From the Clergy

What is a Mitzvah?

This is a question that is at the heart of Judaism. The word “mitzvah” is often translated colloquially as “a good deed,” but in reality it means “a Divine commandment.” So, what is it that we are commanded to do by God? Halachically observant Jews have, in many ways, a much simpler answer than we do. The Torah, they believe, contains 613 concrete rules, and they are to be followed according to the system of Jewish interpretation. If you are inclined, on the other hand, to think of Judaism as a practice of ethics rather than laws, you have your work cut out for you.

I believe that we are each commanded in different ways. Some are commanded to be champions of economic justice (tzedakah), and others are commanded to fill the world with warmth and kindness (gemilut chasadim). Still others are commanded to devote their lives to fostering a better relationship with the environment (bal tashchit/ tikkun olam). While we are all commanded in each of these, our individual talents and passions make some of us particularly responsible in one area or another.

For Reform Jews, being “divinely commanded” can be complicated. It requires personal reflection and dedication to the study of Jewish values. It can be overwhelming. Should I volunteer at a kitchen for the homeless (Talmud tells us to provide food for the hungry), or help abused animals (tza’ar ba’alei chaim is the Jewish prohibition against animal cruelty)? As a community, we are commanded to do all of the above, but as individuals, we can often make a bigger difference by focusing our efforts.

The best way to determine the commandment (mitzvah) that most calls to you is to try serving in different ways. That could be why hundreds of our members participate in Mitzvah Day here at Schaarai Zedek every year. I hope that you will join us, because as Rabbi Tarfon said in the Mishnah almost 2000 years ago, “You are not personally obligated to complete the work, but neither are you permitted to neglect it.”

Rabbi Farb