The meaning of mitzvot
Thank You Shabbat Five
March 23, 2018/8 Nissan, 5778
Synagogue Sine Qua Non – Volunteers
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
This Shabbat is the fifth of nine Shabbats leading up to my retirement that I’m devoting to offering my thanks to different groups of people whom I have served and who have helped me serve our congregation and community over these thirty eight years at Temple Emanuel. This Shabbat in particular, the recipients of my gratitude are so vast that in order to fully express my gratitude I must first offer a forward, followed by an introduction and then a preface.
Ever since I announced my retirement come June 30th, people have asked me the natural question, what do I plan to do? I have several items on my retirement agenda, but the answer I offer most often is to get back to writing “my book.”
During my summer sabbatical of 1996, I began writing a book to update the 613 mitzvot of Jewish tradition that begin in the Torah. Given at Mount Sinai, these laws comprised the constitution of ancient Israel and the spiritual and ethical backbone of biblical Judaism. Throughout Jewish history, the 613 mitzvot have been updated as changing times necessitated. Alexander the Great’s conquest and hellenization of ancient Israel created the need for an Oral Law to interpret the Written Law of the Torah. When Rome destroyed the Second Temple and crushed two revolts by Judea, the Oral Law itself was then written down in the Mishnah, followed by the Talmud. Over the ensuing centuries, the 613 mitzvot have been transmitted in various iterations of codes, commentaries, and rabbinic responsa, again as the ups and downs of Jewish history dictated.
I had many good reasons to begin writing in 1996. For one, the most recent Jewish law code, per se, is the Shulchan Aruch, written in 1565. To this day, the Shulchan Aruch remains authoritative among Orthodox Jews. In the 1840s, the authority of the Shulchan Aruch was precisely what the founders of Reform Judaism roundly rejected. With the Holocaust and the creation of the modern state of Israel, Jewish history has changed dramatically in the last seventy-five years alone, how much to more so since 1565 and the 1840s.
When my summer sabbatical concluded in 1996, I had compiled an updated list of 613 mitzvot with biblical citations, along with commentaries on approximately ninety of the mitzvot, and an introduction that clearly described my book’s intentions.
The forward now leads to the introduction.
A central point I make in my book’s introduction answers the question, what exactly is the meaning of the word “mitzvah?” If you asked the average Jew on the street, he or she answer would answer a “good deed” or a “commandment.” Both answers are right, almost.
A mitzvah is more than a “good deed” because it is good not only in and of itself, it is also something that God asks of us. A mitzvah therefore asserts God’s presence here on earth, God’s goodness and caring for humankind. A good deed is certainly good, but a mitzvah is also holy. During these often profane times, when the word “holy” has all but vanished from common parlance, let alone exists as a virtue that people live by, the full meaning of mitzvah is all the more timely and vital.
A mitzvah is also less than a “commandment” as well as something more. A commandment is an edict, a fiat, a decree that must be obeyed, or else! Starting in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the Bible is rife with episodes when people defy God’s decrees.
A mitzvah is what God asks of us, but a mitzvah is something we do out of free will. Thereby keeping a mitzvah is an act of mutual love, reciprocal love, of God’s love for us in giving us the mitzvah and our love for God in doing it. So a mitzvah is something less than a commandment because it lacks the power of a commandment, but it is something more than a commandment because it is motivated not by power and authority but by voluntary love.
My book’s introduction now takes us to the preface for expressing my gratitude this evening.
Toward the conclusion of the Torah, Moses gathered the people before Mount Sinai and said, “You are standing this day, all of you before Adonai your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you, to establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not here this day.”
Just in case you missed it, Moses concluded with a remarkable statement: Moses was speaking not only with those who were there at Mount Sinai but also with those who were not there.
Every rabbi wishes that he or she had Moses’ gift to speak with those who are not here this day. For me this is especially true this Shabbat, when I offer my gratitude to everyone at Temple who has volunteered their time and talent on behalf of our congregation. Who do they include?
