4 Whys #2: Why Do We Need Mitzvot? – Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5777

I spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in broad terms about why we need Judaism.

Today, the question is, “Why do we need the opportunities for holiness known as mitzvot?” What impact does observance of mitzvot potentially have on our lives? This is the 2nd of 4 topics on the “Whys” of Judaism.

As some of you know, I have spoken a few times over the past year on this subject, and one of the last times I spoke about mitzvot, I suggested that we translate that word not as “obligations” or “commandments,” as it has been traditionally understood, but rather, as “holy opportunities.”

There are, of course, 613 traditional mitzvot. I remember learning this in Hebrew school a LONG time ago: there is a midrash out there that suggests that 613 is the number of seeds in a pomegranate, which was the fruit in the Garden of Eden, the one on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Havvah ate from. (The Torah does not specify a fruit; Christians have long believed it to be an apple.)

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613 is a big number. But the reality is that we fulfill many of these holy opportunities with ease. That you are sitting here listening to me indicates that you are in fact performing several mitzvot right now: engaging in Talmud Torah, the study of the traditional texts of Jewish life; daily prayer (including reciting the Shema and Amidah); many of us are wearing tallitot; most of us will be celebrating the holiday with a festive meal in a little while (if the rabbi ever stops talking…).

And, merely by NOT doing a bunch of stuff right now (killing, stealing, eating the wrong animals, spending money on a Yom Tov), you are fulfilling mitzvot without even lifting a finger.

So kol hakavod!

But I think it’s time that we raise the bar in our community with respect to mitzvot. And let me tell you why:

We need more qedushah / holiness in our lives.

Forms of that Hebrew word, that qof-dalet-shin root (qadosh / qiddush / qaddish), are found on virtually every page of the mahzor that you are holding; would that they appeared on every page of our lives!

I think of qedushah / holiness as the collection of special moments that we all have. Remember that Jews sanctify time, not space or people or things. Holiness comes from setting apart a moment in time, a realization that a particular vignette in your life is incredibly special or unique, so special or unique that it you might think of it as a could have been a Heavenly gift.

So what is a holy moment? Please name one. Shout it out:

  • Birth of a child / wedding / bar mitzvah, etc.
  • Falling in love (OK, so for many of us “falling in love” is/was a very LOONG moment…)
  • Seeing a rainbow
  • Learning something so wonderful that your synapses fire at once and your brain nearly explodes
  • Achieving an objective (work, family, relationship)
  • Making a connection with yourself or another
  • Making a connection with your heritage or tradition (including the land of Israel)
  • Hearing really awesome, wonderful news, etc.

(For any such moment that fills you with awe and gratitude, it is always appropriate to recite “Shehehiyyanu” – the blessing we recite to be grateful for allowing us to reach this moment.)

Now there are many among us, and certainly many more in the larger Jewish world, for whom performance of mitzvot is something that comes naturally. I think that the challenge for most of us today, then, is not really the performance of mitzvot, per se. Rather, it is to connect mitzvot to qedushah. Not just the action, but its intrinsic meaning and value as well.

Most of us have probably never even considered that while you went to synagogue or sat in the sukkah or ate matzah at the seder or donned a tallit or got called up for an aliyah or gave tzedaqah that these things were somehow related to holiness – you might have just thought of them as, these are things that my family does, and I do too. No deeper meaning than that.

I never thought about these things too deeply in my youth.

And for those of us who did not grow up in the context of fulfilling mitzvot, you might wonder how any of this stuff might impact your life.

But how might these actions, ritual or otherwise, raise your qedushah quotient? How might they infuse your life with holiness? Why do we need them?

Fundamentally, every mitzvah comes down to this: relationships. Relationships with others, with our spouses, with ourselves, with our parents and siblings and children, with our community, with our world, and of course with God.

Let me give you a few examples. I spoke yesterday about kashrut, and how it sensitizes us to all creatures and the world around us by drawing lines. So let’s consider a curious set of holy opportunities from the Torah with which most of us are unfamiliar. They are a set of four or five laws relating to agriculture.

OK, so who here is a farmer? Not a gardener, but a farmer.

I suspected as much. Well, depending on how far back we go in Jewish history, most of our ancestors were subsistence farmers. Their fortunes were ruled by the seasons, the rains, the climate, the quality of their soil, and so forth. Why does the Torah describe Israel in several places as “Eretz zavat halav udvash” / “a land flowing with milk and honey”? Because milk and honey were symbols of agricultural bounty, and this was really, REALLY important to people who lived in the desert 3,000 years ago. In fact, virtually all of the references to Israel in the Torah contain some statement regarding the fertility of the land and the fruits and vegetables and livestock that thrive there.

