Tuesday, December 26, 2023

TBE Milestones: A Signature Mitzvah

Back in 2009,  the world was reeling from the financial meltdown and for the Jewish community especially, the Madoff scandal took an enormous financial and emotional toll.  Knowing that from crisis emerges opportunity, on the High Holidays I proposed a reset - and a chance to reimagine the meaning and role of mitzvah in our lives.  A number of Conservative congregations were focusing on the theme of mitzvah that year, responding to a challenge from JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen.  And for us the Mitzvah Initiative became a year-long theme of adult ed classes, articles and sermons.

In this sermon I suggested that everyone choose a "signature mitzvah" to work on over the holidays, and beyond.   Several on the board shared their signature mitzvot.

You can listen to the first day Rosh Hashanah sermon below and see the texts of all four sermons here.  

Here's an excerpt from that sermon:

So what’s a mitzvah?  A good deed?  A commandment?  
Yes and yes, but it’s more.  Much more. 
f we are going to push the reset button and reboot our Jewish souls, we need to rediscover this primal Jewish concept as if for the first time.  And for many of us, it will be the first time.  
To be a Jew is to reside in the world of mitzvah.
A mitzvah is a very human act, but with a cosmic result, one that reverberates throughout the entire universe.  But while mitzvot are ordained from on high, many perform them for reasons that are most mundane. 
Some light candles because their parents did. 
Some go to services because they get to schmooze with their best friends.
Some send clothes to Goodwill because their closet is so stuffed that the door won’t close.  
There are many shadings to mitzvah, and we’ll be covering a few of them on these high holidays.  
Mitzvot are, above all, opportunities to open ourselves up to a life of greater meaning and purpose.  To make the most of our God given talents.  But not in isolation.     For the path of mitzvah is the path of bonding. 
Some derive the word mitzvah from the Hebrew expression “tzavta,” which means connection.  Through simple acts, we bond together what is divine with what is so utterly human and we connect to people everywhere.
Mitzvot are the mountain peaks where heaven and earth meet, where the mundane becomes sacred, where the religiously blind become spiritually aware. 
In this green era, the mitzvah is a cheap source of renewable Jewish energy.  And how do we energize?  By taking on more.  By stockpiling our mitzvot.  But each of us must also specialize.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe looked at the Sh’ma and asked what does it mean to “love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul and with all your might?”  Everyone has a particular mitzvah, he proclaimed. By fulfilling it, that person achieves the world to come – this mitzvah and its fulfillment become the essence of that person’s whole existence.
So what’s your mitzvah?  Everyone has a signature mitzvah, a mitzvah that defines us. 
I teach children – therefore I am. 
I feed the hungry, therefore I am.  
I take people to Israel, therefore I am.  
That mitzvah becomes our immortality.  Our legacy.  Our footprint in the sand.  It is, to quote one of  this summer’s celebrated heroes, Julia Child, when talking about cooking, “what I dooo.” 
There is a midrash that when a person is asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and they answer, “I fed the hungry,” that person will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry….  The same goes for those who reply that they raised orphans, performed acts of tzedakkah, clothed the naked and embraced acts of lovingkindness (Midrash Psalms 118:17).” 
So what will you say when you reach paradise?  What will your descendants be saying about you?  What do you dooo?”
Once you discover your signature mitzvah, the key is to take that mitzvah, to live it with all your soul and all your might – and to share it. 
Think about it: There are, according to Maimonides’ count, 613 mitzvot in the Torah and we have nearly three times that many people here today.  By my calculations, then, if each of us were to take on one mitzvah on behalf of the community, then all together, we would make up three complete Jews! 
Well, in fact some of the 613 mitzvot are no longer in play and others are only meant to be observed in Israel – but the main thing is that most of us actually might want to do MORE than one.  We do many mitzvot, after all, and often without knowing it.
But let’s each of us begin with one.  Everyone start with one. 
And if we bring that one to this community it will bind us as one.
And if we project our mitzvah out from this sanctuary out into the world, its positive impact will have all of us behind it.  They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… but what happens here impacts the world. 
So what will your mitzvah be?
 To attend morning minyan? To make Beth El greener?  To read Torah or to tutor?  Or maybe to coordinate letter writing for Israel or to help with our Sukkah or Purim carnival.  Maybe it’s to run a support group for those who struggle with addiction. 
This year, Beth El has responded so supportively to the needs of those out of work that job networking has become our collective signature mitzvah.  Michael Arons has been moving mountains to make this happen, but our neighbors have been thanking us simply because we belong to Beth El. 
