Why Mitzvot? Why bother?

July 15, 2014

I woke up this morning feeling that something was missing from my last post. I realized that while last night I answered the question about the 613 mitzvot, I forgot to include something important: why keep mitzvot? Why bother with a long list of “do’s” and “don’t’s,” many of which don’t even apply in our century?

The answer to that question is imbedded in the words of blessing that we say before doing many mitzvot:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot

We keep mitzvot [observe the commandments] to make us holy, to continue the process of sanctifying our lives.

In the 21st century western world, there are no kosher cops to swoop down and arrest you for working on Shavuot. There are no mitzvah minders to report you to the Jewish Central Control if you choose not to say the bedtime Shema. Individual Jewish communities may employ peer pressure, or even (God forbid) violence to attempt to enforce their particular understanding of a mitzvah but even in the Jewish state of Israel, if you eat a bacon cheeseburger while wearing a bikini in public on Yom Kippur, it’s basically your own business.

There are some mitzvot, called Mishpatim [Laws,] that are self-evident rules for an orderly society. We may argue about the interpretation of “Do not commit murder” and “Do not steal” but most civil societies have incorporated them into their laws. If you rob banks and get caught at it, the kosher cops won’t get you but the regular city police will!

Other mitzvot, called Edot, [Testimonies], call to mind the Jewish worldview and story. We do them to remember narratives and to continue learning from those narratives. That’s the reason we eat matzah on Passover: we remember the Exodus from Egypt, and in doing so, continue to apply the lessons learned in our present day world.

The last group of mitzvot, Chukim [Decrees] appear to have no reason at all other than that it says in Torah that God commanded them. For instance, we can talk about possible reasons “why” the laws of kashrut, but really, that is speculation. God said, “Don’t eat pigs.” (Leviticus 11:7) Again, there are no mitzvah moderators to come get you if you chow down on pork BBQ. But Jews can argue (for hours!) about how exactly to interpret the mitzvot. (OK, the rule about pigs is pretty clear cut.  But what if it comes into conflict with respect for a parent who insists on serving bacon and who feels hurt if you don’t eat it? There’s always room for a discussion.)

So why bother? Again, it’s for the pursuit of holiness, and the mitzvot are a framework within which we seek holiness. If you ask a Jew why he keeps a particular one of the chukim, he might say, “It’s the tradition” or “In solidarity with other Jews” or “it’s how I was raised” or “it’s a spiritual discipline.” Or she may say, “To heal the broken world.”

Keeping all the available mitzvot all the time is a huge, life-consuming task. Ask anyone who is shlepping children (“be fruitful and multiply”) to Hebrew school (“teach your children Torah”) while reading labels carefully to keep kosher (“Don’t eat stuff on this list”) and getting ready for Passover (Oy Vey!). Because not only must she (or he!) do all that, he (or she!) must do it while being honest it all dealings, kind to animals, respectful to parents, without embarrassing anyone, not giving scandal to outsiders… on and on. If you look at the whole list, it’s like juggling 613 (or even just 245) plates in the air.

That’s the tricky bit about a life of mitzvot: observant Jews are always on the brink of failure, if not sitting on our behinds in the middle of the broken plates. Perfection is not the point. The point is the pursuit of a better Jew, and a better world – holiness.

You will meet Jews who have completely given up on most of it. You will meet Jews who say, “I will keep this mitzvah, but I can’t possibly do that one at this time.” You will meet Jews who say, “I am only going to try to keep these mitzvot, and the rest of them just seem like overkill.” You will meet Jews who say, “I disagree with the traditional interpretation of that mitzvah, so I am going to follow a different interpretation.” You may be one of those Jews – actually, in a long Jewish life it would be very surprising if you weren’t one of them sometimes.

Don’t judge any of them. Nor take it to heart if someone says to you that you are a “bad Jew” if you don’t juggle all the plates, their way, all the time. But you may find, as you add one mitzvah after another to your life, slowly and carefully, that you like the changes you see, in yourself, in your home, and in the world.

Start with one. Change the world.


Ask the Rabbi: 613 Mitzvot? Where?

July 15, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asks: “I know we’re supposed to ‘do mitzvot’, but what are they? Where is the list?”

We often hear that there are 613 mitzvot [commandments, sacred duties] in the Torah. For many of us this inevitably brings up the question: can I see the list? Behind this question is the worry, “How am I doing?” or another worry, “Have I missed something?” After all, 613 is a LOT.

The first mention of “613 mitzvot” is in the Gemara, Makkot 23b, where it quickly becomes clear that like many numbers in Torah, 613 is as much or more a symbol than an enumeration. (If you are curious about the discussion, click the link.) 365 is the number of days in a solar year, and it also happens to be the number of negative (“Thou shalt not”) commandments. The rabbis believe 248 to be the number of parts of the human body. Add them together, (think: time + humanity) and voilá: 613 mitzvot. 

