Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – May, 2013

The third of the three Biblical Pilgrimage festivals, coming approximately at the beginning of the summer, is Shavuot (“Weeks”), named after the practice of counting the days and weeks from Pesah to Shavuot. Although it is a harvest festival in the Torah, this aspect of the festival has been eclipsed by its post-Biblical connection to the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, Shavuot is the holiday on which we read the Ten Declarations/Commandments and celebrate receiving the Torah.

Torah is, of course, the foundational text of Judaism. Traditional Judaism is structured around the practices of Torah, also know as mitzvah.

The literal, Biblical meaning of mitzvah is commandment, an obligation that God has imposed upon you. The implication of this is spelled out clearly in the Bible – God rewards those individuals and communities who follow the mitzvot, and punishes those who are disobedient. If this theology works for you as a motivation to engage in serious Jewish life and practice, you can stop reading here (and I’ll see you on Shavuot!). If you, however, like most Jews, do not believe that God cares whether you observe mitzvot, don’t believe that God rewards and punishes, keep reading – I’m going to give you an alternative meaning of mitzvah, inspired by a talk given by my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson.

The hasidic tradition noticed that the root of the word mitzvah in Aramaic means, “to connect” and understood mitzvah to mean “a connection.” Mitzvah is our means of making connections. When we are in a relationship, we do things for the other person not because we are seeking reward or afraid of punishment, but because the things we do express our desire to be in that relationship. The acts of mitzvah are acts which express our intimate relationship with God and/or with Torah and/or with the Jewish people and/or with the broad and eternal concept of Judaism. Most Jews at certain points in their life, find incredible and deep meaning in mitzvah – it may be within funeral ritual, it may be at a Passover Seder, it may be at a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration, or it may be at a synagogue service. It is an experience of finding a connection to eternity through the texts and rituals that have sustained the Jewish relationship with the Divine for millennia. As in any relationship, the more you do, the deeper the relationship becomes, and the more joy you find in the relationship. Shavuot is the holiday on which we read the “love letter” and marriage contract of the Divine-Human relationship. See you at Mount Sinai!

The full talk by Rabbi Artson, Contemporary Meaning of Mitzvot, can be found online at ZiegerTorah.org.


I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • Partially planning and leading a 9th grade religious school trip to New York. We visited three different synagogues for services, two Jewish museums, a number of kosher restaurants, a walking tour and a museum of the Lower East Side, a Broadway Show, and more.
  • I gave an Introduction to Judaism talk and tour of the Synagogue to students of Westwood Middle School of Grand Rapids.

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