Ordering from a Mitzvah Menu

Rosh HaShanah II, 5776

Last night I mentioned that you may be bored at different points over the High Holidays.  Now cannot be one of them.  I need all of you to be active listeners because I am going to ask you a few questions, and you must follow the whole way through in order to answer the final one.  Call it a rabbinic ploy.

The first question, by a show of hands, is how many of you keep all 613 mitzvoth—all of the commandments in the Torah?

I was very much hoping I would get one sheepish looking hand raised.

It is impossible to do all 613.  Sometimes to do one requires forgoing the ability to do another.  Some are permanently forbidden to us.  Men are exempt from many of the laws of Mikviot/ritual bath; and historically the tradition has left women unable to fulfill many laws.  But the real question is not how many in this room keep all 613, but how many mitzvoth do we find engaging?  Are there some that more important than others?  Lastly, and we are still in the first question, is one every counselor at a Jewish camp has been asked by the prodding and proactive camper:  Isn’t being happy more important than believing in the Laws of Judaism?

Being happy is not a Jewish value.  We hope that the values embedded within our tradition ultimately lead to happiness or that happiness is a byproduct of our seeking the tradition’s wisdom.  But it is not one that we seek biblical precedent for or comb through Talmudic arguments in order to arrive at a position that guides our lives.

If you are in here today looking for the nugget of truth, the psychological insight that will yield an enduring happiness that has previously been elusive, I am sorry but you will most likely leave disappointed.  There are religions and movements for that, and I am glad they exist.  But we are after something far greater.

Being a good human being is what Judaism is concerned with, and we need to figure out how to use our tradition as steps along the way to create meaning for us as individuals and as a community.  The destination of our tradition is not contentment.  It is a life well lived.  It is a life spent within and bettering our community.

Let me tell you a story.  There was a guru who lived on a mountain.  He was surrounded by a group of his disciples, yet they rarely got to see him, since he spent nearly all of his time in seclusion.  But once a year they would climb the difficult trail and scale the daunting peaks in order to see him.  They would ask him all the questions they had had over the previous year.  They would then return to the village below rejuvenated with his spirit and begin counting the days before they could see him again.  One day Mrs. Schwartz approached these disciples and said, “I would like to see the guru.”  They told her that it is a forbidding climb and that they will gladly deliver her message.  “No! I want to see him myself.”  So the next day they all trekked up the mountain to see the guru.  When they arrived his eyes were closed in meditation; but feeling their presence, he opened his eyes.  He scanned his disciples, nodded in acknowledgment and then turned to his new guest and his expression quickly changed, blurting out, “Mom!”  “Sheldon, enough already, it’s time to come home!”

Why do we all laugh at this story?  One, we can all see our Bubbes saying this.  But beyond the Borscht Belt component to this story, we laugh because we all know that is not a life a Jew should live.  Just as Deuteronomy says, it is not in heaven; Judaism is not a religion found in seclusion.  You cannot say kaddish or have a seder by yourself, nor can you give tzedakah in isolation.

A while back I heard this story from Rabbi David Wolpe; as he points out, mountains in Judaism are places we return from not go to.  Meaning, community and God are not found there.  Moses heads to a mountain to die, not to live.  The Israelites build a Golden Calf because Moses is up on Mt. Sinai for what they perceive to be too long.  Masada was a place to die with dignity, but it was a not a place to live.

Meaning is found in learning, in the comraderie of a Shabbat table.  And at least as far as our tradition hopes for, God is found along the way.  Judaism offers us mechanisms to find God on that path, but leading a good Jewish life does not depend or rely upon finding or knowing God.  (So all of you who are saying, “I do not believe in God,” are not exempt from this exercise.)

We need not worry about the all 613 Mitzvoth; we should not even worry about doing most of them.  We need to find the ones we can do and do them well.  Just like our liturgy on the High Holidays, which is in the plural, the 613 are a communal directive:  it is an obligation fulfilled in the aggregate.

Now is the season of fantasy football drafts.  We all want to pick the great quarterback Tom Brady; few of us, if any, want to choose the Bears’ Jay Cutler.  But we, as a community, need to find the means to ensure the Jay Cutlers of mitzvoth are done:  Ensuring those who do not have a seder find a host.  Making sure that there is a hevra kedisha to take care of those who have passed away but not yet been buried.  That those who need say kaddish have nine other community members to do so.

But this also recognizes a choice with the inherent understanding that some of us have a bandwidth for X and some for Y.  Some of us participate in the community by coming to minyan, some by offering their time for programming, some read Torah, while others offer, in a myriad of ways, a crucial means of support.  The important thing is that we all contribute, that each of us in the end has selected our share of obligations and responsibilities so that in our community’s fantasy mitzvah draft everything is chosen.  But this is not fantasy; this is not something we do on a computer with our friends.  This is real.

So, now, we need to answer the second question:  What is the ultimate goal of fulfilling these mitzvoth, of observing the commandments of Judaism?  Let me hear some of your answers…

We are all searching for the wisdom, for the values within Judaism that will allow us to become, as Yitz Greenberg calls, fully human human beings.  That is what Judaism wants.  All religions have universal values; secular or agnostic movements have them too.  But why should we choose Judaism to get us there?  This is what we need an answer to.  We need to find the Jewish means of becoming those fully humans beings because the Jewish path is different than that of a Christian, Moslem or a secular humanist—not better or worse, but different.  We need to answer my former campers who would push against learning about Torah or Mitzvoth because they contended that being a good person is more important than being a good Jew.  Even if we disregard the youth or ignorance of that camper, we all need to answer to the adult that camper has turned into.  The adult who has left our community, or perhaps was never engaged, because of a lack of trust in the system.  The Jew who does not believe in the plausibility of our tradition to arrive at Yitz Greenberg’s vision.

Our Judaism is not here to teach us how to tie our shoes; it is not here to tell us what is the right way to braid a challah.  It is here to teach us how to think.  It is here to give us, as the anthropologist Vanessa Ochs says, Jewish Sensibilities.  Jewish behaviors which are divinely, textually and communally inspired.  They are the Jewish technologies that guide us towards the mitzvoth we find engaging and enduring.

And, in light of that, I want to come up with a list, a Jewish version of a dietician's plan to find the deeper truths that will create those fully human humans beings.

Here is what I came up with:

  1. Judaism wants us to be deeply empathic.  There is no greater mitzvah than acknowledging that your parent, your partner, the person you pass as she walks her dog, is made in the divine image.  Expanding upon the biblical command to love your neighbor, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) states that each of us is endowed with three fundamental dignities:  infinite value, equality, and uniqueness.  Every human being stems from the same mold, and the only way we can recognize this similarity is to honor the divine within each us.
  2. We need to be able to handle paradox.  Some laugh and some struggle with it, but often a Jewish answer to any question is, "Some say yes and some say no."  Our tradition codified majority and minority opinions.  Other religions thrive on religious issues being clear cut.  But the Rabbis often end a discussion by saying alu ve-alu, he is right and he is right.  It is principled pluralism.
  3. That there are deeper unseen truths.  Richard Clarke, head of the Anglican Church in Ireland, said we need to be in the trenches grappling with our tradition rather than on an extreme.  We need to be engaged in study in order for those truths to be revealed.  We need to be grappling with the Torah and with rabbinic texts, but we also we need to be wrestling with the customs we have inherited.  We will never be able to find the unseen truths without being engaged in their excavation, and we do this through learning—a supreme Jewish value.
  4. Can sit with uncertainty.  I learned this value early on in rabbinical school when my Talmud class spent weeks studying a single passage.  Our rabbi would lecture on this phrase and that.  My hevruta/study partner and I studied for hours to try and master each position.  And what was the Talmud’s conclusion—teku, literally let it stand.  But it really means is that the issue is too difficult to resolve; we just do not know.  Our tradition values humility and it is counter‑cultural.  We do not grasp onto bad answers.
  5. That we do not choose the simple path.  This is simply the product of a lifestyle that values paradox and uncertainty.
  6. To be generousChesed.  This may be simplistic or cherry-picking; but it has been instilled in me from a young age, not just to give to charity/tzedakah, but to be charitable.  To look after the stranger, the weak, the lonely is our most repeated command in the Torah.  It is one we can always do better.

This is my list, yours may look entirely different.  And that is my final question to you:  What will be on your list?

If you have not thought about this before, then now is the perfect time.  Spend time this year answering these questions.  Judaism has much to offer; otherwise you would not be here.  And if it has not yet given you what you have been seeking, the life of significance you need, all the more so, you should be creating your own list.  Study a little torah this year, find a spiritual hevruta and work out these values.  If we have an answer to this question, if we narrow down our massive box of Crayola crayons down to its simplest colors, it will lead to the ideal version of ourselves, a holy community, and we will ultimately realize Judaism’s true idea of tikkun olam and a world perfected.

May this be a year when we seek these answers and this meaning together.  Shanah tovah.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf