Will you help us feed the hungry on September 11, 2016 at the JCOC? Please think about donating your time or a food dish. We need casseroles, salads and fixings, drinks, paper goods and more, or donations. If you can help, contact Joy at 757-422-2624 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or contact Heather at email@example.com. Everyone needs to eat!
Many of us grew up with one of two definitions of the word “mitzvah” (plural “mitzvot”). A mitzvah is either translated literally from the Hebrew as “commandment” or more figuratively as “a good deed.” I’d like to offer a third option, and it has utterly transformed my understanding of what Judaism is.
Let’s take a look at the words of the famed 16th century mystic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, also known by the name of his most famous work, the Shelah: “I have sought to bring to light the ethical connotations of every word of Torah… the purpose of words of Torah… is that they ethically refine and transform the heart.” He continues “‘Torah is light’ when we understand the spiritual purpose of the mitzvot.”
I don’t believe that there is any mitzvah without a tangible purpose designed to benefit us ethically and spiritually. Even practices that some Jews deride as empty of immediate benefit, like keeping kosher, are meant to make us more compassionate people. The 5th century Midrash Tanhuma states this plainly: “What does God care whether a man kills an animal in the proper Jewish way or strangles it? Will one benefit Him or the other hurt Him? What does God care whether a man eats kosher or non-kosher animals? Understand therefore that these practices were given so people could improve themselves.”
“Mitzvah,” according to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, comes from the Aramaic root “tzavta,” meaning “a connection.” Mitzvot help connect us with the divine, and that process of sacred attunement, becoming more like God, means transforming ourselves into better human beings, one step at a time.
So what is my third option for defining “mitzvah?” Mitzvot are spiritual practices, designed to make us better people in the here-and-now and thereby better able to connect to the Divine. That is my Judaism.
How do we give better customer service? That might sound like an odd topic for a rabbi to bring up, but actually, good customer service is an essential spiritual practice – one that doesn’t just apply to performing a profession but to all of the difficult interactions we have with people in life. When you pick up the phone – whether the person on the other end is a relative, a friend or a client – you might find they have things to say that you just don’t want to hear.
Our natural response is defensiveness. We feel attacked because our actions are being critiqued or because we feel we are personally being criticized. That raises our hackles, and even if the person has something constructive to say – even if they are right and we are wrong – it makes us less able to see it because our ego (our sense of self) gets in the way.
One of the things the rabbis teach is that in order to make ourselves ripe for spiritual learning we must first make ourselves “like the ownerless desert.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:6)
What does it mean to be “like the ownerless desert?” I think it means to ask who the “me” I think I am really is.
We all experience a “stream of consciousness.” There are so many voices and thoughts in our head. We notice sights, sounds and sensations. We respond to things said by people around us. Sudden inspiration or a totally random thought will often leap into the mix. Just sit quietly for a few minutes and watch what your mind does and you’ll see that keeping track of it all is a dizzying task.
With so much going on inside our minds, is “me” the one speaking all those hundreds of thoughts and feelings? Can you pin down exactly which bit of your stream of consciousness is “you?” Some spiritual teachers suggest that we are in fact just observers watching that torrent of thoughts, emotions and sensations.
So where does that leave that “me” voice that gets defensive? Where does that leave the “me” voice that gets offended? I believe that to make yourself ownerless is to let go of ownership of the idea that there is a “you” to get offended in the first place.
A note of caution: If a person behaves in an abusive fashion, we must of course take steps to remedy the situation. The question is, do we need to take their actions personally?
Letting go of the idea that there is a “you” to be offended, known as “bittul” in Jewish sources, is not an easy spiritual practice. It’s one I find challenging every single day. It’s one I inevitably fail at, at some point, every single day. However, I firmly believe it comes with some incredible advantages for our lives.
First of all, it lets us hear constructive criticism without getting upset. After all, if there is no “me,” there is no need to get defensive.
Secondly, when someone behaves in an insulting manner, we don’t have to take it personally – after all, there is nobody there to insult. It’s a bit like the old story of the serpent in the blacksmith’s shop. It slithers along but inevitably gets scratched by an iron comb. Enraged that another animal would deliberately attack it, the serpent tries to bite the comb but only succeeds in blunting its teeth. Similarly, an insult hurled across an empty room just bounces harmlessly off the wall.
Thirdly, if there’s no “me” to get offended, then there’s also no “me” to bear grudges. Bearing grudges can cause years of heartache and hurt us profoundly. Instead, this approach frees us to see if we can build a better relationship with the person who we had that difficult interaction with.
So here’s my challenge to each of us: Let’s sit and watch our stream of consciousness. Let’s try to pin down that thing we call “me.” If we can’t, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to give up on it occasionally.
Join Congregation Beth Chaverim and Temple Emanuel for “Beach Friday Night” on July 22.
The evening kicks off at 6:00 pm with a family worship service on the beach at 25th Street (bring a blanket or chair).
Immediately afterwards there will be candle-lighting and dinner at Temple Emanuel (424 25th Street) at 7pm.
Dinner will be followed by a special presentation from Imam Rachid Khould on “Islam 101” for adults, with an exciting game of “Nerf Tag” for kids.
The cost of the dinner is $16 for adults, children 15 and younger eat free. Please RSVP by Wednesday July 20 to the Congregation Beth Chaverim or Temple Emanuel office, or online at www.tevb.org/bfn
Come for a special Friday Light. Worship on the Beach. Dinner at Temple Emanuel. And, a special performance of Israeli music and American pop tunes in ASL, American Sign Language, by Mindy Brown.
Be prepared to sing, and sign along!
RSVP to the Office www.tevb.org/fridaylig