School’s Out!

The first use of brackets (“[…]”) in history date themselves back to our parsha this week. The Talmud (Shabbos 115b) records how the section of “Vayehi bin’soa ha’aron” (10:35-36) is actually transplanted from earlier in the Torah. Surrounding these verses are two backwards letter “nun”s. The Gemara explains that they are bracketing off this section in order to separate two tragedies of the Jewish people- what came before and what comes after.

When describing these two tragedies, the Gemara is clear that the second tragedy was the people’s dissatisfaction with manna, the food G-d granted them from Heaven on a daily basis. Yet their description of the first tragedy -before teh brackets- is somewhat unclear. To explain it to us, the Gemara quotes a verse from right beforehand: “And they traveled from the Mountain of Hashem…” (10:33). What’s so bad about that? Were they supposed to stay there forever? They had to go to Israel!

Tosafos, quoting the Midrash, explains that when it comes to this “tragedy”, the problem wasn’t that they left, it’s how they left: “like a child who is running away from school”. What the Jewish people did wrong was not any particular sin, and it wasn’t even the way the did a mitzvah. Instead, it was how they reacted for having done a mitzvah. After receiving the Torah, they should be reflective and appreciative, not joyous to be leaving it.

In a more tangible parallel for us today, we have a small, relatively unknown, but powerful halacha: When one takes his or her three steps backwards after Shmoneh Esrei, the first step back should be with the left foot (Shulchan Aruch, orach Chayim 123). The reason is because we are more comfortable with using the right foot, so we use the left to show Hashem that it is difficult for us to leave His presence (Magen Avraham (123:10). How we depart from having done a mitzvah also shows how much we cared about it when we did it.

We tend to stress the importance of doing mitzvot and fulfilling our obligations. But even after a mitzvah is completed, it is important to pause and reflect on the importance of what we’ve just done. Do we throw it off as a burden, or do we relish the opportunity we had, appreciating what we did? We must keep in mind that of course our transgressions can be tragic, but if we have the wrong attitude, our mitzvot can be too.