More than once this week, a member of our community remarked to me, "Kol Tzedek folks do so many mitzvahs." This week alone I am aware that members have been making food for each other, visiting each other in the hospital, picking up latkes for the Hanukkah party, cataloguing the library, giving each other rides to an event, hosting each other for meals, and the list goes on.
But what really is a mitzvah?
Growing up I was taught it was a good deed and sometimes a commandment. Which have really different connotations that Jewish theology manages to make one. Twice we invoke the root of mitzvah in our standard blessing formula, which begins:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם. אֲשֶר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וִצִוָּנוּ
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu
Blessed are You, Source of Life, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes us holy through mitzvot and v'tzivanu...
Perhaps the best way I know how to translate "v'tzivanu" is by imagining The Holy One as a loving teacher. This is a pedagogical word, which I translate as instructed us...
Which is to say that a mitzvah is a (Divine) instruction. And in that way it is both a good deed - something good to do - and a commandment - something we might want to consider ourselves obligated to fulfill.
Some of you may be familiar with the idea that there are 613 mitzvot. And you may be wondering, "Where is that master list? Is there a Google doc with the Jewish mitzvah checklist?" Not really. According to the Talmud, the negative commandments (don't do this!) number 365, which coincides with the number of days in the solar year, and the positive commandments (do this!) number 248, a number ascribed to the number of bones and organs in the human body (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b–24a). But needless to say, it is an aspirational concept more than a rule book.
My rabbi and teacher Benay Lappe puts it this way. We are not meant to fulfill 613 mitzvot a day, by ourselves. Don't think of this as a forever unfilled list of deeds undone, resting in a guilty pile with the house projects I never get to. Rather, she insists that there are 613 mitzvot that we are instructed to fulfill, collectively.
There are so many different ways to access holiness and embody Jewish practice. Some of us are going to pray three times a day and some of us are going to visit someone in the hospital, and some of us are going to study Talmud and some of us are going to greet folks at services. Some of us are going to bake challah and others are going to light Shabbat candles. And together, all of us, are going to fulfill the mitzvot of our Creator.
And together we already do.
Thank you to everyone who makes this community holy through their mitzvot. I am in awe of your generosity, kindness, and caring. Bearing witness to your mitzvahs is the most profound aspect of serving as your rabbi.
Shabbat Shalom and almost Happy Hanukkah (which starts on Sunday Night)!
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.