Two years ago, when I gave a sermon about the passing of my beloved teacher, Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, I ended with one of the many funny stories he would regularly share with us in class. I would like to share another one this morning.
The story is one from his days as a rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, HUC. His teacher walked into the class one morning and announced, “Boys,” - and here Rabbi Zlotowitz would add the observation that, in his day, HUC only admitted men - “Boys, I want you to know that when I woke up this morning, I felt the desire to put on tefillin. But I resisted!”
Now, if you don’t find that story funny, it might be that you lack one of two important pieces of information that it assumes you have. First, you might not be aware that, particularly at the time that Rabbi Zlotowitz was a student, the Reform Movement rejected all types of prayer dress including head coverings, tallitim and tefillin. Even today, one can walk into a classically Reform synagogue and see bare heads in abundance. The Reform movement would, in time, soften its stance on the use of these items, but Rabbi Zlotowitz’s teacher - who was likely Orthodox trained (as was, I might add, Rabbi Zlotowitz who had ordination both as an Orthodox and a Reform rabbi) - was playing with the idea that wearing tefillin was a form of heresy.
The second piece of information you might lack is - what exactly are tefillin? For that explanation you need to go back to Judaism’s most well known prayer, the שמע. That prayer refers to הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם - these words that I command you this day. Regarding these words we are told וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל־יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ - you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and you will make them symbols between your eyes. Judaism takes these words literally and tefillin are the embodiment of that literalness. They consist of small, leather boxes into which are sealed pieces of parchment on which the words of the שמע have been written. These boxes are fitted out with leather straps that allow you to bind them and the words they contain onto your arm and your forehead.
Thus the wearing of tefillin is a mitzvah. It is one of the 248 positive mitzvot - to go along with the 365 negative mitzvot for a total of 613.
But what exactly is a mitzvah? This word is absolutely central to Judaism, and yet it is generally misunderstood by Jews. Ask virtually any Jew what a mitzvah is and she will tell you that its a good deed.
Such an understanding fits well with our general attitude toward religion: that it is, in a free country like ours, an association we enter into voluntarily for the purpose of community or history or, in the case of younger families, cultural and, maybe even perhaps, a little moral instruction. We see religion as playing a primarily pastoral role. Religion attempts to offer comfort during life’s crises, and it seeks to to solemnize life’s transitions. And for Jews, religion adds a touch of differentiation in our lives - a vague cultural and historical exoticism that sets us apart from our overwhelmingly Christian neighbors.
Contextualized thus, the idea of mitzvah as good deed fits well. By asserting that the central concept of Judaism is one that guides us toward good citizenship and neighborliness, we justify our religious practices and our decision to raise our kids as Jewish as a thoroughly modern and American thing to do. In saying that a mitzvah is a good deed, we assert that, though we identify with a particular religion, we are, in no way, fanatical or irrational or otherwise given to the craziness we often associate with those who wear their faith on their sleeve. We are simply good people, seeking to inculcate good habits in ourselves and our children. And we have extracted from our ancient faith that essential core of human morality, casting aside the superstitions, or consigning them to cultural color.
Against this modern perspective, I want to offer a contrasting view of the idea of mitzvah. It comes in the form of a story from the book Rebbe by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. As the title suggests, it is a biography of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim, known to his followers simply as, The Rebbe. The story concerns a Londoner and devoted Chabad follower named Bernie Rader. Mr. Rader was on a business trip to Detroit and was having dinner with friends. A guest at dinner started asking him detailed questions about tefillin - their requirements as to shape and color. Mr. Rader understood that his interlocutor must be very familiar with tefillin in order to ask such questions. When he asked if the man put them on, he said no. But he said he would put on Mr. Rader’s tefillin if doing so was so important to him. Rader made arrangements to meet the man next morning where he expertly negotiated the rather complicated procedure of donning tefillin. Rader then suggested that the man should put on tefillin every day and the man agreed that he would - on the condition that Rader buy them for him. Rader said he would do just that - bringing the tefillin to him when he returned to Detroit six weeks hence.
On his way back to London, Bernie Rader stopped in New York where he briefed the Rebbe on his business dealings and his curious encounter with the man with the tefillin. He was looking forward to returning to London where, the next night, for the first time in his life, he would have his entire family - all his children and grandchildren - gathered together for Shabbat. But the Rebbe had other plans for him. “Do you think its right” he asked, “that a Jew who put on tefillin yesterday for perhaps the first time in twenty years should wait six weeks for you to bring him tefillin? He instructed Rader to buy the tefillin immediately and “(i)f you can get the tefillin to the man in Detroit so that he can put them on today, do so, but if not, you yourself should go back to Detroit and put the tefillin on him, even if this means you won’t get to be home with your family for Shabbat.” The Rebbe reckoned that such a display from Rader would impress upon the man the special importance the mitzvah of tefillin had to him.
For those of you familiar with the ways of Chabad, such zealotry over tefillin will come as no surprise. The group has created what they call Mitzvah Mobiles which they drive around various cities looking for Jewish looking men whom they urge into the van to put on tefillin. The first time I put on tefillin was under the guidance of one of the Rebbe’s שלוחים - emissaries - who came to my home for a so-called “Jewish family visit.”