They include the twenty-four members of our Board of Trustees, the chair people of our various committees, advisory boards, endowment funds, auxiliaries, along with everyone who has served on them. Yet altogether they are merely part of the many people who offer their time and talent to our congregation.
And what do they do? They sound the shofar, chant Torah, read Haftarah and lead services on the High Holy Days. They lead Shabbat services, Sunday morning minyans, Shiva minyans, Passover Seders and study groups. They sing and play instruments to enhance the beauty of our services and to entertain us at social events. They create educational and social programs, determine policies and practices, set budgets, track finances, sign paychecks. They erect our Sukkahs, decorate them and then take them down. They stuff envelopes with Temple mailings. They cook for our Memorial Day and Labor Day picnics, help with our model Seders and prepare food for meals of condolence for families sitting Shiva. They collect food and life’s necessities for the South Hills Interfaith Movement to distribute to the needy. They feed and shelter people overnight in the Family Promise program once a month. They crochet caps and knit comforters for the sick. They inspect our building to ensure its upkeep. They tend our gardens, as well as our cemetery. They maintain our website. They march here and lobby in Washington for righteous causes. They counsel the bereaved and care for the needs of the ill or the elderly, providing rides and shopping for groceries.
I am certain that I have omitted something, perhaps many things, for which I might apologize. But let me expand the circle of my gratitude to embrace every member of Temple Emanuel today and over these thirty-eight years, in other words to speak not only to those of you are here this evening, but like Moses, to speak to those who are not here as well.
For the truth is that Judaism is a voluntary religion, it always has been and it always will be. Love cannot be commanded. Love can only be freely given. Love can only be freely accepted. Genuine love, above all other things in life, is voluntary.
Especially today, anyone and everyone who belongs to Temple Emanuel, or any house of worship for that matter, is here, or there, voluntarily. Especially today when synagogue affiliation nationally continues to decline – less than one-third of American Jews now belong to a synagogue – the simple act of synagogue affiliation is indisputably a voluntary act.
Indeed one of the 613 mitzvot in my book is “It is a mitzvah to support a synagogue.” So too all of the voluntary acts of our members that I cited previously, from sounding the shofar to shopping for groceries for the ill and the elderly, are among the 613 mitzvot I include in my book. But there are many more mitzvot that could be kept and should be kept, given that the mitzvot in their entirety are the measure by which we Jews live up to being created in God’s image.
I conclude with good news and bad news.
First, the bad news. When I finished writing at the end of my summer sabbatical in 1996, I had written one-hundred thousand words. At five-hundred words per page, that’s two-hundred pages right there, including commentaries for only ninety of the 613 mitzvot. Simple arithmetic said that if I accomplish all that I envision, my book was on the way to being at least a million words and two-thousand pages long. Good luck to me finding a publisher willing to publish a multi-volume edition of a book written by a previously unpublished author! In 2006, I sat down to edit what I had written. Instead, I quickly wrote another twenty-thousand words. Recognizing that my book was not only a matter of writing words but also wrestling with words, I put the book on the back burner until I retire.
Now, the good news….
It is the nature of the 613 mitzvot that not all of them are intended for every single person. Even when the 613 of the Torah comprised the constitution of biblical Israel, many of the mitzvot applied only to some of the people – for example, only to the kings, or priests or Levites of ancient Israel – while many other mitzvot applied to all of the people – among the many, for example, the Ten Commandments. Nonetheless, any one of us has more than enough mitzvot to do voluntarily, lovingly.
So the better news is that each mitzvah that God gives to us is an act of God’s love for us, and through us for the whole world. Each mitzvah that we keep is an act of our love for God and for the whole world. In a world where too many people are desperate for such love, or doubting and dismissive that such love exists, in a world so close to becoming everything that God created it for, yet so very far, I can’t think of better news. Can you?