“What is a mitzvah?” I was asked this week. “What does it really mean?” my questioner added. They had already looked it up in the dictionary, and they were ready for an argument, armed with Merriam-Webster’s definition.
The question arose because of a song by Mindy Simmons, a well-known local musician who sang it at my synagogue’s Friday night service. It’s called What’s a Mitzvah.
My questioner wanted to know if the actions in the song were mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) or simply good deeds.
I have three answers for you. All are correct; you can choose the one that speaks to you.
The first is that the literal meaning of the word mitzvah is this: A commandment from God, as communicated by Moses in the Torah. There are positive mitzvot and negative mitzvot. The Ten Commandments contains examples of both; thou shall honor thy father and thy mother, and thou shall not murder.
Many Orthodox Jews will tell you that they lead mitzvah-driven lives, meaning that they intentionally incorporate as many mitzvot as possible into their daily lives. This includes observing negative mitzvot, such as the prohibition against mixing milk and meat.
The second answer is that many mitzvot can appropriately be called good deeds. This more modern view of mitzvot concentrates on being a good person rather than Torah law. It involves the self rather than God; we feel compelled to do good because we are good people, not because God told us to be good.
But being a good person is fulfilling Torah law. The two mitzvot that communicate this in the broadest sense can be found in Leviticus chapter 19, also known as the Holiness Code. God tells Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” Leviticus 19:2.
And if “thou shalt be holy” is too vague for you, read a little further in the same chapter and you’ll find this: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18.
Performing kindnesses for others, even kindnesses that are seemingly trivial, fulfill these mitzvot. Often, those same actions fulfill the mitzvah of caring for “the stranger among you” since these are things we do on behalf of strangers as well as loved ones.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is not easy. To me, it is one of the most difficult to understand of all the Torah commandments. How can I possibly do that? Don’t I have to take care of myself first, because (as I am repeatedly told by very smart people) no one else is going to do it for me?
And how far does the word “neighbor” take me? Next door? Down the street? Every Jew in Sarasota? Every person in Sarasota?? The task becomes more and more daunting. And yet, that’s the challenge that the Torah gives us — to discern who is my neighbor, what they might need, and how I can help.
Perhaps, the goal is to simply get to know our neighbors. Only then will we know what they need and which mitzvot (or good deeds) will be helpful.
My third answer is from the song itself. Here are the first verse and the chorus:
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, That’s Amore…
When a friend gives you cloth to wipe pie from your eye, That’s a mitzvah!
Oy oy oy, what’s a mitzvah? Oh A mitzvah is something you kindly and thoughtfully do.
Oy oy oy, what’s a mitzvah? As you bless folks with mitzvahs those blessings flow right back to you.
The deep truth in Mindy’s song lies in the last line of the chorus. It is the truth behind every mitzvah we perform, whether we regard it as commanded or inspired or simply a good deed.
The truth of every mitzvah is that it is a blessing. When you do something that you or someone else perceives as a mitzvah, you create something new. Something that did not exist in the moments before. You created a blessing.
Your small act, kind word, $10 donation, or other thoughtful action creates a spark that can lead to another spark, then another and another and another.
You might not be the recipient of the next blessing – the person who you blessed could bestow it on someone else. Nowadays we call that paying it forward. Whatever you choose to call it, you have begun a chain reaction that has the potential to change the world. Even if it is for just one person.
And that my friends is a mitzvah.