So given that context, it’s easy to understand why the following laws were explicitly mentioned by the rabbis of the Talmud (Yevamot CHAPTER 4) as being the essential laws that one must teach to a ger, a convert to Judaism (Vayyiqra…)

  1. Leqet – if you drop some produce while harvesting, you can’t pick it up
  2. Pe’ah – leave the corners of your fields unpicked
  3. Shikhehah – if you forget a sheaf of grain, you must leave it

Produce left behind is available for needy people to glean. These non-ritual mitzvot / holy opportunities do not mean so much to us today, since we are not farmers. We can’t really fulfill them.

Or can we?

Judaism has always been subject to changing times. That is, mitzvot that we cannot fulfill in the way that was originally intended are adapted. E.g., the daily Amidah replaces the daily sacrifices in the Temple.

So one way of translating these principles is into our own money; our salary is our produce, and thus we should leave a certain amount for the poor. Maybe some of you donate each time there’s a food drive, or to the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. Those are surely appropriate ways for us to make these ancient, agricultural, holy opportunities our own.

But let’s think even deeper than that. This is not just about money or food – it’s about responsibility for people in need, and it’s about keeping the needy in mind as you go about your work. When a subsistence farmer is harvesting, it must be very, very hard indeed to overlook good produce. Think about it: as you are working your way through the grapevine, say, you are expected to actually leave (according to the Mishnah, tractate Pe’ah) a portion of the field unharvested. And if a grape cluster slips out of your hand, you can’t pick it up. And certain perfectly good clusters are simply un-harvestable. That could be lots and lots of profit, and perhaps even the margin between survival and starvation for your family. But you have to focus your energy on leaving those clusters for others, on denying yourself. That takes real work.

And, all the while, you have to maintain a sense of gratitude, even while you give up on valuable produce that you might otherwise consider rightfully yours. Not so easy, right?

The message is clear: as we move through our lives, we have to be constantly, consistently responsible for others: aware of our neighbors, vigilant regarding the greater societal good. And just as there are multiple mitzvot embedded within the larger framework of feeding the hungry, so too do we have the obligation to support the multiple organization that help those in need get access to food, clothing, shelter, health care.

(I am happy to note that a number of North American synagogues have “adopted” refugees from Syria; we could do that here as well. To do so would fulfill number of mitzvot.)

Taken even a step further, the Talmud elsewhere suggests the following about charitable giving: “The salt of wealth is charity (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 66b).” That is, we maintain our own wealth by diminishing it through acts of kindness. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (my rabbinic and cantorial alma mater, reads this as follows:

“The Torah warns the farmer in his state of self-satisfaction that God cares as much for the gleaners as for the reapers. The well-off are but divine instruments for alleviating human suffering.”

In other words, we all have the potential to be agents of God.

So just as kashrut sensitizes us to Creation and thereby encourages respect for our world and for all the creatures in it, giving from our produce and bank accounts makes us holy vessels.

And that brings me to what is, I think, the most essential set of mitzvot, and the ones that we most need today: those surrounding the most essential gift that Judaism has given the world, and that is Shabbat.

Yes, it’s true: we invented the 7-day week. And you might say that Shabbat is as much about action as it is about inaction.

The fourth commandment of the “Top Ten” is the longest of them all: “Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho.”  Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. And then it goes on for a while.  And you know why?  Because it is the most important social innovation in the Torah.  The ancient Israelites pioneered a concept that no society before it had developed: a day off.  Yes, yes, it’s also important not to murder and to honor your parents, but other societies already knew that.  The Shabbat, at the time that it was given to us, was apparently unique.

In his critique of contemporary Judaism and Jewish institutions called Nothing Sacred, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff points to the Shabbat as the natural response of an enslaved people who had been set free.  Think of it this way: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  They gain their freedom.  They know that they still have to work, but on more reasonable terms. So they negotiate themselves one day off out of every seven.  Not bad, right?

It is the most revolutionary concept of the ancient world, and holds sway over much of the Earth’s population today: the idea of sanctifying time by setting it apart from the rest of the week.  God gives the Israelites a weekly vacation.  The Apostle Paul, who fashions Christianity, and Muhammad, who creates Islam, dispose of many parts of the Jewish template that they draw on, but they keep the Shabbat.  It is progressive, puts humanity first, and difficult to argue against.

And so, as the pace of our world has quickened, as our days have become so packed that we are living 24/7, the human need has grown to take back a day. We need Shabbat. We need to run 24/6.

There are great personal benefits to shutting down for one day every week, to keeping the craziness of the world at bay, to limiting your exposure to technology, stepping off the hamster wheel of shopping and schlepping and generally worrying about all the things that occupy the other six days.

Every now and then a news story crosses my desk about the various ways in which Americans are over-stressed, over-burdened, under-slept, and on information overload. The one that caught my eye just a few weeks back was about college “blackout” culture.

In a New York Times op-ed piece by Ashton Katherine Carrick, a senior student at UNC Chapel Hill, a current trend seems to be deliberately drinking oneself into a stupor to help alleviate stress. College students, it seems, are under such pressure to perform, to go-g0-g0 all week long that drinking to blackout seems perfectly acceptable.

Of course, we can imagine that the results of such heavy drinking can be disastrous on many fronts. But what has brought our young people to this place? Remember that these are the gentle, sweet teens whom we launched from our homes only a few years earlier. Did we set them up for this behavior under our own roofs? Did we create the expectation that every cranny of their lives must be programmed? Did we facilitate the imperative, abetted by university admissions offices, that high school students have a ridiculous number of extra-curricular activities, that they must simultaneously be first cello and captain of the soccer team and editor of the school newspaper and on the starting lineup of the debate team all at the same time?

Where has the downtime gone?

Could it be the constant invasion of our privacy, courtesy of the digital devices that we now all think of as rechargeable extensions of our bodies? Could it be that downtime has been pushed out of our lives by screentime that regularly amounts to 11 hours a day?

I don’t know. But I do know that we are desperately in need of menuhah, of rest.

Quarter Rest

Shabbat, not blacking out, is that much-needed break. We need more than what an hour or two per week of embarrassing, drunken behavior might provide – we need a full day of separation. This very progressive concept – the idea of a quarter-moon festival that mandates a day off from regular toil – is just as necessary today as it was to our ancestors, who had just come forth from slavery to freedom.

But even more than that, Shabbat is there to open our eyes – to make us more aware of the people around us by sitting with them and dining and drinking (not too much!) and discussing and learning and praying and playing. This is a day that sensitizes us to Creation, to each other, to society. Shabbat helps us see beyond ourselves.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as a “palace in time.” Not a physical place wherein we can enter, but an opportunity every seventh day to wipe the slate clean, to elevate ourselves through holiness, to restore our souls. You don’t need to wait for Yom Kippur to be restored; you have that opportunity every seventh day!

And let’s face it: if we the Jews can benefit from shutting down and tuning in every seventh day, so can the rest of our society. The world needs Shabbat. And so do you.

And if you are not yet accustomed to the rhythm of Shabbat, of that 25-hour pause (that refreshes), I have one simple place to start: Friday night dinner. Bring your family, your friends together for Friday night dinner. Make that sacred time. You won’t regret it!

I also just want to make note of two things:

  1. The National Day of Unplugging. March 3-4, 2017 – an opportunity to observe Shabbat in solidarity with people all over the world. Sponsored by the Sabbath Manifesto.
  2. Our own, in-house, Walk-to-Shul Shabbat, coming to Beth Shalom this spring as a cornerstone to our new wellness initiative. We’ll be coordinating walking groups to Beth Shalom on that day. Watch for more info.

****

Shabbat is just the jewel in the crown; it is one gift of many.

Why do we need the actions, the holy opportunities that Judaism provides? Because they will help us be better people, better parents, better children, better friends, better members of society; they will restore our souls and make us less anxious and more present. Take advantage of them!

On Yom Kippur we will talk about two more whys: why we need this synagogue, and why we need to recommit ourselves to learning all the wisdom of the Jewish bookshelf.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/4/2016.)

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3 Comments

Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

3 responses to “4 Whys #2: Why Do We Need Mitzvot? – Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5777

  1. Pingback: 4 Whys #3: Why Do We Need Congregation Beth Shalom? | The Modern Rabbi

  2. Pingback: 4 Whys #4: Why Do We Need Torah? – Yom Kippur 5777 | The Modern Rabbi

  3. Pingback: Remaining Human – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5777 | The Modern Rabbi

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