The opening of the sedra (and indeed it’s name) brings a rare word to the fore; ekev, as in the pasuk ‘If you shall listen to these commandments…” Rashi points out that the word ekev is from the root ‘heel’ and thus the pasuk is referring to when one does the smallest of the mitzvos that one might ordinarily stamp down with their feet. [As an aside, the feet are always the lowest part spiritually; they are the furthest away from the brain and they are the part that doesn’t decay, since it’s basically dead already; R Tatz.] Anyway, the pesukim go on to describe the rewards/blessings that will be given to us if we keep these mitzvos. Now the question is essentially why is there such great reward given for keeping the smallest mitzvos that the Torah should dedicate an entire section to it?
Some answer (ikar sifsei chachamim) that Rashi does not mean solely these small mitzvos, but rather he means that if one even keeps the small mitzvos, ie and certainly keeps the other and more important ones. Thus, this section is another of those enumerating blessings given when we perform the entire body of mitzvos correctly.
However, perhaps Rashi does actually mean to refer to specifically the small mitzvos (the Ramban does seem to understand Rashi this way.) And if so, perhaps we should try to understand the value and importance of the smallest/’unimportant’ of mitzvos. For example, the gemara (bava metzia 30b) says that the reason Yerushalayim was destroyed in the times of the 2nd Beis Hamikdash was because we did not do lifnei mishuras hadin ie they did mitzvos but only to the letter of the law; not beyond. Now lifnei mishuras hadin does not seem to be a massive deal; they were keeping all the mitzvos; why did this cause Jerusalem’s destruction? why are the smaller mitzvos so important?
Firstly, small mitzvos are mitzvos in themselves. And the value of a single mitzvah is beyond our full comprehension; a mitzvah corrects part of the world. In fact Rav Dessler explains the phrase in the gemara (kidushin) ‘there is no reward for a mitzvah in this world’ (‘ schar mitzvah behai alma lekka’) to mean that all the pleasures of this world that have ever been and will ever be experienced by the total quantity of people in this world will still not be enough to bestow the full reward for one mitzvah. And as the mishna says (Avos 1;2) ‘we do not know the reward giving for mitzvos and how each one is weighed.’ This is because we live in a world of action as opposed to thought. Thus, when we think of a ‘small mitzvah,’ we think of a mitzvah which involves little action; smiling for example. But mitzvos are not only measured via action; there are other criteria too – for example how selfless/pure one’s motivations are in doing the mitzvah (lishma), and how much the mitzvah is done besimcha , be’ahava, and how much exertion one goes through in order to do the mitzvah (Avos 5;26), etc. We have a phrase that says ‘the camera doesn’t lie’ (nb but apparently the camera adds 10 pounds too?!?). But the truth is that the camera is the biggest liar of them all; one could take a snapshot of 2 people doing exactly the same mitzvah – let’s say davening – yet one wants to be in shul, is concentrating, and is trying to raise himself up spiritually, whilst the other does not. Now the camera would like to suggest to us that these 2 people are doing the exact same thing, but the truth is that these are 2 completely different level mitzvos; the camera cannot project more than action; mitzvos have another dimension of machshava/lev to them.
There is also a psychological principle that one tends to devalue/put down that which one sees as beyond them (R Pinkus). Thus, parshas Mishpatim begins with the laws of slaves to tell us that slaves are not beyond us (we are servants of HaShem) and thus the laws of how to treat slaves are important. The root of this bad middah of disregarding that which is ‘lower than them’ is feeling that ‘I don’t need this small thing – I’m beyond it.’ Apart from being gaavah, it’s wrong! HaShem or Chazal gave a mitzvah and thus they knew that it was an important and necessary part of a Jewish person’s spiritual makeup.
This is reflected by something the Rambam says. The mishna says ‘HaShem wanted to give reward to the Jews and so gave them 613 mitzvos.’ The Rambam asks (peirush hamishnayos end of Makkos) surely the opposite should be true – 613 mitzvos mean 613 ways to go wrong and be punished as a result; give us one easy mitzvah if He wanted to reward us? He answers that one can acquire Olam Habah via doing one mitzvah properly with the correct intentions; and giving us 613 is to guarantee that we do at least one of the mitzvos properly.
Secondly, ignoring the small mitzvos demonstrates something about the person. It shows that one is only interested in themselves/their reward for the mitzvah and thus one selects only those mitzvos that give the maximum reward – the big ones. This point actually answers a question that flows from the gemara we quoted above. We said that Jerusalem was destroyed for they did not go beyond the letter of the law in mitzvos. But we all know very well that sinas chinam (causeless hatred) caused the destruction (Yoma 9b); so why this contradiction? (see tosafos b.m. 30b) An answer is that they both stem from the same root – not going beyond the letter of the law shows that one is only prepared to ‘get the mitzvah over and done with’ – by doing only that which is required and not a measure more. They do not care about the mitzvah, they care about them doing the mitzvah – they in essence care about themselves. This selfishness and care for oneself and nothing exterior to the self was evidently the cause of the baseless hatred too; thus the 2 sins are one and the same.
Lastly, as examples of the above points, Rav Shach decided that one year’s post-Rosh HaShanah commitment would be to read benching from a siddur. Other mitzvos we might deem as small might be smiling at someone – which the gemara says is like giving them milk (not water, since milk both refreshes and gives nutrition; R Pinkus), or taking the time to say a bracha slowly and with thought, etc. .
Let’s end off with a story about the power of 1 mitzvah done properly (I heard it on a Rabbi Krohn tape)…
Years ago in London there was a yeshiva headed by Rabbi Moshe Schneider.
Now the yeshiva was going through hard times financially and the Rosh Yeshiva was strict about who he accepted donations from. But a deal was struck with a relatively local bakery (Grodzinski’s) by which the bakery would give the yeshiva any bread which was not sold by 3 days.
The bochurim had a rota to go and collect the bread, but the task was often loathed and slightly embarrassing too.
Thus, there was one bochur called Moshe Reichman who volunteered to fetch the bread whenever someone else did not want to. Now in this yeshiva there was another minhag; the Rosh Yeshiva was very particular that the boys should get up early in the morning, learn, and thus be fully awake for davening.
This meant waking up about 4 or 5 each morning, but more importantly, it meant that someone needed to wake up a but earlier and wake everyone else up. One bocur volunteered; called Moshe Shternbuch.
One day the Rosh Yeshiva banged on the bimah and said ‘Moshe Reichman who brings the bread, you will be extremely wealthy, and Moshe Shternbuch who woke people up to learn, the world will know of your Torah.’ Moshe Reichman went on to become one of the famously wealthy Reichman family, and Rav Moshe Shternbuch is now a senior member of the Jerusalem Beis Din Tzedek (Badatz), and author of many important halachic works.