Do a Mitzvah Today

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, January 31, 2024

Mitzvah goreret mitzvah – One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah.
(Pirke Avot 4:2)

In mid-November and mid-January our Women of Solel group gathered in the Solel kitchen to cook and bake and create care packages to bring to Solelniks who would benefit from some homemade food and a visit. This effort is in conjunction with our Mitzvah Committee with the aim to bring good food and good cheer to our community. Women of Solel’s efforts not only bring good cheer and tasty food to our community, it also deepens the connections among people who are cooking together in the kitchen and making baskets, and strengthens the connections between members of our Solel community who are on the receiving end of the baskets and visits.

Pay-it-forward. This is the concept taught to us in Pirke Avot, that one mitzvah leads to another
mitzvah, and indeed we can change the world by our own actions. We often translate the word mitzvah as “good deed”, but the essential meaning of the Hebrew translation is “commandment”, because it comes from the Hebrew root zaveh, meaning “commanded”.

This is one definition of mitzvah: We do mitzvot because we are commanded to do them, not just because they are good and right things to do, or because we may feel good doing them. Similarly, the word tzedakah is often translated as charity, but that doesn’t quite get the particular nuance. Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root tzedek, meaning righteousness and justice. So to participate in tzedakah means that we do what is the right and just thing to do for another person or for the community, and we are all obligated to participate.

As Jews, we are part of what Rabbi Hayyim Herring calls a “commanding community.” This means that we are aware that we can’t live just on our own terms; we need other people, and to live in community with others means that we want to do things in common with others, and that sometimes we have to limit our actions. Doing a mitzvah means embracing the needs of others along with our own.

The next level of understanding the word mitzvah comes from the Aramaic root of the word. The Aramaic root of mitzvah is “tzavta,” meaning “a connection.” In this second sense, mitzvah isn’t just what you do because God said so. Mitzvot are not simply laws to follow. We do mitzvot because we seek to allow holiness into our lives.

The way we live our lives can strengthen our connection to the Source of Being, and to our fellow human beings created Btzelem Elohim (in God’s image). The opposite is also true, the actions that we do or do not do can also separate and divide, break that connection.

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, taught: “I have sought to bring to light the ethical connotations of every word of Torah… the purpose of words of Torah… is that they ethically refine and transform the heart.” He continues “‘Torah is light’ when we understand the spiritual purpose of the mitzvot.”

To do mitzvot, becoming more like God, means transforming ourselves into better human beings, one step at a time. Mitzvot are not just commandments, they are given to us with a purpose, designed to benefit us ethically and spiritually.

So we can add a third definition to mitzvah. Mitzvot are spiritual practices, designed to make us better people in the here-and-now and give us the understanding that leads us to connect to the divine Source of All Being.

When you do a mitzvah, it doesn’t matter whether or not you feel like doing it. It’s the fact that you do it that counts. We are taught in Exodus 24:7 that when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mt. Sinai we didn’t know everything that would be required of us. Much like when two people marry each other and promise to be with each other and support each other, without knowing all that the future will hold, was the marriage between God and the people of Israel.

We received the Torah without really understanding everything that would be commanded of us, but still we responded, Na’aseh v’nishmah – We will do it and then we will understand it. In the same way, when we do a mitzvah, even if we are reluctant, or find it difficult, it still counts because in the doing, we will be changed, deepened, and perhaps sensitized to why doing mitzvot are important, how we change the world one mitzvah at a time.

Remember that Mitzvah goreret mitzvah – one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and it will change us and who we are for the better!


Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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