What’s a Mitzvah?

August 27, 2014

“What’s a mitzvah?” a reader recently asked.

If you look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, it will tell you that a mitzvah is a commandment.

“Commandment” in English implies that it comes from outside, and it isn’t my choice. And yet each mitzvah IS a choice: I can keep it, or I can neglect it. It’s up to me. These duties are rooted in Torah, but they are acted out in my life, and in the lives of my fellow Jews.

I prefer to think of mitzvot (that’s the plural) as my sacred duties. Whether they are as lofty as saying my prayers, or as mundane as paying workers on time, they increase the holiness in the world, and they are choices I make every moment of every day. I do not get a gold star for doing them. They are just what I do as a Jew.

This month I’m asking myself: which of my sacred duties have I neglected? Which have I done poorly, done for ego, done only when someone is looking? Which have I treated as truly sacred?

How can I do better?

This post is inspired by #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, also known as @imabima.

 


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


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.


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?

 

 


Here and Now

March 6, 2014

5500963965_2776bf6a98_z

Sometimes life shakes us up a bit.

Today I pulled into a parking place in a shopping center near my home. I was going to buy some vegetables for dinner, and pick up a prescription. I paused for a moment to text Linda to make sure that dinner together was on her calendar, too. Then suddenly a beat-up green Toyota careened into the parking lot followed by a crowd of police cars, their lights blinking and sirens roaring. 

I froze in the front seat of my car, unsure what to do, as police leaped out of the cars and pointed their guns at the green car. I felt like I’d dropped out of reality into a TV show. The police yelled so loudly I could hear their voices even with my windows rolled up. I hit the button for the door locks and slid low in my seat, aware that I was awfully close, should anyone begin shooting. Stay in the car, I told myself, don’t attract attention. I hoped that whoever it was in the green car did not have a gun, or would have the sense not to shoot.

The situation resolved very quickly, without gunshots. The man in the car surrendered and was arrested, and the crowd of cops relaxed, putting away their weapons, gathering up things and examining the car. After a few minutes, I realized it was over: I could go run my errands.

I still have no idea what it was all about.

Events blow into our lives sometimes as quickly as that fleet of cars roared into the parking lot. One minute we’re planning dinner, and the next we’re wondering if we’re going to be around for dessert.  Once a year in synagogue we recite a prayer about that (Who will live and who will die?) but in fact we live with that reality every day – we simply don’t look at it. If we looked at it too long or thought about it too much, we’d lose heart. But if we don’t look at it often enough, if we don’t stop and remember that we are mortal creatures, we may waste this precious life we are given.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about a car accident that got my attention. Today I got another reminder: Wake up! Pay attention! Next week I will turn fifty-nine, and again, a little voice will remind me that I do not know how much time I am given on this earth. This is why we are advised by the sages to run to do mitzvot: we have no guarantees of months and years ahead. All we have is what Kipling called “the unforgiving minute.” All we have is now.

So the question is, what am I going to do with this precious time, this now? What will you do with yours?

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Dalo_Pix2


Purim for Grownups?

March 4, 2014
What's behind your mask?

What’s behind your mask?

Never underestimate the spiritual possibilities of fun!

But let’s say you are in a communal situation where it seems that Purim is solely a children’s holiday, and you want “more.” Here are some possibilities:

1. READ THE MEGILLAH. If you don’t have access to a formal megillah reading, that’s OK. Break out the Book of Esther (it’s in your Bible) and read it, preferably out loud.  Read it with other adults, or read it to yourself. The rabbis of the Talmud felt so strongly about the annual reading of the Book of Esther that they designated the proper time to do it (Erev Purim) and then several alternate times, should it be impossible that evening. Read all of it: not just the familiar early chapters, but the last two chapters, which are bloody and rather unnerving on the first reading. 

2. OBSERVE THE MITZVOT. Purim has four commandments, and they are all suitable for adults. (1) Read the megillah. (2) Eat a festive meal. (3) Give food to the poor, either directly or through an agency. (4) Give small gifts of prepared food (mishloach manot) to friends.

3. CONTEMPLATE MASKS. Masks and disguises are a major theme of the holiday. Take time to think about the masks you wear every day, and what is hidden by those masks. Is there some part of yourself that you disguise? Why? What would happen if you dropped the mask? What is your disguise? What does it cost you to wear that disguise, day after day?

4. WORK FOR JUSTICE FOR WOMEN. While the original writer of Esther probably intended it primarily as a story about anti-Semitism, a 21st century reading of the book reveals a feminist message as well. The king mistreats and then banishes Vashti, but over the length of the story those acts bring chaos upon the kingdom of Persia. Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out in Season of Our Joy that when Haman speaks of the Jews in Chapter 3, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people,” his anti-Semitic words could just as easily have been describing the situation of women in the kingdom. Consider giving tzedakah to a women’s shelter, or take some action for justice for women.

5. WORK FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. Megillat Esther is the story of a vulnerable minority who survive an attempt at genocide. Learn about and support organizations that watch out for hate in our society today, such as the Anti Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center. Support or volunteer for organizations that work for social justice in your community.

6. GATHER WITH FRIENDS. Remember the “festive meal” listed among the mitzvot of Purim? Purim is a great opportunity for hospitality: invite some friends to join you in a nice dinner (maybe potluck?) and invite people to wear costumes or have a collection of costume pieces for them to make into costumes when they arrive. Have a silly party and play silly games.  Purim is a holiday against pomposity – if you can find a way to be silly and have fun, then you will be in the spirit of the holiday.

7. UPSIDE-DOWN DAY. Vacation is down time, but Purim is upside-down time. The scroll tells a story about reversals. Make your festive meal silly by reversing things: dessert first, then the meal.  Do things backward. (If there are children in your household, they can be very inventive with this.) Wear silly hats. Reverse roles! You may find out all sorts of interesting things about your family when you start switching things up – you may find new appreciation for someone.

Whatever you do for Purim this year, I wish you a day of laughter and insight!

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Cayusa


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