To finish up the Faith trilogy, I’m going to talk about Mitzvahs. Where some religions just require you believe or have faith to participate in the religion, Judaism asks for more. Sure faith is a part of it (as I have spent 2 blog posts explaining), but apart from faith is action. Jews accomplish this action with mitzvahs.
So what is a mitzvah?
When I was a little kid and I shared my dessert with my sister or gave some change to a homeless person, my mother would say, “You just did a mitzvah!” So… it’s a good deed? When a boy turns 13, he has a bar mitzvah. So… somehow reading from the Torah and having a party is a bar-good deed? Obviously, good deed isn’t the right definition.
A surface understanding of mitzvahs are that they are commandments from God. If you go through the Torah, start to finish, you will come across 613 instances where God either says “do this” or “don’t do this.” Those are what are called the 613 commandments. When I say observant I mean someone who is observing said 613 commandments. But in addition to the 613 commandments there are rabbinical commandments (blog post coming soon) and in addition to those there are minhags (aka accepted customs by a certain cultures within Judaism)!
If that’s not enough to send you running out the door, I don’t know what will. 613 laws plus all that other stuff! Well let’s break it down a little. For one thing, the 613 commandments don’t apply to everyone. Some apply to women, some apply to men, some you can only do in the land of Israel, some can only be done by the Kohanim (Jewish priests) and a lot of them can only be done when we have a Temple (which we’ve not had for 1500 years.) So today, one can only do about 240-ish mitzvahs. You’re off the hook for about 400 of them.
But what is a mitzvah really about?
Is it just about following rules from a book 3000 years old that supposedly will make your life better? If you believe in God and that He wrote the Torah, then yes. That is a big part of it. But in addition to that, a major component of observant Judaism is the belief that there is a world to come and our place there will be decided by our observance of the mitzvahs. Summing up: You do a mitzvah – you get reward. To be honest, that’s never flown for me. Despite all my learning, I just can’t be real with making decisions in this life about a possible life after death. If it works for you, great.
But then there is a deeper level of doing mitzvahs. See, there’s one particular commandment, to love God. Now how can you be commanded to love someone? Well one step is to know them. This commandment of love appears in what is known as the Shema. After the commandment to “love God with all your heart…” it goes on say “teach them to your children, discuss them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” The Shema is telling you, you want to love God? Don’t just do the mitzvahs, wrestle with them, cleave to them! To perform, understand, and immerse oneself in the mitzvahs is a way to know God.
But then there is an even deeper level of doing the mitzvahs! If you can accept that God exists and wrote the Torah and you can accepted that God loves you wants you to become the best person you can be… than that must mean the commandments are the keys to nurturing a relationship with Him. Instead of looking at the mitzvahs as laws to follow, or even wisdom to learn from, one can look at them as gifts to unlocking that relationship. You’re going to eat an apple because it taste good? Or you can say a bracha (blessing) and thank God for giving you that apple. You want to give money to a worthy cause (either from guilt or from altruism)? Great! Or you can realize that God gave you the resources and opportunity to give!
Tackling the mitzvahs is one the the most deep and complex tasks a person can take on and I could go on for pages. But I’ll leave you with one last thought. There’s a story in the Torah about Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. He has just made his covenant with God (meaning he just got circumcised, ouch!) and is resting. He’s in the presence of God and they are talking. Suddenly there is a knock on the door. It’s three travelers weary from their journey. Abraham stops mid-sentence and says, “Hold on God, I’ll be back in a minute” and Abraham proceeds to show hospitality to the travelers (wash their feet, serve them food, etc.) Now if I were talking to God, the creator of the world and knower of all secrets, I probably wouldn’t put Him on hold. But Abraham did. Because Abraham knew the only thing better than being in the presence of God, is to be like God. How do you do that? The mitzvahs.