In this week’s parsha the Galus of the Bnai Yisrael in Mitzrayim is drawing to an end. In preparation, Hashem instructs Moshe to command the Bnai Yisrael with the slaughtering of the Korban Pesach, the daubing of its blood on the doorposts and lintels of all yiddishe homes, and the subsequent consumption of its meat. Several commands were given vis-à-vis the preparation of this meat. One such command was the mitzvah “Al tochal na” – “Do not eat the meat rare (ibid, passuk 9). On the surface it would seem that this mitzvah is like any other, but upon deeper thought it does have an important pedigree that deserves mention. You see, the first Rashi in Chumash quotes Rebbe Yitzchak who is of the opinion that the Torah really should have begun with (or at) the beginning of the 12th chapter in Shmos, in this week’s parsha. That is where the Yidden as a nation started receiving commandments from Hashem on how to lead their lives, thus a most apt starting point for a book that is, after all, an instruction manual for the Jewish religion. [However, Hashem saw the vital role that knowledge of the world’s history would play in swaying the courts of public opinion in our claim to ownership of Eretz Yisrael, so He began at Beraishis, the indubitable beginning.] This being true, forces us to look at Al tochal na- the 7th mitzva of the Torah in a new light. For if the Torah would have begun at the beginning of Perek 12 then this mitzvah would have been the first mitzvas lo sa’aseh – negative commandment- mentioned by the Torah. And even according to the present structure of the Torah, where the mitzva of Gid Hanasheh (Beraishis, 32:33) claims this title, our mitzvah of not eating rare Korban Pesach meat still is the first lo sa’seh given to a whole nation. All this suggests that there is something unique about this commandment that makes it appropriate to be on a pedestal all by itself.
Perhaps we can offer the following explanation. There is a Midrash Tanchuma that links the above mitzvah to the episode with Avraham and his three “guests”. This link is established using the word “na,” Says the Tanchuma: as a reward for Avraham using the word na when offering his guests water (“Yukach na me’at mayim” – “Please let a little water be taken”– Beraishis 18:4), his descendants merited the mitzva of Al tochal na. This Midrash, of course, needs an analysis, for (other than the common word na) what connection is there between the two?
It could be that this Midrash is hinting to us the correct mindset of a Yid in his approach to keeping all negative commandments. Avraham was doing the guests a favor providing them with food, water and a shady tree. However, by using the word na-please- (as in “please let a little water be taken”) he was suggesting that by accepting his hospitality they would be doing him the favor. This, of course, is the greatest way of doing a kindness, doing it in a way that the recipient leaves the experience feeling he has, in fact, been the benefactor. (The truth is that they were doing Avraham a favor, for Avraham was a man totally addicted to doing things for others, and he got tremendous satisfaction when given the opportunity.) By linking Avraham’s na to the na in our mitzva– the first national lo sa’aseh, we are being given sagacious advice from the Midrash in how to approach all the lo sa’sehs of the Torah. Lo sa’sehs are given by Hashem to help us out. We believe they make us better people, they make the world a better place, and they allow us to be rewarded by Hashem. But such a mindset is fraught with danger. For if man feels that he is the sole beneficiary of adherence to a mitzvah, then he also instinctively will feel he has more leeway in choosing not to do that mitzvah. Therefore, like Avraham who used the word na to redefine the definition of accepting a glass of water, so too, Hashem positions the only mitzvah with the word na in it as the Torah’s first official lo sa’seh in order to redefine our thought process in the keeping of all mitzvos. “You are doing me the favor,” says Hashem. “I get tremendous nachas from its adherence.” We must realize how much Hashem is aggrieved by the violation of a lo sa’seh, for we have taken away from Him the opportunity to be man’s benefactor – something which Hashem really enjoys doing. This should enable man to think twice before deciding to be lax in his shemiras hamitzvos, keeping him hopefully on the straight and narrow.
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.