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Thursday, 1 January 2015

What is the Ultimate Mitzvah?

Daf Yomi Yevamos 89

The dutiful son is sitting at his dying father's bedside.
Father: "Son."
Son: "Yes Dad."
Father: (weakly) "Son. That smell: Is Mama making my favorite apple strudel?"
Son: "Yes Dad."
Father: (even weaker) "Ah, if I could just have one more piece of Mama's apple strudel. Would you get me a piece?"
Son: "OK, Dad."  Son leaves and walks toward kitchen. After a while the son returns and sits down next to his father again.
Father: "Is that you son?"
Son: "Yes Dad."
Father: "Did you bring the apple strudel?"
Son: "No Dad."
Father: "Why not? It's my dying wish!"
Son: "Well Dad, Mom says sorry but the strudel is for the shivah!"

A cohen may not become impure by coming near a dead body unless it is a direct family member.  The only exception is the “mes mitzvah” – the mitzvah corpse.
The Beraisa teaches: What is the definition of a mes mitzvah?  Any person who has nobody to bury him.  But if he would call and others would respond to him, it is not considered a mes mitzvah.

Burying a mes mitzvah is one of those rare mitzvos that one dreams of performing.  Picture the scenario: You’re hiking through the Negev desert, you chance upon a body, and there’s no one else around for hundreds of miles.  That’s the ultimate mitzvah – burying this corpse and never getting a thank you from anyone!  Our Sages call it chesed shel emes – true kindness. 

But there’s one mitzvah that’s way more important than tending to a mes mitzvah.   And you have the opportunity to do it all the time.  What is that?  It’s tending to a chai mitzvah – a live mitzvah person.  The Beraisa teaches that if the corpse would call out and nobody would respond, it would be considered a mes mitzvah.  But short of zombie movies, when was the last time you heard a corpse call out?  Of course it can’t.  The Talmud is teaching us an important lesson: Dead people might not be able to call out, but live people can.  And sadly, there are way too many live people calling out for help without anyone responding.

That’s the definition of a chai mitzvah – a living person who is calling out for help with none to respond.  Just like the mes mitzvah, they might have no relatives to take care of them and it is our job to heed that cry.   We all know people who could do with an extra hand.   Maybe you know a senior that can no longer drive and could do with a weekly ride to the grocery store.  Perhaps there’s a widow who has nobody to talk to and you could simply pick up the phone once a week to wish her ‘Good Shabbos’ and have a chat. 

The mitzvah of tending to a chai mitzvah is much more important than the mitzvah of tending to a mes mitzvah.  It might not be as exotic because it’s all around you.  But if you heed the cry for help, you will be blessed in all your endeavours!