“Yosef’s brothers went to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem” (Bereishis 37:12).
Ostensibly, the brothers of Yosef were engaged in the mitzvah of kibbud av, as their father had instructed them to take the sheep to graze. Yosef, as well, was following his father’s bidding to check on the welfare of his brothers. Yet, our sages tell us (Koheles 8:5), “He who keeps the commandment will know no evil.” If both parties were involved in performing a mitzvah, how was it possible for the sale of Yosef to take place?
Rashi says that the brothers went only to “pasture” themselves, i.e. for their personal indulgence. The Gur Aryeh, in a similar vein, states that their pleasure in eating and drinking eventually led to their sin. Our sages expound that the brothers erred and stumbled because, in truth, they entertained intentions other than just fulfilling the mitzvah of kibbud av, as pointed out by Rav Yitzchak Dov Koppelman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Lucerne, who cites the seemingly superfluous pasuk (37:25), “they sat to eat food.”
It is similar to the teaching in the Talmud (Pesachim 8a) that one is not required to place his hand into holes and crevices to search for chametz due to the danger involved. The Talmud cites R’ Elazar that “those on the path to perform a mitzvah are not susceptible to harm.” Rav Ashi explains there that if the individual happened to lose a needle in the same place, he will also be looking for that item while he is searching for the chametz. Rashi elucidates that since he is not searching exclusively for the chametz the merit of the mitzvah will not protect him.
The Medrash Bereishis Rabbah (68:11) tells us that during the years Yaakov spent at the House of Lavan he never slept. R’ Yehoshua ben Levi says he recited the 15 Shir HaMaalos of Tehillim, as it says (124:1), “Had not Hashem been with us, let Yisrael declare it now…” (alluding to Yaakov Avinu). R’ Shmuel bar Nachman says he recited all of Tehillim as it says (22:4), “You are the Holy One, enthroned upon the praises of Yisrael” (once again alluding to Yaakov Avinu).
The Talmud (Sotah 21a) teaches that, in fact, a mitzvah only protects temporarily, i.e. while one is performing the mitzvah. Contrary to the time the brothers spent in the house of Yaakov Avinu and performed all the mitzvos for the sake of Heaven, when the brothers went out to graze the sheep they became more lax and they lapsed in their absolute commitment. Hashem demands a much higher standard from tzaddikim such as the shevatim, and since their service of Him was no longer complete or sufficient, they became vulnerable to sin and sold Yosef as a slave.
Thus, we see that the potency of a mitzvah lies in the individual’s optimal and enthusiastic execution of the mitzvah with all the proper kavanos (intentions), including mastery of the laws pertaining to this particular mitzvah, and consummating the mitzvah to fulfill the will of Hashem.
R’ Yechezkel Levenstein stated that every mitzvah and every minhag Yisrael envelops the person in Hashem’s love. Through doing mitzvos we achieve a closeness to Hashem.
Every month the Jewish people bless the new month, by reciting the bracha of Kiddush Levana. The blessing can be made at the earliest after the first three full days of the month until the 15th of the month when the moon is visible in the sky. Many try to say Kiddush Levana at the earliest opportunity to ensure that the mitzvah is performed.
The Tanna D’bei R’ Yishmael declares that if the Jewish people would have no other mitzvah than greeting their Father in Heaven once a month it would be enough. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 42a) cites R’ Yochanan that whoever blesses the new month in its proper time it is as if he greeted the Divine Presence. The Sefer Yefe Einiyim states that this particular mitzvah ingrains belief in one’s heart.
The great tzaddik R’ Yisrael Abuchatzeira, known as Baba Sali, eagerly awaited his opportunity to recite Kiddush Levana every month, and would recite the blessing with great joy and song.
One winter month he was in Lyon, France, and the skies remained covered with clouds every night of the new month. The moon was not discernible in any way, and it was already the very last possible day to make the bracha.
Baba Sali then inquired whether it was possible that there was somewhere nearby where the skies were clear. After some investigation, they found out that the skies had cleared in Marseilles, which was 250 miles away. Baba Sali put on his coat and asked to be taken to the train station. He boarded an express train and a few hours later he reached the city. He sang and danced right outside the train station as he recited the bracha of Kiddush Levana.
When a person exerts himself for a mitzvah and fulfills the mitzvah as it was meant to be, he enjoys the ultimate protection and blessing of that mitzvah.