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Question: Where I live, I see Chabad shluchim offering Jewish passerby to put on tefillin, is this of any value if they are otherwise non-observant, additionally is doing so in a street – a public thoroughfare proper kavod for the tefillin?

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Synopsis: We previously cited the Mechaber who explains the mitzvah of Tefillin as requiring them to be worn the entire day, but due to the constraints of the human condition whereby one might not be able to always be in the state of cleanliness of one’s person – guf naki – in in our time we only wear them as we pray [the Shacharit prayer]. We enumerated the blessings and the reward as they relate to this mitzvah as Poshe’a b’gufo – one who sins with his body. We also noted the importance to the performance of this mitzvah of purchasing Tefillin from a G-d fearing scribe who writes beautiful Tefillin that are to last for many years. We then noted Esav’s marriage to the daughter of his uncle Yishmael as a single momentary opportunity to repent his many sins, including his marriage to evil Canaanite wives. Unfortunately, he and his new wife Mochalat did not take advantage of that momentary opportunity and continued in their evil ways. Nevertheless, our Sages derive from this that a chatan and kallah fast on the day of their wedding, as they are forgiven all their prior sins. We also noted that such is repentance in the eyes of Hashem, even if it is for but a solitary moment, as the prophet Yonah is commanded [and he does so reluctantly] to save the gentile city of Nineveh from destruction. Surprisingly they heed his call and repent their evil ways.

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Answer: The Gemara (Chagigah 5b) relates an interesting episode that highlights the value of even a momentary event: “R’ Idi the father of R’ Yaakov b. Idi, used to spend three months on the road and one day at the academy. Rashi (s.v. ‘haya ragil’) explains that his residence was a journey of three months from the academy. Therefore, he would travel for three months right after Pesach to the academy; study that one-day and then return home – a three months distance – in order to be home to rejoice in the Sukkot festival with his wife.

Thus, the Sages referred to him as “Bar bei rav d’chad yoma,” a scholar [of the academy] for one day. He was saddened with such moniker being applied to him, that he applied to himself the following verse (Job 12:4) “S’chok l’re’eh’hu eh’yeh… – I am as one that is a laughing stock to his fellow.”

R. Yochanan, seeing his anguish, said to him “I beg of you, do not cause the Sages to be punished [over this implied slight]. Thereupon, R. Yochanan went to the academy and delivered an exposition from the following verse (Isaiah 58:2) “v’oti yom yom yidroshun v’da’at derachai yehpatzun – Yet they seek me day after day and desire to know my ways.”

Now, he reasons: “Do they seek Hashem only by day but at night they do not seek Him [which the simple words of the verse might imply]? Therefore, it comes to teach that whoever studies Torah even for one day in the year; Scripture credits him as if he studied for that entire year.

Likewise in the matter of punishment, as the verse (Numbers 14:34) “After the number of days in which you spied out the land [they were to be punished with forty years of journey through the wilderness].” Did they [the Meraglim – the spies] sin for forty years? Was it not forty days that they sinned? Therefore, it comes to teach that whoever commits a transgression even one day in the year; it is counted as if he transgressed for that entire year.

Maharsha (ad loc Chagigah 5a) finds Rashi’s explanation to be somewhat difficult, for if he needed to return by Sukkot to rejoice with his wife, then what happened to Shavuot, where there is the same mitzvah to rejoice with one’s wife. Therefore he explains that it is not for that reason that the Gemara relates his three-month journey. Rather such was his practice to travel some distance for his livelihood and thus stay there and then go to the academy, though only for one day, as that was all that was possible, and then journey back home.

Thus R’ Yochanan understood from the verse the reward that such self-sacrifice earned on the part of R’ Idi.

Maharsha cites Tosafot (Sotah 11a s.v. ‘miriam himtinah l’moshe sha’ah achat’) that question how to compare Midah Tovah – a good action [in our case such as that of R’ Idi] to a Midah Pur’aniyot – an evil action [such as that of the Meraglim – the spies]. From our Gemara it would appear that the two are counted in the same manner, equally, but surely a good action is greater in reckoning than an evil action. He resolves that true, an evil action is not of the same level as a good action, and the reckoning revolves around the intention of the action in question. Nevertheless, the recompense for one’s good action is never less vis-à-vis a comparative evil action.

We find a related theme in the Gemara (Avoda Zara 10b) that relates the following: “There was once a Caesar who hated the Jews. One day he said to some of the prominent members of his government in the form of a query, ‘If one has a wart on his foot, shall he cut it away and live [in comfort] or leave it on and suffer discomfort [this was an allusion to the Jews]? They replied: ‘He should cut it away and live in comfort.’

“Keti’ah b. Shalom [a righteous gentile who was in their company] addressed them thus: ‘In the first place, you cannot do away with all of them, for it is written (Zechariah II: 10) ‘Hoy, Hoy, v’nasu me’eretz tzafon ne’um Hashem ki b’arba ruchot ha’shomayim peirasti etchem ne’um Hashem – Woe! Woe! Flee from the land of the north, the word of Hashem, for I have scattered you like the four directions of the heavens, the word of Hashem.’ Now, what does this verse indicate? Were it to mean that they were to be scattered to the four corners of the earth, then instead of saying, ‘like the four winds’ it should have said ‘to the four winds.’ It must mean that just as the world cannot exist without the winds, so too the world cannot without Israel. And what is more, your kingdom will be called a crippled kingdom.’

“To this the king replied: ‘You have spoken very well; however, he who contradicts the king is to be [punished and] thrown into a circular furnace.’ On his being led away, a Roman matron said to him, ‘Pity the ship that sails [toward the harbor] without paying the tax,’ Keti’ah understood her wise counsel and [wishing to die as a Jew] threw himself in such manner that he cut his foreskin and circumcised himself and converted. He then exclaimed: ‘I have paid the tax – let me enter [paradise].

As they were about to cast him in [to the furnace] he said: ‘All my possessions [go to] Rabbi Akiva and his fellows.’ Rabbi Akiva interpreted this last testament according to the following verse (Exodus 29:28): ‘V’hoyoh l’Aharon u’lbonov l’chok olam – It shall be to Aaron and his sons as an eternal portion’ [meaning] one half goes to Aaron and one half to his sons [he understood that Keti’ah desired that Rabbi Akiva share with his sons, half to him and half to them].

“As they threw him into the furnace a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice, proclaimed: ‘Keti’ah b. Shalom is destined for eternal life in the world to come.’ Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi], upon hearing of this wept, saying; ‘One may acquire eternity in a single moment, while another may acquire it only after many years.”

We thus see that at times, the performance of a single, one-time action has consequences that are of lasting value far beyond its limited timeline.

To be continued…


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.