Having come up with a great number that both tells us that the mitzvot have to do with all human concerns, and that also says “a LOT,” various rabbis through history have provided us with lists of “The 613 Mitzvot.” Our clue that the number came before the lists is that the lists differ.

That said, it can be satisfying and comforting to see an actual list. Probably the most famous is that of Maimonides, in the Sefer HaMitzvot [The Book of the Mitzvot.] If you click the link and study the list, you will discover (likely to your relief) that the number of mitzvot that actually apply to you, a 21st century Jew, is much less than 613. 

One Orthodox scholar, the Chofetz Chaim, has written that there are 194 negative and 77 positive commandments that are available to us to observe without a functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and that of those commandments, 26 apply only if one is living in the Land of Israel. By that reckoning, a 21st century Diaspora Jewish male of the priestly line (Kohen) need worry only about 245 mitzvot. Within Orthodoxy, even fewer of those mitzvot apply to non-Kohanim and even fewer to women.

How can a liberal Jew make sense of Maimonides’ list? One way is to use it as a template for growth. Take each mitzvah, and look it over a bit. Ask:

1. Do I understand this mitzvah? (if not, study; if so, continue)

2. Is this a mitzvah I currently observe? 

3. If I do observe it, how’s that going? How does it mesh with my other observances? How could I improve, either with my observance or the choices I make about this mitzvah? Do I want to learn more?

4. If I don’t observe it, how’s that going? Why don’t I observe it? Do I feel guilty about not observing it? Have I ever tried observing it, or do I assume I’d feel persecuted/silly/deprived if I observed it? What do I really know about this mitzvah from a reliable source? Do I want to learn more?

5. In either case, how does my observance/non-observance affect my relationship with my Jewish community? Does it separate me from my community, or bring me more into tune with it?

6. Is this a mitzvah I might want to observe someday, but not yet? 

7. Do I want or need to talk to someone about this?

After looking over those questions, if you feel satisfied for now relative to that mitzvah, move on to another mitzvah on the list. (Nowhere is it written that you have to follow a particular order.)

Now, if you are reading this and feeling panicky, let me suggest something from the original passage in Mattot: “Isaiah [came] and reduced them [the commandments] to two, as it is said, “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Maintain justice and do what is right.’” (Is 56:1)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson - Some rights reserved


“These People Scare Me!”

June 30, 2014
"Immigrant Rights" by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.

“Immigrant Rights” by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.

“These people are too numerous!”

The Torah portion Balak opens with the worries of Balak, son of Zippor, the king of Moab. He’s frantic about the Hebrews – there are so many of them! So he sends a message to Balaam, a powerful magician, saying:

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. 6 Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22: 5-6.

Does this sound familiar? Remember back at the beginning of Exodus, when the Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” said:

“Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.” – Exodus 1:9-10

One of the things I love about Torah is the deep insight into human nature. It is an ordinary human impulse, when we see strangers becoming “too numerous”  or “too mighty” to start worrying that they may be a threat to our well-being.

The genius of Torah is that in describing a normal reaction to something that happens from time to time (“Too many outsiders!”) it chooses to do so from the point of view of the strangers. The Israelites had to leave Egypt because the Egyptian Pharaoh had the normal sort of fears about strangers. Now the Moabite prince is worried about the same thing. We get a clear picture, reading this story, identifying with the Israelites, of what it is to be unwanted outsiders.

Interwoven with these stories we are given commandments:

Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 22:21

and again (many times, actually):

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. – Exodus 19:34

It is good to recognize human nature; that’s reality. But Torah calls us to something higher than ordinary impulses. It calls us to holiness, which is an opposite of ordinary. The test of this comes when we try to live in the ordinary world. Not everyone plays by these rules!

Living a life of Torah means living a life of risk. Will those strangers take advantage of me? Will there be enough to get by? One of the ways to see the Talmud as a series of conversations about (among many other things) practical conversations about how we will live this out in the world. Lucky for us, we can access thousands of years of discussion on how to live the commandments in the world.

Fulfilling ritual commandments is challenging. Fulfilling these ethical commandments that challenge our very nature is the work of a lifetime.


Update on the Shave

June 23, 2014
Too Much Hair!

Too Much Hair!

It’s been about 3 months since I shaved my head to raise funds for pediatric cancer research.  You can still donate to the fund by clicking the link, and I and a bunch of rabbis with funny hair will be deeply grateful.

The shave itself was a big surprise. I didn’t expect that it would feel so liberating.