Obviously we are dealing here with a very different sense of the meaning of mitzvah from that of good deed. Here each mitzvah is like a discrete act that has its own infinitesimal, but nevertheless, real impact on the universe. Each mitzvah performed moves the world one step closer to the time of the messiah and redemption. The aim, then is to multiply the number of mitzvot performed in order to hasten the coming of the messiah. In the case of Mr. Rader, both he and his family would observe Shabbat whether he was in London or Detroit. There is no net gain in the number of mitzvot performed by him being with his family. However, by delivering the tefillin, there is a net gain in mitzvot performed - perhaps as many as six per week if the man should put them on at all appropriate times. Plus, who knows how many other mitzvot will be performed as a result of the man doing this one? In this understanding, a Jew’s primary purpose in life is the performance of mitzvot and whatever personal gains he or she may derive from such performance are incidental to the cosmic gain of bringing the world a tiny step closer to redemption.
יהושע בן פרחיה taught that we are to דן לכף זכות - judge with an eye toward merit. So let me try to do that with these two very different ideas of mitzvah. First, the idea that a mitzvah is a good deed has the merit of keeping this central Jewish concept alive in the minds of millions of Jews who have little connection with their faith. It reinforces the correct notion that Judaism emphasizes behavior over belief, thus making it a religion focused on this world, rather than the next. This is very appealing to those of us who approach all religions with great skepticism. As the son of such a skeptic, and as someone who followed a slender thread of Jewish identity all the way to the rabbinate, I cherish those ideas that make Judaism’s eternal truths approachable to a broader Jewish public. Mitzvah as good deed is one such idea.
As to the idea of mitzvah as the path to redemption of the world, this too is one of great merit. It affirms the idea that, small though we may seem in our own eyes, our actions have consequences that impact the entire world. Amid the prevailing nihilism of our culture, such an attitude affirms the value and sanctity of each life and, for that matter, each drawn breath. And, in affirming a transcendent quality to the idea of mitzvah, it bears out that observation, often ascribed to the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane who said that, in his own estimation, “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.” For someone like myself who thinks himself fairly rational, a reminder of rationality’s limits is always a useful tonic.
That said, whatever merit these opposing concepts of mitzvah might have, they each suffer serious weaknesses. Reducing the concept of mitzvah to that of good deed effectively hollows Judaism out. It negates one of Judaism’s central insights: that the ethical and the ritual are inextricably linked to one another. To lose one is, in fact, to lose the other; that without the ritual, the ethical will quickly degenerate into the popular or the emotional. By the same token, the idea of mitzvah as vehicle for world redemption dehumanizes this most intimate source of contact between us and our companions, and between a Jew and his God. In the example I cited, it takes a man from his family, not even for the sake of the stranger, but for the sake of the slenderest of hopes.
I believe that we need a different concept of mitzvah; a concept that affirms both its centrality to Judaism, and its role in shaping the character of individual Jews.
Such a concept must begin with the meaning of the word. A mitzvah is a commandment. It is what God wants us to do. At any given moment in our lives when a mitzvah can be performed, we face the choice between doing what we want to do and doing what God wants us to do. It is a mitzvah, for instance, to be mindful of our neighbor’s property. So if we are driving down the street on a windy day and we see that our neighbor’s trash can has been blown over, we should stop and turn it back upright. Now it may be that we like our neighbor or we take pride in our neighborhood or we’re just considerate folk and so we want to stop and turn the can upright anyway. None of that matters. We do not turn the can upright because it is a good deed, but because God wants us to do it. We do not turn the can upright because doing so will hasten the messiah, but because God wants us to do it. A mitzvah is a commandment and we do them because God tells us to. And we do what God tells us to because we want to be close to God; because we want to be holy.
The decision, then, to take on a mitzvah is a highly personal one. It reflects where we are in our own journey as Jews. We do not live in a shtetl where the community’s will can impose itself on us, nor in a politically oppressive state where our freedoms are curtailed on account of our religion. Each of us has been raised to be largely free agents in our lives. The restrictions we have placed on our freedom through the associations and commitments we have made have been those of personal choice.
The restriction Judaism asks us to place upon ourselves is greater by far than any other commitment we might make. It is לקבל על מלכות שמים - to take upon ourselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. The rewards it offers too are greater: an element of transcendence; the possibility of holiness; the chance to feel near to God. I believe there is only one way to take on such a commitment: slowly, thoughtfully, step-by-step, one mitzvah at a time.
How do we begin? My suggestion: start with the fallen trash can. Or a visit to a sick friend. Or a morning spent cooking at a soup kitchen. Or any of the other hundreds of actions that the rest of the world thinks of as good deeds. Only, don’t tell yourself its a good deed. Say instead, ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes our lives holy through Your commandments and has commanded us to do this thing.
I will not tell you that from there, the adoption of new mitzvoth becomes easy, because it doesn’t. Each mitzvah that one takes on makes one’s path steeper and more trying. But I will say that from the adoption of one single mitzvah, the next becomes more natural. Each mitzvah we take on changes us; it pushes us emotionally, intellectually and spiritually forward. It becomes the next step in our striving toward union with the divine image in which we are created. And it is this striving that I believe is the true substance of holiness. Indeed, I believe that if a mitzvah has the power to bring on the messiah, it does so by making us strivers after holiness. For this reason, I believe that anyone who has taken on a single mitzvah and is sincerely striving toward the next, stands as close to God as the most pious among us.
As for me, I have of late felt the desire to put on tefillin, and I have not resisted. Not every day; maybe once or twice a week. It adds a few minutes to my prayer time and they are not particularly comfortable to wear. They are also easier to put on in the summer when one is wearing short sleeves, so whether this practice will survive the coming colder weather is anyone’s guess. But they are, for me, the latest chapter in my own, personal struggle to do God’s will. However this particular chapter will play out, I am grateful for the struggle and the striving and the hope for the transcendence and holiness and redemption that they bring.