I’m doing something new with our b’nei mitzvah kids this year. (Credit where it’s due: this is an idea I adapted from my friend and teacher Rabbi Burt Jacobson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in the Bay Area.) It’s called Mitzvah Experimentation.
I brought this to our seventh graders in our first Hebrew school class of the year. The first thing we talked about was, what’s a mitzvah. Some of them said “good deed,” which is a fine answer, though not a direct translation. Others said “a commandment,” which is what the word mitzvah means. A mitzvah is something which we are commanded to do, or to not do.
Commanded by whom? The most traditional answer is God. That word raises some eyebrows. Not all of my students are certain that they believe in God. What if you don’t believe in God — does that scotch the mitzvot?
There’s a story about Reb Zalman z”l, the teacher of my teachers, faced with someone who didn’t believe in God. He asked that person to tell him about the God they didn’t believe in. Because “maybe the God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either!” Over the millennia we’ve thought about God, talked about God, and described God in all kinds of different ways. Some of those ways work for me. Some don’t. Some might work for you; some might not. The name “God” can mean a lot of different things. And if my students want to talk about that, I’m happy to do so.
But when I go deeper into the question, what I hear is: if I don’t believe in God, do the mitzvot matter? I think they do. And I’m not alone in that. There’s a longstanding tradition of Jewish atheists and agnostics practicing mitzvot alongside Jews who have faith in or experience of God. It turns out you can be Jewish — and maybe more importantly you can do Jewish — whether or not you “believe” in “God.”
The Hebrew word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic tzavta, connection. A mitzvah is something which connects us. Doing mitzvot is what our ancestors did — maybe our genetic ancestors, and maybe our spiritual ancestors who lived Jewish lives in eras before our own. Doing mitzvot can be be a way of investing one’s life with meaning. And I believe that doing mitzvot can connect us with God — though each of my students is going to have to figure out what that means to them.
Are these reasons important enough to merit taking on the mitzvot? Our b’nei mitzvah students won’t know until they try them on. That’s what mitzvah experimentation is about. I gave my students a list of twenty mitzvot. Ten are mitzvot bein adam l’makom, between a person and God, and ten are mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, between a person and another person.
Praying in community, fasting for Yom Kippur, lighting Shabbat candles, studying Torah, building a sukkah next week and then rejoicing in it — these are mitzvot bein adam l’makom, mitzvot which take place in the space between us and God, us and our Source.
Feeding the hungry, as we do each month when our Take and Eat volunteers cook meals for 200 homebound seniors who would otherwise go hungry; giving tzedakah; making a conscious effort to respect one’s parents, both inwardly and outwardly — these are mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, between one person and another.
Each kid will choose two mitzvot from each list, and will dedicate one month of the school year to practicing each mitzvah. After spending a month immersed in each of their four chosen mitzvot, each student will give a report to the class about which mitzvah he chose, how he practiced it, what the experience was like for him, and how the month-long experiment with that mitzvah changed him.
For me, that’s a big piece of what mitzvah experimentation is about, and a big piece of what Jewish life writ large is about: openness to being changed. There’s a famous moment in Torah when Moshe has communicated to the children of Israel not only the Ten Commandments but also a list of other mitzvot which came along with them, and the children of Israel say נעשה ונשמע/ na’aseh v’nishma, “We will do and we will hear.”
The sages of our tradition seized on that phrase. What does it mean to say “we will do and we will hear” — wouldn’t you think it would be the other way around? If I tell my child to get dressed for school, he has to hear my words before he can do what I’ve asked. It’s not fair to expect him to do the thing before he hears me, is it?
Even if we expand the definition of “hearing” — maybe it’s not about literally hearing the instruction, but about understanding it — the verse is still tricky. Surely it’s better to understand something before one tries to do it? Jewish tradition says otherwise. Jewish tradition says, sometimes we have to do in order to understand.
This is a dance which has been going on for thousands of years. It’s as old as Judaism, and so is this question: when we dance with the mitzvot, when we dance with God, who “leads”? How much of it is dictated by our Partner, and how much depends on us? And what matters more: doing the steps without mistakes, or doing the steps with heart?
In the early centuries of the Common Era our sages argued: is it better to recite the words of the Shema perfectly without feeling their meaning, or is it better to focus on feeling the meaning even if one errs in saying the words? And relatedly: should one wait to say the words until the feeling is there?
The same questions might be asked of what we’re doing today. Is it better to recite the prayers of Yom Kippur without feeling their meaning, or to focus on feeling the meaning even if we don’t say all of the words? Should we wait to say these words, or wait to fast, until we “feel like it”? What if we never “feel like it”?
The tension between doing and feeling does matter. We don’t want our religious lives to be dry structures with no heart in them. But we also don’t want our religious lives to unfold only when the feeling is already there. Sometimes we need to do in order to feel. We hear the music in a different way when we give ourselves over to the dance.
I don’t know what our bar mitzvah boys (and yes, this year they’re all boys) will feel, or understand, or experience, as they try on different mitzvot. I’m looking forward to learning from them.