Call it Mitzvah by association.  
There are a number of mitzvah heroes here.  This one is helping with job networking, and that one is helping with the food drive.  This one is paying anonymously for a famous scholar to teach a series on prayer, and that one visits people in the hospital.  We’ve got Beth El mitzvah-makers all over the world.  This one is teaching Adon Olam to a bunch of schoolchildren in India that one is serving up vitamins to Ethiopian kids in Netanya.  And we’ve had congregants volunteer countless hours to realize the dream of the renewed social hall and lobby we are enjoying today. 
The UJC has created a Mitzvah Heroes website and has been asking people to vote among a number of nominees, for people like Anne Heyman who is responsible for a youth village in Rwanda that cares for orphans.   And Sadie Mintz, a Hollywood resident since 1929, who has risen at 4 AM once a week to prepare for her early-morning volunteer shift in at the cancer ward of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 
Think about it – if every person here took upon him or herself one mitzvah – one way to bring a little more love and holiness to our community and to the world and just did that, imagine what an impact that would make.
So what is your signature mitzvah?  What others can you bring into your life?  I asked board members that question and their responses are on our website.
As a rabbi, I consider myself somewhat of a general practitioner, but I’ve also got more than a few signature mitzvot.
One that I embrace is the one listed as #16 on Maimonides’ list of 613; it is a mitzvah for everyone to write a Torah for himself.  I see my own writing in that light, as an attempt to bring the Torah to life through the prism of my own experiences.  I also like #28, not to harm anyone in speech, though it’s hard and I often fall short.  And there’s #39, to care for animals, and the 150’s, which all deal with aspects of Kashrut.  And then there’s the 170’s, which all deal in business ethics.  I care about those. 
And I can’t forget #114, the mitzvah of making pilgrimage on festivals to the sacred soil of Israel.  I’ve come to see that as truly my signature mitzvah.   As you know, we are planning our next TBE trip, and we decided to postpone it from this December to next July in order to give more people this chance to go to Israel with our congregation family.  We’ve cut costs to the bone while still providing a five-star trip.  I implore you to talk about this over lunch today and consider this amazing opportunity. 
And one more signature mitzvah: #53.  Love the stranger.  The Torah repeatedly commands us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt.  Often, this refers to the Ger Tzedek – the convert.  And indeed, we make it our business here to welcome converts and to make the process of becoming a Jew by Choice one of tremendous spiritual growth.  But there is another type of stranger found in our sources – theGer Toshav – the person who, while not taking on Judaism as a faith, has elected for whatever reason to reside in our midst, and who, often with a Jewish spouse, has chosen to participate in this grand experiment called Jewish destiny.  Maimonides could not imagine a world like ours, but the sentiment expressed in that mitzvah – to love the stranger – has made # 53 it one of Beth El’s signature mitzvot.
For those who are here today who are not Jewish, I embrace you warmly and unconditionally and invite you to share in this crucial work of world repair.  No strings attached.  We need all the help we can get!
So this is going to be our year of the mitzvah. 
And to start it off, I’d like to ask everyone here to do a mitzvah this week, between now and Yom Kippur, one that you have never done before.  And make it a challenging one. No cupcakes!  Anyone can put a few coins in a tzedakkah box.  How about lighting candles this Friday night?  If you do that already, how about separating milk and meat – for a day?  For a meal?  For a course?  I’d be happy to help explain it to you.    
OK, and if you can’t do that because you are blogging your way through Julia Child’s cookbook, how about taking an hour away from all that butter to study the Torah portion?   Or maybe visit a local hospital or nursing home and see people you don’t know.  Or, hey, I don’t know, if you’ve never come to shul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah – come here tomorrow to participate in the mitzvah of hearing the shofar – that’s number 132! 
Come to minyan and maybe try on tefillin – that’s #20.  If you’ve never built a sukkah, it’s not too late.  We’ll help! Or simply have a meal in our temple Sukkah; that’s mitzvah # 142.  And even easier, buy a lulav set – # 141. We’re really pushing this one this year, because it’s so much fun and we’ll have a huge lulav parade here on the second day of Sukkot, which falls on a Sunday.
If you return a lost item, you’re doing a mitzvah – # 276.  So if someone lent you something years ago and you just came across it, but you weren’t really sure what to do – return it!  If you have one of my books, for instance, I’m declaring an amnesty period until Yom Kippur.  No questions asked. 
