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Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim| 5764
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Question: I am confused about how I am to choose the right things to do with my time. I want to do the biggest mitzvot I can, yet it seems that most of one’s time is spent on mundane matters. Are things like making a living or caring for a family really the biggest mitzvot one can be doing?
Answer: It is difficult to know what the biggest mitzva is in a given situation. Furthermore, the question of a mitzva’s size, while asked with beautiful intentions, is not the right one. The real question is: what does Hashem want us to do?
People spend a large part of their days seeing to such mundane needs as sleeping, eating, etc. These may not be the most uplifting activities, but Hashem created us in such a way that they are necessary and expected. While it is best not to spend more time than necessary on these activities, it is wrong to neglect them significantly over time. One needs to learn how to balance his time.
Just as there are basic, bodily needs, there are also other needs and responsibilities that, as Hashem created man and his society, need to be addressed. Such time-consuming activities such as earning a living and tending to a house and a myriad of family needs have both mundane and spiritual elements to them (much depends on the proper intentions and use of the family’s blessings). A husband is required by halacha (see Ketubot 46b) to support his wife in a respectable manner, and should not, under normal circumstances, forsake this obligation, with the excuse that he is too busy doing this or that “bigger mitzva.” A wife is usually required to take care of several household needs (see Ketubot 59b), and should not, under normal circumstances, neglect these, with the logical sounding excuse that she was busy with chesed all day and had no time to take care of her familial obligations.
Even when involved in chesed, onedoes not look only at what the objectively biggest chesed is. One is obligated to give tzedaka to one’s needy relatives and neighbors before giving to more distant people (Shulchan Aruch, YD 251:2), even if the distant people are more needy (Shut Chatam Sofer, YD 231). In mitzvot, the mitzva of learning Torah is, on the one hand, the most prominent of all mitzvot, but, on the other hand, is pushed off by “smaller” mitzvot that are incumbent on a person at a given time.
The critical element is proper balance between the “more mundane” activities and even mitzvot that are a person’s personal obligation, and the fulfillment of some special chesed or mitzva opportunities that require putting the normal activities on hold. To a great extent, it is halacha’s job to instruct a person how to reach a balance between conflicting, positive activities. (For example, Aruch Hashulchan YD 251:5 rules that although relatives have precedence regarding tzedaka, it is clear that one who can afford it must leave funds for unconnected poor people). Halacha cannot address every scenario in a person’s life, nor the different abilities and circumstances that apply to and affect the proper advice to different people asking the same question. Therefore, many decisions are left to the individual. One must be aware of the great value of family and professional obligations, as well as the critical importance of limud Torah, chesed, and other mitzvot. Then he has tools to try to implement the sage advice: “It is good that you seize this, but also from that do not release your hand” (Kohelet 7:18).
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