Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2014

I was thinking one morning about why we do the things that we do, and it occurred to me that we can classify three different kinds of motivations:

Some things, we do purely because we want to do them. We might go on a bike ride, go to the beach, go out to dinner with our spouse, or go to a movie simply because such activities give us enjoyment.

Other things, we do only because we have been compelled to do them. Into this category we might put actions like paying taxes, driving the speed limit at all times, and paying for each and every item we put into our shopping cart at the grocery store. We might also add to this category things that we are compelled to do by our biology, like aging, getting sick, or dying.

In between, there are the things that we do because we feel a sense of obligation or duty; we don’t want to do them, but neither is anyone specifically forcing us to do them. This is where we live most of our lives. No one is forcing us to work, but we feel a sense of obligation to provide for our family. Exercise or proper eating, for many people, falls into this category. It’s when you go on the bike ride or the walk or eat your vegetables even when you don’t want to, because you know it’s good for you. No one can force us to make charitable contributions or volunteer our time – we do so because we feel a sense of obligation.

These three categories overlap. There are things we do, such as the act of giving or exercising, that make us feel good while or after doing them.

The number of actions that we are actually forced to do is actually very low – there may be some authority that issues a threat if we take a particular action (speeding), but most of the time we know that we can break the law and not get caught, so it is only our sense of civic responsibility that slows us down.

Where does contemporary Jewish observance fall? I am grateful that it is not in the first category. There are no effective or desirable means to compel Jewish life today, nor should their be. Even our model of synagogue affiliation and dues has moved from the coercive to the voluntary.

What is your motivation for Jewish behavior? What kinds of things do you do purely because they give you enjoyment (Synagogue on Shabbat morning, building a Sukkah)?

What kinds of things do you do our of a sense of obligation (or perhaps guilt)?

If you agree that the pure motivation of desire is a higher level of behavior than the level of obligation; what might you do to elevate your Jewish practices? Can you imagine embracing a fuller Jewish life out of the sheer joy of it? How might you achieve this?

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.