If you care for an animal, you’re doing a mitzvah.  So adopt a dog and name it mitzvah.  Throw a yarmulke on it and have a bark mitzvah….  If you’ve been carrying a grudge, end it. #32.   If you’ve been gossiping, stop it (28); if you are known for angry outbursts (and who isn’t these days!), cool it – #30.  If you’ve given tzedakkah, give more – #52.  If you’ve never performed a bris… …maybe hold off on that one… but it’s #17.   
Find a mitzvah, do it and do it on behalf of all of us.
Many of the 613 mitzvot are obscure, some have become obsolete, and others are downright objectionable.  But the act of struggling with mitzvah in itself connects us to our roots and to one another.  Maimonides wasn’t the last word on Torah, which is fortunately a living document. The mitzvah map is changing all the time. There are plenty to choose from, though.  So find one that means something to you. 
Then just do it. This week. 
I know of one rabbi who asked his entire adult ed class to go home and light candles that Friday night.  The response was amazing. – sort of like the response we had last year when several congregants hosted others for Shabbat @ Home, something we’re planning to do again in a few months.
One student came back and said “My family laughed at me.”
Another said he went upstairs and lit them in the closet.  (I don’t recommend that).
And a third told the teacher, “I went home and lit candles last Friday night – and my husband cried.”
You know, it’s interesting that we always use the expression that we practice mitzvot.  We’re alwayspracticing.  We never get it right! 
In Judaism, Practice never makes perfect.  But practice makes something much more important. 
Practice makes affect.  Practice makes purpose. Practice makes holiness.  Practice brings hope.  Practice brings bonding.  Practice brings people together.  Practice brings communities together. 
Practice brings heaven and earth together.  So just do it!
But don’t do it for any reward, or mitzvah points, as we used to call them.  Think of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, who said, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge at you because you are a vegetarian.”  Kaplan had a decidedly secular term for mitzvot.  He called them folkways, but they were no less important to him, even without the notion of a personal God.  Whatever your beliefs about God, Kaplan understood that without ritual, there is no Jewish civilization
Do it out of love, love for a parent or grandparent, love for our children, love for the Jewish people, love for a Torah that has filled the world with holiness; to bring the world from tzarot to mitzvot, from pain to perfection; do it out of the conviction that there is something bigger than us, a power of love in the universe that we can tap into – and a Jewish message that is timeless and wonderful.
Do it to atone.  We now know from his just published memoirs that Senator Ted Kennedy was haunted by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne to his dying days.  He spent the last half of his life atoning for the first half of his life.  40 years of wandering in that personal wilderness. But he spent those last 40 years making the world better for all of us, and especially for the poor, the homeless and the sick. “Our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are,” Kennedy said.  And that is true. 
But our mitzvot do. 
Kennedy’s father said it to him early on.  “You can have a serious life or a non-serious life, Teddy. I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a non-serious life, I won’t have much time for you.” 
Teddy made the right choice.  And he wasn’t afraid to declare it to the world.  JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen says that the question of mitzvah here is not about theology, it is about our desire to be different, to stand out, to make the case that change is possible and to declare it to the world.
Don’t be afraid to declare it to the world! Kennedy was an unabashed liberal.  We should be unabashed Jews.
Because what we do matters. 
Think of Robert Lappin.  This is the guy from Boston whose foundation funded a number of educational ventures, including the trips to Israel taken by our teens a few years ago.  His fund was totally wiped out by Madoff.  Completely.  It ceased to exist. 
So what did Robert Lappin do?  He reopened his foundation, and is using his own money to restore the retirement savings that his employees lost in the fraud.  Lappin is the anti-Madoff, the antidote to a civilization-gone-mad, the one who turned crisis into opportunity, into a threshold of radiance and balm.
Whenever we hear the world saying that Jews are crooks, think of Lappin, and think of all the mitzvah heroes you know.  Look around you.  In fact, all you’ll have to do is look in the mirror.  Think of a tradition that is our precious legacy, and a heritage of goodness that can take your breath away.  Think of mitzvot.  The ties that bond. 
And think of how it’s possible to awaken to the rhythms of life and love, on this first day of the new decade, the 5770s, without benefit of a single shofar blast.  We have done it, and we can do it.
The recovery begins today, as we embark on this path of connection, the path of bonding. The path oftikkun olam. 
The Mitzvot are our stimulus package for the world. 
Together, let us bring Mitzvah back.   

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