Parshat Ekev presents us with a fascinating challenge regarding the observance of the mitzvoth. Rashi, referencing Midrash Tanchuma translates Ekev as heel, rather than the preferred translation of the conditional, rendering the verse to men “It shall be that if you heed the commandments…” Rashi reads the verse to mean that if you practice the lighter mitzvoth (that a person treads with his heel [casually]), then God will keep for you the covenant.
Rashi’s interpretation opens up for us a whole panoply of questions surrounding the nature and quality of Mitzvot. If the law is divine, then how do we really determine which mitzvoth are “lighter” and which carry more weight? Scholars such as Ephraim Urbach point out that our sources are not totally uniform in assessing the value of the mitzvoth. In some instances it would appear that there is a universal value to the commandments yet in other places it would appear as though there is a relative value to the commandments. He references for example the different rewards and punishments associated with the various mitzvoth; on the other hand Urbach points to Pirkei Avot which admonishes us to be heedful of the minor mitzvoth as of the weighty , “for you know not the reward” (Avot 2:1)
It is probably comfortable to avoid the problem of assessing value to the mitzvoth by treating them all with the same weightiness. By doing so, however we avoid the responsibility of making choices. Many of us are aren’t comfortable with this and wish to approach the performance of mitzvoth with the critical understanding of its place in the mitzvah hierarchy. Understanding that there isn’t one approach offers a challenge to the “shomer mitzvoth” in valuating the mitzvoth. Why are some mitzvoth considered lighter than others? Does this change with time or circumstances? In other words, is it possible that at a particular time in history and due to circumstances a weightier mitzvah can be reduced to the status of a lighter mitzvah? Can personal circumstances also have a role in determining the weightiness of a mitzvah?
We live in a society that is the most free and open in human history. Accompanying those freedoms is the responsibility of making the right choices in order to safeguard those freedoms. Being able to make the right choices adds meaning, value and appreciation to our freedom. It would appear to be the same for the practice of mitzvoth. Understanding them and making the right choices will make the practice more meaningful.