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(Take from “Putting God on the Guest List – For Kids” by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin)
God is hiding in the world.
Our task is to let the divine emerge from our deeds.
~ Abraham Joshua Heschel, God In Search of Man ~
The Difference Between the Mitzvah and the Mitzveh
Ask your parents, siblings, friends – even your rabbi – this trick question: How do you pronounce the Hebrew word for “commandment?” Chances are you will get two different pronunciations: mitzveh and mitzvah. So, which is it: mitzveh or mitzvah?
One small vowel makes all the difference. Mitzveh is a Yiddish term that comes from the original Hebrew term mitzvah. As author Rabbi Moshe Waldoks once wrote; “Mitzveh means doing something for someone else; feeling communal solidarity by imitating God’s concern for the world.”
Mitzvah means something deeper. Mitzvah, “obligation,” is essential to Jewish living. It is a religious commandment, a link between God and humanity, a sacred obligation. Traditionally, there are 613 mitzvot. All of them are derived from the Torah. There are ritual mitzvot, such as observing Shabbat and keeping the dietary laws of kashrut. Those mitzvot connect us to God. There are also ethical mitzvot, such as not murdering or gossiping. Those mitzvot connect us with people. Some mitzvot are in positive language: “Thou shall….” Others are in negative language: “Thou shall not…” Some mitzvot can be done today; some could be performed only during the days when the Temple in Jerusalem stood. Some mitzvot can be done anywhere; others can be done only in the Land of Israel.
You are becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. Soon you will be old enough to do the mitzvot. The reason you do them dates back to Sinai, where God made a covenant with the people of Israel. A covenant, or brit, is a contract, a deal. God says: I will always make sure that there is a Jewish people, as long as you do the mitzvot. The idea of mitzvah is central to Jewish identity. It is the essence of Judaism.
A mitzveh is something nice that you want to do: “Why don’t you do a mitzveh and call your great-uncle?” But as a Chicago rabbi once said, “Judaism is more than the Boy Scout Handbook.” It is more than niceness. It is about mitzvah.
Sometimes what we thought was a mitzveh was really a mitzvah. My wife’s grandmother would always take strangers from the streets into her home for Shabbat dinner. My mother-in-law thought that she was doing it because she was being nice; she was performing a mitzveh. But she was really doing a mitzvah: fulfilling the holy obligation to offer hospitality. At that moment, my wife’s grandmother was linked to all Jewish history. It was as if she were the matriarch, Sarah, welcoming strangers into her tent in the ancient wilderness.
Why Perform Mitzvot?
Traditional Judaism says that there is really only one reason to perform mitzvot: God commanded us to do so. The mitzvot represent the will of God. To know what you have to do, you must study the Torah and the hundreds of years of writing of Jewish law that describe how the mitzvot should be done.
Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform Judaism have produced many other reasons for doing mitzvot. Among them:
- Mitzvot help us feel God’s presence. When you light Shabbat candles, you feel inspired, as if the light from the candles is going right to your heart. Havdalah, the ceremony that ends Shabbat, can be truly uplifting, especially when you look at the braided candle that is used at havdalah and think about how it could symbolize that all Jews are braided together through our history, our relationships, our teachings. When you do a mitzvah, it’s like inviting God into your life. Knowing that a mitzvah will bring God’s presence can encourage us to do it again and again.
- Mitzvot remind us of the covenant at Sinai. There, our people began a disciplined pattern of life. Every time we do a mitzvah, we remember that original covenant with God. We perform righteous deeds not only because our conscience tells us to do so. The conscience is often not enough. We do them because an external force makes us want to. That force (we could call it God) acts like a time machine and brings us back to Sinai.
- Mitzvot help us feel connected to all Jews – past, present, and future. One Jew recently explained to me that he refused to eat pork, even though he really liked it, because he had though much about “the enemies of our people who tortured us by forcing us to eat pork. I feel a connection with those Jews. They are my people. To eat pork would be like disrespecting my ancestors and what they went through. That is why I stopped eating it.”
- Mitzvot connect us to Jewish tradition. This tradition is several thousand years old and has produced some of the world’s greatest values: justice, compassion, freedom, hope, community. The practices produced the values. Since we cherish those values, why throw away the practices that inspired them? Shabbat, for example, teaches us that time is holy. It can help restore the Jewish soul. Kashrut, or dietary laws, can help us retain our identity as Jews and remind us that not everything in the world is permitted to us, that we simply can’t gorge ourselves on everything we want. Kosher slaughtering teaches us that we should avoid unnecessary cruelty to animals. Studying Torah can make us think deeper about what it means to be Jewish, can it can give us a true sense of our identity as Jews. Just think of all the mitzvot that teach us about human relations, such as correct behavior in business, that are increasingly relevant with every passing year. Before we ignore those mitzvot, we should think long and hard about them. Much is at stake here.