The Talmud declares that wisdom depends on the ability to make distinctions. It is for this reason that havdalah, the ritual marking the end of the distinctive Shabbat day, is recited in the blessing beseeching G-d for wisdom (Brachot 33a). The modern world all too often fails this crucial test of wisdom, preferring sweeping generalizations to nuanced analysis. It is this inability to see the shades of gray that allows extremism to grow, painting broad stripes of black and white where none really exist.
We dare not blur the distinction between self-defense and terrorism, assailant and defender, sin and sinner, pain and suffering or happiness and pleasure. Even in regard to observance of the mitzvoth, it is important to distinguish between the "more important" and "less important" mitzvoth. Our Sages instruct us to be as careful with a light mitzvah as with a heavy mitzvah precisely because there are some mitzvoth that are heavier than others.
"And if, ekev, you listen to these laws, safeguarding and keeping them, then G-d your Lord will keep the covenant and love with which He made an oath to your fathers." (Devarim 7:12) Rashi explains the perplexing use of the word ekev literally a heel as a specific exhortation by the Torah to observe those “lighter” mitzvoth, those that tend to be trampled carelessly beneath our heels.
Each mitzvah is part of a system reflecting the Divine will. Ignoring a "lighter" mitzvah can have a serious impact on one’s overall religious personality, just as something as insignificant as a missing screw can bring down an airplane. Nonetheless, there is a hierarchy to mitzvoth that allows us to deal with the complexities of the real world, where important values often do clash.
Resolving conflicts between different mitzvoth is the role of the posek, halachic decisor, who must prioritize and balance these conflicting values to reach a practical course of action. In the real world, these conflicts must be resolved. Either we allow the risky medical procedure as an attempt to prolong life, or we don't because we fear death on the operating table. However, there are conflicts that do not lend themselves to real resolutions—nor should they.
"And now, Israel, what does G-d want of you? Only that you fear G-d your Lord, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve G-d with all your heart and all your soul." (Devarim 10:12) The Jew is commanded both to fear G-d and to love Him. These two mitzvoth are contradictory, beyond the inherent difficulties in attaining these feelings towards our Creator. Love and fear are opposite emotions. Love connotes closeness, whereas fear bespeaks distance. The Torah obligates us to fear, but not to love, our parents. Children and parents are not equals. It is the exact opposite regarding a spouse; marriage can only succeed if it is based on love and equality. The Netziv claims that the tension in the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivka was due to the fact that Rivka was too much in awe of Yitzchak. Fear has no place in a marriage (see Haemek Davar, Breisheet 24:65).
Despite—or perhaps, because of—the inherent tension involved, we must find the proper balance as we strive to develop both fear and love of Heaven. We must be both close to and distant from G-d. At times, we may feel greater fear and awe towards our Creator; at other times it may be love that is dominant.
The commentaries explain that the positive commandments help develop our love and closeness to G-d. By actively serving Him and by helping those who are created in His image, we display our love and desire to get close to G-d. It is through the "negative" mitzvoth, by keeping our distance from prohibited activities and humbling ourselves before His word, that we display our fear of G-d.
"The beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d." (Tehillim 111:10) Our relationship with G-d must begin with yirah, fear and awe; with an awareness that G-d is our complete Master and that our duty is to be obedient to His command. Yet ultimately, the goal is for us to love our Creator. We must be excited to embrace Him, to follow in His footsteps, and to emulate Him. "Just as G-d is merciful, so, too, must you be merciful." When a positive mitzvah and negative mitzvah come into direct conflict—when the only tallit available is made of forbidden sha'atnez, to use the Talmud's example—it is the positive mitzvah that prevails. Ultimately love is greater than fear.
The mitzvoth were given to benefit humanity, to elevate us and to purify us. "G-d wanted to bestow favour on Israel: hence He gave them Torah and mitzvoth in abundant measure." (Makkot 23b) May we merit appreciating the full range of beauty of the mitzvoth as we grow in our love and fear towards G-d.