(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
Imagine That You Are The Only Jew, With Just This Mitzvah to Fulfil Today - Don’t Procrastinate, Crack on With it Now!
It states in this week’s Parashah, “The entire mandate (mitzvah) that I am prescribing to you today, you must safeguard and keep” (Devarim 8:1).
Let’s analyse the Torah’s phraseology, “that I am prescribing to you today” - “you” in the Hebrew is presented in the singular, yet the end of the passuk, “you must safeguard and keep” - “you” in the Hebrew is in the plural. Why is this?
We may explain by prefacing what the Chafetz Chaim z”l (Ahavat Chessed 2:11) said in the name of the Vilna Gaon z”l when he commented on the passuk in Kriyat Shema, “These words which I am commanding you today” (Devarim 6:6), “these words” mean that you must think when performing each mitzvah that you only have this section [of Torah] to fulfil! “These”!
Afterwards, “which I am commanding you”, consider that you are the only Jew in the world, the only one who has the responsibility to fulfil Hashem’s will to sustain the world! And if this isn’t sufficient, then all of this is incumbent upon you, “today”, consider that you only have today and that tomorrow you may not be able to fulfil the mitzvah!
Regarding this HaGaon Rav Yaakov Galinski zt”l (Vehigad’ta) related the following story:
A simple Jew who sold textiles went to ask his rav the following question. Kavod HaRav, I wish to merit to Olam HaBa (the World to Come) but I don’t know Torah, I am ignorant, please kavod HaRav, tell me what I must briefly do to merit life in Olam HaBa?”
The Rav replied, “Imagine yourself in a scenario that you only have one mitzvah to perform, and that you are the only Jew in the world and that you only have this day!”
The Jew heard this and was very happy. “That’s it! This is all I need to do to merit life in Olam HaBa!” He hurried to go from before the Rav, but the Rav called him back, “Wait a moment! Let me explain to you what I meant!” But the Jew left and said, “You don’t need to explain a thing! It is totally understood!”
The Jew hurried to his shop. An elderly Jew entered, he chose some cloth and paid. However, by mistake, he paid three dinars instead of two, and he left the shop.
In the afternoon, the Jew locked his shop and went home. “Wash your hands!” His wife said, “I am serving the food”. But her husband replied, “You may serve the food! But I don’t need to wash my hands!” His wife was shocked and stared at her husband with questioning eyes.
“I was by the Rav this morning and he ruled that I only need to fulfil one mitzvah. I have already prayed this morning with my tallit and tefillin and this is sufficient. Tomorrow I will be exempt also from praying because the Rav ruled categorically that I am not obligated to perform another mitzvah, just today and not tomorrow!”
The woman was shocked. Meanwhile an old man knocked on the door. He entered and turned to the host, “I purchased some cloth from you today and by mistake I paid an extra dinar!”
“That is correct,” said the vendor “But so what? I was by the Rav today and he ruled for me that I am the only Jew in the world, if this is so, I am Jewish and you are a Gentile, and I am not obligated to return to a Gentile!”
The old man was astonished and the lady began shouting, “Help us! My husband has gone crazy!” The old man also began shouting and the Jewish vendor ran from his home!
Whilst he was walking in the street, he began to think, they are right! What is going on here? One Jew, one mitzvah, one day? What peculiar ruling the Rav gave me! This ruling has created a strange situation for me!
The Jew rushed to the Rav’s home. He entered, and immediately afterwards so did his wife, shouting, “Save me Rav! My husband has gone crazy!” The Rav tried to calm the lady, but immediately the old man entered and began to shout at the Rav about the dinar that he had taken against the halachah!
The Rav said, “Sit quietly, and listen to me!”
“It is indeed correct that that I ruled to this Jew that he should consider that he only has one mitzvah to perform. But my intention was that we have 613 mitzvot and that a lazy person thinks, I won’t keep this mitzvah because I have more mitzvot before me. And even regarding a specific mitzvah I won’t keep it now because I have more time to fulfil it.
“A person sits in front a book of Torah but daydreams. He thinks, I have another hour when I may concentrate more on my learning. A poor person approaches him for tzedakah but he says to himself, another more worthy pauper will come. Therefore he refrains from assisting.
“Therefore I said,” continued the Rav, “Always think as if you have just one mitzvah before you, just this Torah-study, just this prayer, just this mitzvah at hand!
“I further added, imagine that you are the only Jew in the world, why? So that if for example, they came to collect tzedakah from the congregation for a certain cause, each person could think to himself, this mitzvah, may be accomplished by others, so why should I enlist for it? If each person were to think so, the poor would remain destitute…
“Therefore I said, imagine that you are the only Jew upon whom it is incumbent to fulfil the mitzvah! Therefore I also said that you must think that you only have today to fulfil the mitzvot, so that you won’t delay the mitzvah until tomorrow!”
This is what is stated in our Parashah, “The entire mandate (mitzvah) that I am prescribing to you today, you must safeguard and keep”. It began in the singular because this is an instruction to each person, that they should view themselves as if this is the only mitzvah, “the entire mitzvah”. But they should also see themselves as if they are the only person in the world, “that I am prescribing to you”, only you! And they should consider just today, “today”, there is nothing left in the world other than today! If not now, then when? [Avot 1:13].
This is the intention of chachamim in Avot [ibid.], “If I am not for me, then who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, then when?”