment would interfere with the observance of the first. For instance, if a person was traveling in order to rescue captives and sleeping in a sukkah would hamper their mission by make the person lose sleep, this person would be exempt. Otherwise, this person would be obligated. (Tosafot)
Others hold that this exemption applies even where the second mitzvah would not interfere with the first mitzvah. This exemption is limited, however, to those who provide others with the ability to perform commandments. These would include those who tie tzitzit or make tefillin for those in immediate need of them. Such a person would even be exempt (in theory) from saying shma or praying, in order that they not be troubled by the performance of other commandments. (See Sukkah 26a; Or Zarua 399; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 38:8)
God loves those who perform His commandments. At times, this, like many other things in life, can be a complicated exercise – one fraught with difficult choices. While neither of these models provide absolute answers to the question of how to prioritize, it is helpful that the sages have given us some helpful principles to guide the way.