The Best Kind of Mitzvah

Vayeishev Yaakov b’eretz megurei aviv (Bereishis 37:1)

After emerging triumphant from his struggles against his wicked father-in-law, Lavan, and his brother, Esav, Yaakov returned to Canaan to settle in his homeland. In his commentary on our verse, Rashi notes that the Torah uses the expression “settle,” which connotes permanence, instead of the more temporary “sojourn.”

Rashi explains that the Torah deliberately used this phrase to teach that after his lengthy exile, Yaakov desired to finally settle down and live in tranquility. Hashem rejected Yaakov’s request, maintaining that in light of the tremendous reward waiting for the righteous in the World to Come, it is inappropriate for them to seek comfort in this world as well. As a result, Yaakov’s suffering continues as the parashah unfolds with the kidnapping of his beloved son Yosef.

It is difficult to understand the error in Yaakov’s reasoning. If he sought a bit of peaceful tranquility after the recent emotional roller coaster he had experienced, it could only have been for the purpose of allowing him to focus his time and energy on properly serving Hashem. If so, why did Hashem reject Yaakov’s request, which was rooted in his desire for greater spirituality?

The Brisker Rav answers that while this question seems logical, it is actually based on a false premise. People assume that the ideal situation is one in which they have no distractions so that they can completely focus on serving Hashem with all of their time and resources.

In reality, Hashem specifically prefers that people serve Him despite all of their difficulties and preoccupations, as this makes their efforts to serve Him that much more valuable and praiseworthy.

The Mishnah in Avos (2:4) teaches that a person shouldn’t say, “I will study when I have free time,” because he may never find himself with free time. However, in line with our thesis, the Brisker Rav suggested that it can be reinterpreted  as follows: A person shouldn’t say, “I will learn when I have free time,” because perhaps Hashem desires the Torah that he studies precisely when he has no free time.

With this understanding of the value of mitzvos performed under sub-par conditions, we can appreciate the following story: One year during the Rosh Hashanah prayers, the Kotzker Rebbe announced to his Chassidim that he knows exactly what they are all praying for. To their astonishment, he proceeded to explain that they were begging Hashem to give them less parnassah, which would leave them with fewer business obligations and more time to study Torah.

However, their collective wonder at his apparently prophetic knowledge was quickly dashed, as he continued to inform them of Hashem’s response to their entreaties. Hashem rejected their requests because He specifically prefers the Torah that they struggle to learn in spite of all of their distractions and difficulties.

We live in a society which constantly develops new technological gadgets that promise to save us valuable time. Yet the demands we each face in our individual lives — from family, work and play — seem to only increase with each passing day. At the times when we feel that we would gladly make time for G-d if only He would give us a few moments to catch our breaths, we should remind ourselves that it is specifically the Torah we study and the mitzvos we perform at these pressured moments that give Hashem unparalleled pleasure and pride.

Q: The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 678:1) that if a person only has enough money to buy either a candle with which to light his menorah or wine upon which to make Kiddush, he should purchase the candle, as the menorah takes precedence because it serves to publicize the miracles that Hashem performed. Doesn’t Kiddush, which serves as testimony that Hashem created the universe ex nihilo, serve as an even greater form of publicizing miracles?

Q: If a person is in jail on Chanukah and is given permission either to light the menorah or to say the morning prayers together with Hallel, which should he choose?

 A: The Shvus Yaakov and Avnei Nezeranswer that the light of the menorah is seen outside by the masses and therefore publicizes the miracle more than Kiddush, which is recited inside and heard only by those few who are present.

However, Harav Yosef Engel, zt”l, suggests that the actual Creation itself is not considered a miracle because nothing is inherently miraculous for Hashem to do, and the concept of a miracle only applies after the world was created with the laws of nature, which are changed for a miracle.

 A: Harav Shlomo Kluger, zt”l, rules that he should choose to pray and recite Hallel, as the Gemara in Shabbos (21b) explains that the primary enactment of Chanukah was for the purpose of praising and thanking Hashem. Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, disagrees and maintains that the primary obligation is to publicize the miracle of the oil burning for eight days through lighting the menorah.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email