Become a Mitzvah Agent: HaHodesh 5779

Our third Torah reading this Shabbat (Ex. 12:1-20) is the fourth and final special maftir related to Purim and Pesah. As with the entire complex of Passover rituals there is an intentional blending of individual and group identity. When each individual Israelite and then Jew participates in these rituals, they gently detach themselves from their particular personal context and attach themselves to the fate of a nation. Family by family, country by country, century by century, we weave together a polity that transcends time and space. In v. 6 we read of the Paschal lamb, You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight.

This is a powerful and poetic image, but the rabbis raise an obvious objection. It couldn’t be that every Israelite slaughtered a lamb—that would be far too much meat! Yet the verse says that “all” of the Israelites “shall slaughter it.” In Bavli Pesahim 78b, the sages take this to mean that even one paschal lamb would suffice for the entire nation of Israel, even if there wasn’t an olive’s bulk of meat for each person. In other words, everyone needs to participate in Pesah, but even in ancient times the main point was never to chew on the actual meat.

A second lesson from this minor textual tension takes us into a major area of Jewish law: agency. Because the verse says that “all” of the Israelites would slaughter the lamb, which was clearly impossible, the rabbis learn (b. Kiddushin 41b) that the one person who does the deed functions as an agent for all of the others. This idea is expressed as: A person’s agent is considered to be like them (ששלוחו של אדם כמותו). When an agent acts on behalf of a principal, it as if the principal performs the action. This concept plays out in many contexts. Mishnah Brakhot (5:5) says that a prayer leader who stumbles is a bad omen for the entire congregation, for a person’s agent is considered to be like them. Tosefta Taanit learns from the passage about the new moon offering, which is commanded to all of Israel, that the priests are our proxy, for a person’s agent is considered to be like them.

This principle is very useful, since we appoint agents all the time, from the person who sells our hametz, to the mohel who performs brit milah on behalf of parents, to the people who read Torah on behalf of the olim and much more. Still, there are limits to the principle of agency. An important restriction on agency is the rule, “there is no agency for transgression” (אין שליח לדבר עבירה). For example, if A says to B, “Go get me an ox from the barn of C,” and B goes and steals C’s ox, B is responsible for their own action and cannot claim to have simply followed A’s orders. As the Talmud puts it (b. Kiddushin 42b), “If the master speaks, and a student speaks, to whom do we listen?” God is the master, and the agent remains responsible to obey divine law, regardless of the instructions of the principal. It would seem therefore, that agency breaks down at the border of transgression. When a principal appoints an agent for a legal act, then the “agent is like the principal.” But if it turns out that the action is illegal, then the agent is liable for their own misdeed.

There are lessons both positive and negative about leadership in this teaching. Leaders are essentially agents, representing many people who depend on their skill, strength and good judgment. Sometimes the pressure is too much, and a person in leadership fails in their mission. That can be a lonely place indeed because when the agent violates the law, they cannot excuse their conduct as merely following instructions. This aspect of agency should remind all who enter public service of the importance of acting with integrity and care.

But there is a very positive side to acting as an agent for others. Agents have the privilege of doing good not only on their own behalf but on behalf of others. This might include giving out tzedakah donated by others. It might mean leading others in prayer, or in song, or in pursuit of justice. The rabbis calls this activity מזכה את הרבים, giving merit to the many, and there can be no higher honor.

Serving as a shaliah mitzvah, or agent for others is a serious matter but it should also be done with joy. Bringing a sense of delight to sacred service can teach others the emotional aspect of worship. Many mitzvot involve physical actions, and others are accomplished solely through speech. But ultimately they all begin in the mind and in the heart—with the desire to serve God through true and kind actions in the world. I don’t get discouraged when some people say that there aren’t Conservative Jews, only Conservative clergy. First, it is false. But second, there is nothing new or negative about the appointment of some people to act on behalf of others, so long as they do so with humility, with integrity and with love. When a small group acts on behalf of a larger group, they model devotion and righteousness, creating openings for others to join the effort and to become leaders as well.

This is the essence of HaHodesh hazeh lakhem—this month is for all of us a new beginning, a time for action, solidarity, opportunity and release. Let us learn how to act for others, and then invite them to act for themselves, for their community and for the entire people of Israel. That is the greatest joy of all.

שמות פרק יב פסוק ו

וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת עַד אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה וְשָׁחֲטוּ אֹתוֹ כֹּל קְהַל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת פסחים דף עח עמוד ב

דתניא, רבי נתן אומר: מניין שכל ישראל יוצאין בפסח אחד – תלמוד לומר ושחטו אתו כל קהל עדת ישראל בין הערבים, וכי כל הקהל שוחטין? והלא אין שוחט אלא אחד! אלא מלמד שכל ישראל יוצאין בפסח אחד.

רש”י מסכת פסחים דף עח עמוד ב. יוצאין בפסח אחד – ואף על פי שאין בו כזית לכל אחד, אלמא: אכילה לא מעכבא.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף מא עמוד ב

נפקא ליה מדרבי יהושע בן קרחה, דא”ר יהושע בן קרחה: מנין ששלוחו של אדם כמותו? שנאמר: ושחטו אותו כל קהל עדת ישראל בין הערבים, וכי כל הקהל כולן שוחטין? והלא אינו שוחט אלא אחד! אלא מכאן, ששלוחו של אדם כמותו.

רמב”ם הלכות שלוחין ושותפין פרק א הלכה א

האומר לשלוחו צא ומכור לי קרקע או מטלטלין או קנה לי הרי ב זה מוכר ולוקח ועושה שליחותו וכל מעשיו קיימין, ואין העושה שליח צריך קניין ולא עדים אלא באמירה בלבד בינו לבין חבירו, ואין צריכין עדים אלא לגלות הדבר אם כפר אחד מהם כשאר כל הטענות.

משנה מסכת ברכות פרק ה, משנה ה.

המתפלל וטעה סימן רע לו ואם שליח צבור הוא סימן רע לשולחיו מפני ששלוחו של אדם כמותו.

תוספתא מסכת תענית (ליברמן) פרק ג.

צו את בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם את קרבני לחמי אי איפשר לומ’ כל ישראל אלא מלמד ששלוחו של אדם כמותו. 

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה ג.

ויקחו להם. וכי כלן היו לוקחין אלא לעשות שלוחו של אדם כמותו מכאן אמרו שלוחו של אדם כמותו:

בבלי קידושין דף מב עמוד ב.

והא דתנן: השולח את הבעירה ביד חרש שוטה וקטן – פטור מדיני אדם וחייב בדיני שמים, שילח ביד פיקח – פיקח חייב; ואמאי? נימא: שלוחו של אדם כמותו! שאני התם, דאין שליח לדבר עבירה, דאמרינן: דברי הרב ודברי תלמיד – דברי מי שומעים?