Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 8, #34 in the Countdown: Mitzvah

A MITZVAH (which is often mistranslated as “good deed”) is a commandment, but I prefer to think of mitzvot (the plural) as opportunities, gifts, or human responses to a divine summons.  While Conservative Jewish philosophy considers the mitzvot not to be optional, (after all, they are not the “Ten Suggestions”), it makes sense to hear these words of the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who spoke of the mitzvot as being comparable to jewels embedded in the road that we call Judaism.

“One stone is marked “Sabbath” and one “civil rights” and one “Kosher” and one “honor your parents” and one “study of Torah” and one “you shall be holy.” There are at least 613 of them and they are different shapes and sizes and weights. Some are light and easy for me to pick up and I pick them up. Some are too deeply embedded for me, so far at least, though I get a little stronger by trying to extricate the jewels as I walk the street. Some perhaps I will never be able to pick up.  I believe that God expects me to keep on walking Judaism Street and to carry away whatever I can of its Commandments. I do not believe that God expects me to lift what I cannot, not may I condemn my fellow Jew who may not be able to pick up even as much as I can.”

The 613 mitzvot, as delineated by Maimonides, can be found here.  But these opportunities to partner with God in perfecting the world are not “written in stone,” so to speak (even if ten of them were).  The list is always evolving, and sometimes old laws are reinterpreted to respond to changing times.  That evolution is called the Halachic process.  While that process of change can be tedious, it grounds any innovations in the rich heritage of tradition.  While no Jew actually observes all mitzvot completely, it is preferable to set a high bar that is unachievable than to lower the bar simply for our convenience.  Living a life of “mitzvah” is less about the achievement than about the striving, the learning and the continual process of growing and deepening our spiritual connections.

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