This past December I made a brief trip home, just before Hanukkah, to celebrate my niece becoming bat mitzvah. I had been given the opportunity to introduce her to the way we prepare our students here at Congregation B’nai Shalom beyond the words they learn to recite for a Shabbat morning service — our Sha’arei Kehilah (Gates of Community) program asks them to engage in some expression of each of the ten mitzvot contained in rabbinic teachings from the Mishna which are recorded as follows:
These are the things that are beyond measure. A person enjoys their fruit in this world, and lives upon their principal in the world to come: honoring one’s father and mother; performing acts of love and kindness; arriving promptly at the house of study; welcoming the stranger; visiting the sick; providing for the wedding couple; seeing to the needs of the deceased; praying with devotion; and making peace where there is strife. And the study of Torah leads to them all.
All of these mitzvot are about sustaining community life by making a contribution within the family, within the congregation, and as part of broader society, to be present with and for each other. To become bar or bat mitzvah is not to complete a list of tasks, but to enter the next stage of life, as a Jewish adult, where one recognizes one’s own obligations to make a difference in the lives of others in these ways.
Gaining fluency in the language of mitzvah is something that all of us can make as a goal in our lives. While many of the specific acts in the list above are not unique to being Jewish, we have a gift in Jewish ethical teachings to make mitzvah core to how we orient ourselves and prioritize the things that truly bring joy and meaning to our lives and the lives of others. When I had the opportunity to address my niece, while sharing some of the mitzvot she had done this past year, I shared the following thoughts about how and why we do this:
Mitzvot are all about connections. Even the word itself is connected conceptually to an Aramaic word אתווצ — tzavta, which means connection or togetherness. In kabbalah, the vav in the center of the word mitzvah is interpreted as a hook — something that connects two things together. I really love this idea of mitzvah as a connection — there are mitzvot between us and God — that’s one kind of connection. There are also mitzvot between us and other people — that’s another kind of connection. Both can be deeply spiritual and help us grow.
The teaching in the Mishna begins by telling us that there is “no measure” to the list of mitzvot that follows. Rabbinic commentators centuries ago understood that to mean that you would be following the letter of the law if you did the minimal amount in these various categories of mitzvot, but there is another way to think about what the meaning is of a mitzvah being “without measure” — it also gives us something precious: room to grow. At one stage of life, a person’s ability to give or to participate may be limited by any of a number of factors: knowledge of the mitzvah, inclinations, the facts of life, income, and so on. Later, we may grow into mitzvot that we neglected or observed only minimally when we were younger. So there’s room to grow and do more as you continue on your journey.
And one more interpretation of what “beyond measure” can mean — that the rewards for creating a caring community are literally beyond measure. There is a joy to helping other people that is impossible to describe.
Here at Congregation B’nai Shalom, we provide a variety of opportunities to learn about and practice mitzvot. They include participating in and volunteering with our social action group — our ongoing commitment to Northborough Meals, our new project in formation to assist a newly arrived refugee family, and the ongoing projects that come with being part of our Religious school community. They include participating in the ritual life of the congregation by ensuring there is a community for those who mourn both at the temple and by visiting a home to support someone during shiva. They include engaging in one or more of the many opportunities throughout the year for adult learning, whether as part of an ongoing group like Torah study, Book Club, one-off sessions or series, or family education mornings. Become fluent in the language of mitzvah — and if there is something that you would like to learn more about to integrate it into your life, please be in touch so that we can support you and provide the resources you need.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz