A Contemporary Understanding of Mitzvot
By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
In Hebrew, the word “mitzvah” means commandment. At its simplest level, a mitzvah embodies God’s will, creating an imperative for those who would live their lives in accordance with God’s desire. Of course, there are more literal and less literal ways to understand commandments. By refusing to reduce mitzvot to an idolatrous transcript (as though God were just a big man with a mouth and the Torah was simply the written record of a recording at Sinai), we restore God’s grandeur and sovereignty, the Torah’s dynamism and relevance. Such a nuanced view celebrates the active role of human intellect, soul, and passion in perceiving the content of God’s revelation. Mitzvot are our perception of God’s will—mediated through human understanding.
In Aramaic, the word “mitzvah” means connection. Here, then, is the next level for understanding the word’s meaning in a modern context. The business of every Jew is to testify to God’s goodness and God’s sovereignty by fashioning our lives in ways of holiness and peace. We connect ourselves to our Creator; we link ourselves to the one who liberated us from slavery, by the way we live our lives. Each deed either strengthens our connection to God, or attenuates that link. There is no neutrality in the world of action: we either weave a web of goodness, with each new action adding a new strand to the fabric of our lives, or we snip away at the weave of righteousness that Judaism establishes in the world. In this second sense, mitzvah isn’t just what you do because God said so. God isn’t a cop, and mitzvot are not simply statutes. We do mitzvot because we seek to allow holiness into our lives.
On a third level, our prayers speak of the mitzvot that God has given “us,” the entire Jewish people. Mitzvot are not possible without the dynamics of relationship: between God and Am Yisrael, between each individual Jew and the House of Israel as an entity. Just as each intimate relationship generates special obligations that testify to the unique contours of that relationship and which keep the relationship fresh and vital, so do the mitzvot emerge between God and us, re-igniting our passion, keeping our ancient covenant young.
Finally, mitzvot are, to use the words of the Bible, kol demama dakah, that “still small voice” within. Each of us is a product of the raw power that exploded into the reality of the cosmos, in the inexplicable act the Kabbalists call the Creation, and physicists call the Big Bang. Just as the force of the Big Bang is still detectable through sophisticated technology, so does the power of the Creation reverberate in each and every human soul.
By training ourselves to listen with a spiritual ear, we can learn to hear the ultimate power within. Our sacred tradition comes from that same act of sacred listening, by which the sages of Israel learned to hear the still, small voice, and to transcribe what they heard into words. Those words are the distillation of the Big Bang, percolating into mitzvot; sacred deeds which concretize the amorphous energy of the Creation into the more tangible realm of human society. Through mitzvot, a Jew is engaged in tikkun olam, repair of the world, because we are tapping into the primal power that brought the world into being in the first place.
At each of these levels, as commandment, as connection, as expression of relationship, and as the outward crystallization of Creation, mitzvot function as the indispensable manifestation of meaningful Jewish life. Stripped of a zeal for the performance of mitzvot, Jewish living degrades into mere ethnicity or, worse, aesthetics. We may well differ about how God’s will is applied in the world. We may not all agree as to what constitutes a mitzvah in each community and in each new age. But the search for answers to the age-old question, ‘what does the Lord require of you?’ is no less pressing today than it was millennia ago. And in that energizing search, we have an important role to play on behalf of klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish people).