Extraordinary Mitzvah!
One of the most unusual Biblical commandments is the one which can only be performed when one is unaware that he or she is performing it!
This is the Mitzvah of Shikcha, forgetfulness.
“When you reap your harvest in your field, and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not turn back to take it; it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan and the widow, so that G‑d your G‑d, will bless you in all your handiwork”
One is struck by the extraordinary nature of this Mitzvah. In all other instances, a Mitzvah is an act that we perform with intent, feeling and total awareness that we are doing something in the service of G‑d. What is the possible object of a Mitzvah that is restricted to forgetfulness? If the Torah sought additional ways of helping the needy, it could have found so many other creative avenues of giving. Why the need for a contribution that is based solely on forgetfulness?
Moreover, it seems that this Mitzvah was designed specifically for those who suffer from memory lapses. Why should people who will never or rarely forget be denied the opportunity to fulfill this Mitzvah?
It’s Not About Us!
One approach to finding an answer to this question is that the Torah wanted to highlight the way in which we deal with Mitzvos that involve helping others. When we do any Mitzvah there are two effects. First, the Mitzvah, by virtue of our fulfilling His will, brings us closer to G‑d. Second, the Mitzvah has a positive effect on us and, indeed, its repercussions can be felt throughout the world. In the words of the Talmud, as codified by Maimonides: “Even one Mitzvah can tip the scales between good and evil and bring salvation to the entire world.”
However, while all Mitzvos have this dual effect, there is a difference between the person-to-G‑d Mitzvos and the Mitzvos between one person and another. The Ba’al Shem Tov explains (Keser Shem Tov-Hosafos#214) that when we perform a so-called social Mitzvah we should focus primarily on the welfare of the recipient of our largesse, and less on the spiritual and material benefits we enjoy when we help someone else. The Mitzvah is not about us but about how we can help the other.
This is one of the reasons we do not recite a blessing before giving tzedakah. Reciting the blessing can take our concentration away from the one who is in need while we reflect on the spiritual meaning of the blessing.
To underscore and dramatize this emphasis on the recipient, the Torah gave us a Mitzvah which we can only do when we have no conscious involvement in doing it. This is the Mitzvah of Shikcha. One does not feel any spiritual or physical pleasure or personal benefit because, by definition, this Mitzvah can only be performed when we are not aware that we are performing it. There is no room for any subjectivity in its performance.
All-Encompassing Reach of Mitzvos
Another approach to understanding why the Torah gave us a Mitzvah that can only be observed through forgetfulness lies in the all-encompassing scope and reach of Mitzvos. There is no place, time or situation in which we cannot connect to G‑d through the observance of a particular Mitzvah. The 613 Mitzvos and their offshoots involve or relate to myriads of situations. It is virtually impossible to find a situation in which one cannot do a Mitzvah.
Mitzvos are designed to take any and every place, object, time and situation and turn them into something holy and G‑dly.
An early work of Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah, divides all of existence into world-space, year-time and soul-energy. Mitzvos are directed to each of these elements that make up existence. There are Mitzvos that make our space more spiritual and Divine. There are Mitzvos that endow time with holiness. And there are Mitzvos that alter our personalities; making us more spiritual and G‑dly.
However, even when it seems that we cannot do a Mitzvah, the Torah finds a way to connect even that unpromising situation to a Mitzvah.
The following story, recounted by the Previous Rebbe, will illustrate how even when one cannot do a certain Mitzvah he can still be connected to it:
The Previous Rebbe was incarcerated in the notorious Spalerka Prison for his activities on behalf of Jewish education in the former Soviet Union. At one point when he refused to cooperate with the prison authorities they asked him, “Do you know where you are?” His reply was, “I am in a place that doesn’t require a Mezuzah [because it an undignified place].” The Rebbe explained that the Previous Rebbe wanted to connect to the Mitzvah of Mezuzah even when he was in prison by invoking the law that one does not affix a Mezuzah to a prison.
The story is told of two great Chassidic brothers, Reb Zushe and Reb Elimelech, who were thrown into a dungeon, with a noisome barrel of refuse in the center of the room. For a moment they were crestfallen because they could not learn Torah or pray in that polluted environment. Reb Zushe then realized that the same G‑d who commands us to study Torah and pray also commands us not to study Torah or pray in this situation. “We are now no less engaged in the fulfillment of G‑d’s will as we were when we studied Torah and prayed,” Reb Zushe concluded, and they broke out in joyous song and dance!
Turning Forgetfulness into a Mitzvah
If there is no situation or condition which is not connected to a Mitzvah, forgetfulness, a very human condition, is no exception.
One of the weaknesses of the human condition is our forgetfulness. The Chassidic classic Tanya explains that forgetfulness comes from the strengthening of our Animal Souls. Indeed, the Torah admonishes us repeatedly not to forget what happened at Mount Sinai. There are, in fact, six things we are commanded to remember every day.
One of the functions of many of the Mitzvos is to help us tame, refine and ultimately transform our Animal Souls.  It follows that there should be a Mitzvah that is geared specifically to the Animal Soul’s tendency to forget.  And, in fact, there is just such a Mitzvah.
This is the Mitzvah of Shikcha, which when performed turns an otherwise negative trait into something positive.
It may be suggested that when the trait of forgetfulness is refined it helps us forget the pain and travail associated with Galus. Part of the suffering we endure in exile is the fact that we remember the negative experiences, which have become seared into our consciousness and may leave us emotionally paralyzed. By transforming forgetfulness into a Mitzvah we are empowered to forget the negative traits we saw in others.
Touching Sublime Holiness
There is a yet a third and deeper understanding of the Mitzvah of shikcha-forgetfulness.
The Alter Rebbe, in his work, Likkutei Torah (Devarim 99c), explains that we are able to generate three levels of G‑dly light through the study of Torah and the observance of Mitzvos.
Torah is internalized and “digested” by our brain and is compared to food. Torah as “food” derives from G‑d’s intellectual attributes.
Mitzvos are likened to garments which surround and encompass us and derive from G‑d’s will, which transcends His intellect.
However, there are two categories of Mitzvos: Most Mitzvos can only be done with one’s will and intent. The second category are the Mitzvos that can only be performed without one’s conscious intent, such as the Mitzvah of Shikcha. While most Mitzvos are compared to a garment, this category is likened to a house, which encompasses the human being from the distance. It represents the drive within G‑d’s will that is elusive and utterly transcendent; beyond the transcendent level of most Mitzvos. .
The Alter Rebbe cites a story (Tosephta, Pe’ah chapter 3) of a certain chassid who rejoiced after he fulfilled the mitzvah of Shikcha. He regarded the observance of this Mitzvah as a heavenly gift since one cannot prepare for it and rejoiced with it more than for any other Mitzvah.
In the Alter Rebbe’s analysis, it is precisely because this Mitzvah does not involve forethought and intent that it derives from a more sublime G‑dly source.
Parallel to Moshiach
There is a parallel to the coming of Moshiach. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) relates that Moshiach will come when we are distracted from his arrival.
The Alter Rebbe (Tanya, Iggeres Hakodesh 4) explains that this does not mean that we must stop thinking of Moshiach in order for him to come but rather that no matter what pre-conceived notions we may have about his coming, we will realize that it is infinitely more than that. Moshiach is above the limitations of logic.
This, we may suggest, is comparable to the Mitzvah of Shikcha. No matter how much we prepare for it we can never reach it. It is a gift from above.
So, while we must make every effort to anticipate and prepare for Moshiach’s coming and the ultimate, Final Redemption, we must realize that it will surpass our wildest dreams and our most advanced understanding of what Moshiach and Redemption are all about.