Mitzvot

Mitzvot, the plural of Mitzvah.  Here I am, trying to list at least one mitzvah a day in my blog.  And why?  Which do I choose?  Which meaning of mitzvah am I using for criteria?

The My Jewish Learning site has this to say:

One often hears someone Jewish saying, “It’s a mitzvah!” usually referring to a charitable, beneficial act performed by another person.  However, while its Yiddish parallel “mitzveh” does have this connotation, the Hebrew word mitzvah does not mean “a good deed” in that sense.  Mitzvah literally means “commandment.”  In fact, Jewish tradition understands exactly 613 mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) to be derived from the Hebrew Bible. It is not simply a “good deed”, for example, to refrain from murdering or stealing.  And similarly, the mitzvot which deal with feeding the poor, acting kindly to the stranger, or observing the Sabbath are much more significant in the Jewish tradition than mere divine suggestions on how to be good.  Mitzvot are commandments, traditionally understood to come from God and to be intended for the Jewish people to observe.

There are 613 commandments listed.   Prohibitions and obligations.

365 negative commandments (prohibitions) like the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive commandments (obligations) corresponding to a person’s limbs.

—Talmud, tractate Makkoth, 23b

Here’s a full list of the 613, if you’re interested.

So a mitzvah is more like Fard in Islam, a duty (both for the individual and for the community).  Or Dharma in Hinduism and Buddhism (both the principle or law that orders the universe and the individual conduct in conformity with this principle).

Chabad has a slightly different approach:

Go ahead…

…give away all your worldly possessions to charity and live in a monastery in the Himalayas–maybe you’ll achieve higher consciousness and eternal bliss.

But before you do that, consider the alternative: Keep your home, your marriage, your kids, your career–keep your life the way it is, but do it higher.

That’s the idea behind what we call mitzvahs. A mitzvah is a connection between your world and a Higher Force. Through a mitzvah, you take some part of your mundane little world and make it higher.

The goal? To get out of life everything that life was meant to give. And to make the world into everything the world was meant to be. Because life is meant to be beautiful and the world is meant to be divine.

So in essence, if I take this all literally, I am really expected to observe the mitzvot.  I am obligated to perform the commandments.  I’m not going to get into the whole issue of which mitzvot are supposedly for men and which are for women, that’s a whole ‘nother rant – maybe in another post.  The understanding of mitzvot simply as good deeds is almost missing the intention.  Yet that is what I’ve been listing here.

Still, I’m comfortable with that.  I haven’t listed lighting the Shabbat candles, or saying the blessings at meals as mitzvot, though that’s exactly what they are.  I’m focusing more on those mitzvot that command us how to relate to ourselves, to the other beings on our planet – or even to the planet itself –  the little things one can do to make the world a wee bit more of a better place.  Random acts of kindness, giving with or without being asked, fixing something in the world, showing respect.     Because those are the mitzvot I interpret to be the most important, at least for me, for now, in my challenge to myself this month.  Because I don’t see the Torah as simply a list of laws.  It’s a basis for education – a dynamic flowing stream on which to build the person you are.

Catching up with my challenge:

Yesterday I was waiting a long time for a taxi to get home.  Finally!  One came along.  As I moved to the car door, an elderly couple came slowly down the sidewalk, saw me going to the cab and kind of slumped as they realized they would have to wait.  I opened the cab door and motioned them in.  As they drove away, I sat down on a bench to wait more.  Almost immediately, another taxi came up and stopped.  The driver asked where I wanted to go, when I told him he said jump in.  Turns out I was his last fare before going home, and I live just a couple of streets away from him!  He was so pleased at his luck that he gave me a discount!  Karma is not be sneezed at.

Today, I shared my morning sandwich with a family of stray cats.  A mother and three little ones.  Thin, a bit scraggly.  They were street cats, but they ate from my hand.  Mom was a bit aggressive towards the babies, so I gave her some food first, then fed the others while mom munched.

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