Ibn Ezra adds to the pasuk: “You shall sanctify yourselves because I am Hashem your G-d. I gave you mitzvos and statutes to guard (and observe), so that you will maintain your holiness.” In other words, the mitzvos which we observe protect us. The greater our affiliation with and observance of mitzvos, the greater is our protection from failure and falling into the abyss of sin and spiritual contamination. One night, quite late, Horav Akiva Eiger, zl, Rav of Posen and the preeminent Torah giant of his generation, heard knocking at his door. As Rav of the city, the people knew that he was the 24/7 address for every Jew in need. The fact that it was late at night, when most Jews had retired for the night, did not matter. The Rav was surely awake. He was always learning. The Gaon went to his door to find two women standing there: a mother and her daughter. They stood by the door weeping bitterly.
“What is wrong?” the Gaon asked them. “Our father (elderly woman’s husband) leased an inn from a gentile landowner. This past winter was outrageously cold and snowy. As a result, people did not go out. Without customers, we have no income; without income, we have no rent money. The problem is: the poritz, landowner, accepts no excuses. He demands payment. My father was thrown into the dungeon and given an ultimatum: two days to pay – or else. One day has passed.” They then proceeded to continue their incessant weeping.
The Gaon’s reply was, “Wait here until I return.” He called his son, and they both left the house in search of funds to help this poor Jew. Rav Akiva Eiger covered half the city, trudging through the frigid snow, braving the biting cold wind, all for the sake of a Jew whom he did not even know. He “chanced” upon a bar (The word is in quotes because, as frum Jews, we know that nothing happens by chance. Indeed, the word should not be in our lexicon.). The establishment was packed with men imbibing to their heart’s content. Understandably, the patrons of this bar were not the average shul-going, Shabbos observant members of the Jewish community. The Gaon was confronted with a quandary: Should he enter the establishment and plead with them, attempting to appeal to their Yiddishe neshamos, souls, the pintele Yid that we each possess? He decided that, since a Jew’s life was in danger, he would take his chances.
Rav Akiva Eiger walked into the bar and placed himself in middle of the room. “Rabbosai, I need your help. One of our own is wallowing in a dungeon and, unless I raise the funds to redeem him, he will be tortured, and perhaps worse. Please help. Whoever saves one Jew it is considered as if he sustained the entire world!” Their wallets opened up and, within a few moments, these far from religiously observant Jews produced sufficient funds to save their brother.
The Gaon took their money and turned back and began admonishing them concerning their lack of observance. The men were shocked. Their leader spoke up, “First, the Rav empties our wallets, and then he has the temerity to give us words of mussar, admonishment?”
The Gaon replied, “It is my responsibility as Rav to see to it that every member of our community (Posen) follows along in the correct and righteous path. You have no idea how much I value and appreciate each and every one of you. I have enormous pain in my heart resulting from your spiritual infamy. You have distanced yourselves from Hashem, and this troubles me.” With these words, Rav Akiva Eiger burst into bitter, uncontrolled weeping. A few minutes passed, and he added, “When I entered the bar I saw you in your degradation, I was prepared then and there to admonish you for your less than acceptable behavior. Then I recalled the words of Chazal, ‘Just as it is a mitzvah to say what will be heard (and accepted), it is likewise a mitzvah not to say what will not be heard (Yevamos 65b).’ In other words, it is better not to speak/admonish when the subject will, at best, ignore you. We gain nothing by giving mussar to someone whom we know will not listen. Indeed, it might enrage him and distance him even further. Now that you all have merited to save a Jewish life, however, I am certain that the light of the mitzvah has illuminated and warmed your hearts to the point that it is incumbent upon me to arouse you to return and embrace your religious roots.” The words of the Gaon had an impact, and a number of those in attendance altered their spiritual trajectory and became observant Jews. This goes to show that, more than what we do for the mitzvah, the mitzvah does for us.