Most people agree that there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. However, the definition of the word mitzvah has different meanings in the eyes of different people. Some people believe, mistakenly, that the word mitzvah means a good deed. This is a serious and grave mistake, for this would imply that mitzvoth are suggestions of good deeds. Take it or leave it, depending on the mood or circumstance. In reality, the root of the word mitzvah is commandment. A commandment is something that you have to do, so long as you are a religious believer.
The word mitzvah, in its deeper meaning, also comes from the Aramaic word צוותא , meaning bonds and ties. Through these mitzvoth one can connect with his Creator. Rabbi Laurence Kelenman offers a new perspective. First, he explains that in every relationship of love, the greater the attention given to details by the one expressing love, the greater the love. If a spouse sees and notices the attention, effort and thought put into the relationship by the partner in marriage, his or her love is much greater. And when one does not notice, when one does not care to acknowledge these efforts at showing affection, then the person is…. just mean! Egotistic. Names that I do not feel should be written. And when someone does recognize love given by the spouse and wants to know how to show love in return, he/she will look for details to act upon to express love in return. What a beautiful relationship.
This pertains to our responsibility to recognize how much G-d does for us, both quantitatively and qualitatively, attending to our every need in great detail, as well. We should be humaneand recognize it. Then, we will be able to – and will – love Him much more. And, we should express our love in return. In detail, in 613 details. These are the 613 commandments, 613 expressions of love.
This week, Bilaam’s donkey teaches us how not a single one of the Mitzvoth can be missed or ignored. When the donkey reprimanded Bilaam he said, “… and now, you hit me three times.” However, instead of using the word פעמים for the word “times”, the donkey used the word רגלים , or occasions. Literally, the word רגל means foot. He hinted to him – you are seeking to uproot a nation that celebrates שלשה רגלים – three festivals, each year!
Why did he mention now, out of all the mitzvoth of the Torah, the merit that the Jews have for celebrating the three festivals?
The answer, a beautiful one, is given by the Melo Ha’Omer. We find in the Midrash that G-d asked Bila’am – “It is your wish to curse and uproot the Jewish nation? Who, then, will keep the Mitzvoth of the Torah, if not the Jews?” Bila’am, may his name be erased, said, “I will”.
This is what the donkey was telling him, but Bila’am did not understand. Every year, three times a year, the Jews celebrate the festivals and keep the mitzvah of ascending to Jerusalemby foot. Now, it is to this fact that the donkey was referring when he exchanged the word “times” with “occasions”, hinting at the Three Pilgrimages, known as שלשה רגלים , of the Jewish year. The Halacha is that only a person who can walk up the mountain to Har Habayit has the mitzvah of Oleh Laregel. Being that Bilaam was crippled in one leg, he could not take the place of the Jews in keeping the mitzvoth, for he was exempt from one of the 613- walking by foot up the mountain of the Temple three times a year. If not for this one mitzvah, Bila’am could have cursed us and destroyed us.
We do not know what even one mitzvah can do for us. We do not know how much we need each and every one of the 613. They are all expressions of love, that each and every one is so very precious to G-d.