I invite y’all to experience a taste of what our bar mitzvah boys are doing. I’m asking them to choose four mitzvot and spend one month practicing each. My invitation to you is to choose one mitzvah this year, and dive into it as deeply as you are willing and able to go. (Here is a copy of the list of mitzvot I gave to the bar mitzvah class: Twenty Mitzvot [pdf].)
Try a new mitzvah this year in solidarity with our bar mitzvah boys, and model for them what it’s like to be an adult who’s still learning and growing. Or try a mitzvah you’ve done before, but do it now in a more sustained way. And then make an appointment with me, and tell me how practicing that mitzvah has changed you.
If you are like me — and I suspect that you are — you may be feeling some discomfort around the idea that a practice will change you. It sounds like giving up agency. It sounds like admitting that you need to be changed. Maybe, like me, you’re thinking: but I don’t want to change. I like myself how I already am. I don’t need to be changed. Actually I’ll bet it’s not even going to change me.
We all feel that resistance. Even the rabbi. Change is hard, and accepting that we might need to change is even harder. We can all come up with a million reasons why we are the way we are, why our existing habits suit us, why we can’t possibly do things differently.
We make excuses. I’ve been yearning to make havdalah every week, but then I think: I can’t possibly impose that on my family. My prayer life is perfunctory sometimes, but then I think: that’s normal for a working parent, it’s not anything I need to fix. I don’t always speak my mind and heart in all of my relationships, but then I think: better not to rock the boat. I know I should be more engaged in the struggle for social justice, but then I think: I can’t add anything else to my already-full plate…
Yom Kippur comes every year to remind us that change is not optional. Without change, there is stasis, and stasis is death. Yom Kippur comes to remind us that our habits of body, heart, mind, and soul become calcified and constricting. That each year we miss the mark in our habitual ways, and each year we have the opportunity to break free from those habits and become someone new.
Our sages see Yom Kippur as a rehearsal for our death. Some of us wear white, like the burial shrouds in which we will all someday be buried. Many of us fast from food and drink, as those who have died no longer savor the tastes of this world. We recite a vidui, a confessional prayer, as we will recite a vidui on our deathbeds.
The sages say, make teshuvah — repent; return; align yourself with God again — on the day before your death. We never know when the day before our death might be, which means we should be making teshuvah all the time. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what in your life would you wish were different? What would you wish you had changed while you still had the chance?
What are the truths you’ve been afraid to speak — to yourself; in your relationships; to God? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you feel free to speak them at last, so you could leave this life with a clean slate and light heart? Yom Kippur comes to urge us: speak those truths now. Don’t wait.
Every day is an opportunity to wake up and to shake off old fears and old habits which no longer serve us. Every day is an opportunity to live more fully into the mitzvot, and to let the practice of mitzvot change us. And because it’s human nature to resist change, our tradition gives us Yom Kippur as a day dedicated to this uncomfortable life-changing work.
Yom Kippur calls us to face ourselves, in all of our imperfections and with all of our resistance. Today invites us to ask: what are we so afraid of?
Are we afraid that we’ll have to admit to ourselves that we could have been better people, we could have been truer to ourselves, we could have lived with more mindfulness and more integrity and more connection with God every moment of our lives until now?
Are we afraid that we’ll have to admit to ourselves that we’ve sold ourselves short, that we’ve been settling for less, that we’ve taken the path of least resistance instead of seeking continued change and growth in our lives?
What’s worse: having to admit that I could have been better before now, but committing myself now to embracing my changes and the fullness of who I can be — or refusing to admit that, and therefore never growing, never changing, never deepening my spiritual practice or my relationships or how I am in the world?
Yom Kippur comes to remind us: there’s no time like the present. In fact, there’s no time but the present. And Yom Kippur comes to remind us: this isn’t actually so hard. As we read this morning:
כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹא־רְחֹקָ֖ה הִוא: לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֨יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה: וְלֹא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה: כִּי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשׂתוֹ:
Surely, this mitzvah that I enjoin upon you today is not so wondrous for you, and it is not so far. It is not in the heavens that one should say, “Who shall go up into the heavens for us and get it for us that we will hear it and do it?” It is not over the sea that one should say, “Who will cross over to the other side of the sea for us to get it for us that we will hear it and do it?” The word is very close to you, in your own mouth and in your heart to do it.
The mitzvot are right here within our grasp. They will change us, if we let them. Just as life will change us, if we let it. Everything we experience offers us an opportunity to become more conscious, more compassionate, more mindful. Every mitzvah invites us to let go a little bit, and to let something greater than ourselves in.
Our people’s dance with the mitzvot has been going on for thousands of years. The dance is what changes us: not necessarily any given set of steps, but the fact that we’re willing to take the risk of entering into the dance, and to keep dancing.
Na’aseh v’nishmah. “We will do, and we will hear.” Yom Kippur calls us to do. Do, and then listen for the still small voice of your own soul. Do, and then hear. Dance, and let yourself be changed.