Growing my hair back has been a surprise too. Who would have guessed that I wouldn’t want it back?

I have kept growing it this far for dear friends who wanted me to have hair – my own hair, not a wig – under their chuppah. They are officially married now, and I fulfilled my promise. I held off on going to a barber today because (1) I had to drive to Boston and didn’t really have time to go find a barber and (2) I thought I might have second thoughts.

Nope.  This scrubby hair with its weird widow’s peak is making me crazy.  It’s long enough now that I get (horrors) HAT HAIR. Off it goes, as soon as I can find someone to do it.

Funny thing about mitzvot: you never know where they’ll take you. I had no idea I would like being bald.


Moderation and Mitzvah

June 18, 2014
"Candles" by Lars Hammer (some rights reserved)

“Candles” by Lars Hammer (some rights reserved)

A reader asked:

Rabbi, do you think that it’s acceptable to use repurposed items for home ritual such as Shabbat? Right now, living on a shoestring budget, I don’t really have the money for $200 candlesticks or a Kiddush set for Shabbat, so I’m using items I already had in the house (for now, at least). Sometimes I worry that this isn’t really as acceptable as I want it to be. Any thoughts?

It’s fine to use ordinary candlesticks for Shabbat candlesticks, or to use a plain wine glass for kiddush. I often use tea lights for Shabbat “candlesticks” when I travel, because they are light, hard to break and easy to pack. In a hospital setting, where fire is out of the question, we might use electric lights that are shaped like candles. The mitzvah is lighting lights, not buying fancy candlesticks.

It sounds like you are dealing with two competing Jewish values. One is hiddur mitzvah, the beautifying of a mitzvah, which is a praiseworthy thing to do. Beautifying the mitzvah broadens its appeal to our five senses and the pleasure we take in the mitzvah.

The other Jewish value here is m’tinut [moderation.] The great 12th century scholar Maimonides argued that moderation in all things was one of the marks of a chacham [Torah scholar.] It is not good to be a miser nor it is good to be a big spender. Rather, we should seek the level he called the Sh’vil HaZahav, the Golden Mean. This is true for every aspect of life: what we eat, what we wear, our use of time and money, even our choices for study. The exact standards will vary depending on our means and situation.

If the only candlesticks you own have other religious symbols on them, then it might be better to get some from the hardware store, or use tea lights. But there is no requirement that you spend large sums of money to perform this mitzvah.

My first havdalah “set” consisted of some foil to hold the candle, a sprig from a rosemary bush for spices, and a shotglass for the wine. The only purchased item was the candle, which had to have multiple wicks. Even for that, there are inexpensive options.

There are some mitzvot that are very expensive: Torah education, keeping a kosher home, making aliyah (moving to Israel), having children, to name just a few. But that’s because of the intrinsic cost, not the extras. Hiddur mitzvah by its nature is an extra, something done to make things a bit nicer. It’s a good thing – in moderation!


Can You Name 50 Mitzvot?

June 17, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zRecently, one of my readers over on twitter read “Living on the Mitzvah Plan” and asked for a list of mitzvot for working the plan.

If you haven’t read the article, the gist of it is in this paragraph:

The Mitzvah Plan isn’t just for depression. Bored? Do a mitzvah. Frustrated? Do a mitzvah. Insomnia? Do a mitzvah. What, you did it and you are still bored, frustrated or awake? Do another mitzvah. And another. Keep doing mitzvot until you feel better or the world changes. Then do another mitzvah.

The idea is that mitzvot can keep us busy when we need a plan for what to do. They can keep us busy and out of trouble. They can take us outside ourselves and give us some reason to feel better about ourselves.

So, @travelincatdoc, here’s a list for you, with examples:

  1. Care for the body (bathe, brush teeth, exercise, get enough sleep)
  2. Pay a bill. (Paying workers on time is a mitzvah.)
  3. Study some Torah (anything from reading a little to actual study of a commentary)
  4. Smile when you greet someone. (You don’t have to feel friendly, just act friendly.)
  5. Give tzedakah. Even very small amounts count.
  6. Say the appropriate blessing before eating. English is OK.
  7. Learn the appropriate blessing to say before eating.
  8. Refrain from participating in gossip (yes, NOT doing some things is a mitzvah.)
  9. Feed or water your animals.
  10. Befriend a stranger.
  11. Write a thank you note to someone.
  12. Say Shema when you get up and when you go to bed.
  13. Honor your parents.
  14. Do some small act of kindness for someone.
  15. Visit someone who is sick, or give them a call.
  16. Visit a mourner, or give them a call.
  17. Attend a funeral or shiva house.
  18. Attend a wedding and compliment the bride.
  19. Attend a Torah study class.
  20. Drive the car with an awareness of all the lives in your hands.
  21. Fix something at home that was unsafe.
  22. Teach a Jewish child to swim.
  23. Teach Torah to another Jew.
  24. Join a local minyan for weekday prayers, even once.
  25. Keep Shabbat.
  26. Keep the holidays.
  27. Apologize to someone you have injured.
  28. Accept an apology.
  29. Be honest in business.
  30. Pass up an opportunity to steal something.
  31. Help someone who is injured.
  32. Stand up for someone who needs help.
  33. Let go of a grudge.
  34. If you find lost property, try to return it.
  35. Treat a stranger kindly.
  36. Bless after eating. (Birkat HaMazon)
  37. Refrain from embarrassing another person.
  38. Refrain from hitting or cursing your parent.
  39. Get married.
  40. Tell the truth kindly.
  41. Rest on Shabbat.
  42. Rejoice on Shabbat and festivals.
  43. Repay a debt.
  44. Keep your word.
  45. Fulfill promises quickly.
  46. Do not leave something around the house that may cause injury.
  47. Refrain from murder.
  48. Refrain from cursing the ruler or government of your country.
  49. Refrain from idolatry.
  50. Love God.

Many of those commandments are worth their own articles. Are there any that surprise you? Any you’d like to add?

 

 


A Blessing for Driving?

May 31, 2014
8459097691_47eb5db5be_z

Bicyclist in Traffic

Pikuach nefesh (pee-KOO-ahch NEH-fesh) is a Jew’s obligation to save a life in jeopardy. This commandment is taken so seriously in the tradition that it overrides many other considerations. To preserve a life, it is permissible to remove organs from a dead body (otherwise, Jews are forbidden to disturb a body except to wash it, clothe it decently, and bury it.) To preserve a life, one may travel or otherwise violate the Sabbath.

The obligation is based in the Torah: “Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) This mitzvah was honed and expanded through many discussions in the Talmud, and it is carefully spelled out in the codes of halakhah (Jewish law.)

Often when we speak of it, we think of desperate heroic situations: the weeping widow signs off on organ donation after her husband’s death, a sick child is rushed to a hospital on Shabbat, or a teen uses CPR skills to keep someone alive until the EMT’s arrive.

Today I was reminded that it also applies to a situation so mundane we rarely pause to notice it. A friend posted to his facebook timeline:

“Most people don’t get into their cars thinking, ‘I hope nobody hits and kills me today.’ I cannot get on my bike without having that thought.”

It’s not an unreasonable fear. I heard it from my son, too, back when he was commuting on a motorcycle. And what city dweller has not had a close call as a pedestrian? Bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians are what traffic experts call “vulnerable road users” (VRU’s) and recently they have accounted for more than 10,000 fatalities a year on US roads. The average new car weighed 4,000 lbs in 2010. When two tons of steel encounter a fragile human body, there’s no question who is going to get hurt.

Then, of course, there are the other people in cars: despite the tons of steel surrounding passengers, riding in a car is pretty dangerous too. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million were injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2010. Using the other figure for VRU’s, that leaves 22,999 people in cars who were killed in 2010.

Automobile safety is a pikuach nefesh issue. When we sit behind the wheel of a car, we take lives into our hands. Every glance away from the road is a few seconds in which something terrible can happen. Each item of distraction is a potential desecration of life. I’m not talking about drunk driving, or texting, or other flagrant violations of law. I’m talking about the things we all do that seem “normal” at the time: fiddling with the radio, letting ourselves get impatient with an irritating driver, paying too much attention to anything besides the road ahead of and around us. At any moment of distraction, someone could die. It’s as simple as that.

I wrote about this once before, back in August of 2012, after I had an accident. When I wrote The Freeway Blessing, I was shaken by the fact that I came too close to being a statistic. When it happened I was being very careful: the radio was off and I was wary because the traffic was both heavy and moving rapidly on I-880. Even with all my faculties engaged, I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid a serious accident.

Today, after the reminder from my friend, I’m renewing my commitment to taking driving as seriously as it deserves. Here’s what I am going to do:

  1. I commit to giving my full attention to the process of driving.
  2. I commit to allowing time for careful driving: leaving a bit earlier than absolutely necessary, so that I won’t feel an urge to hurry.
  3. I commit to getting that eye exam that I think probably isn’t necessary, but it’s time, so I’ll get it.
  4. Finally, I commit to reminding myself that driving is a sacred activity, because I hold lives in my hands when I do it. I’ll do that by saying a blessing before I drive:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, hanoteyn l’chol cha-im.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.

I invite you to join me in making a new commitment to pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life.

Image by Elvert Barnes, some rights reserved.


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