Serve God, Serve Ourselves: The Spiritual Discipline of Mitzvot

Rabbi Amitai Adler
April 10, 2014
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Our freedom is contingent upon service. Though often misquoted (or half-quoted), God’s message to Pharaoh was always shlach et ‘ami va-ya’avduni “Let my people go so that they can serve Me.”

So Pesach is an entirely suitable time of the year for us to be considering how we serve God, and how we can do so more meaningfully–for us, and for Him.

Our primary method of serving God is to do mitzvot, of course, but there are a lot of those, and it can be difficult to understand where to begin, what to do, why they serve God, and how to do them all in a way that is meaningful and helpful for us.

The mitzvot are not just there to be done because God said so. They are a spiritual discipline for us. Doing them helps us cultivate spiritual awareness, kavanah (focus/intention), and spiritual mastery or strength. These are qualities that can help us see the world and ourselves more clearly; pay better attention to the experience of being alive in the world; value others more and value the world more; help us create compassion, mercy, justice, and fairness; help us turn our experiences, hard-learned lessons, observations of others, introspections, and learning into wisdom. To pursue these things, to attain them, to prioritize doing the things that can lead us to them, can help us create lives more full of meaning, which not only makes us better people to each other, but makes us happier and more satisfied, and more able to recover from the blows we all suffer in life sooner or later.

The place to begin might be tefillah (prayer). This is something which does not just take place in a synagogue, nor is it read out of a siddur. Abraham Joshua Heschel–the great twentieth-century Jewish philosopher–says that any time one does a mitzvah, that is prayer. Part of what he means by this is that in his understanding, the foundation of prayer is the awareness or recognition of God and God’s Creation. Heschel calls this “radical amazement.”

In other words, when we eat an apple, and before biting into it, make the brachahbaruch atah Hashem elohenu melech ha-olam, borei p’ri ha-etz,” “Blessed are you, Hashem our God, sovereign of the universe, creator of tree fruits,” we are not saying words because we have to say those words, nor are we acknowledging God’s creatorship as sort of a metaphysical payment for consuming the fruit. To say that brachah is (in theory) to take a moment to bring to our consciousness the remarkable artistry of God, our remarkable good fortune for living in this world, and the incredible marvels that are apples and human physiology. What a magnificent little miracle it is that we have evolved so perfectly with our world that we can derive sustenance from consuming the other things in it, like apples! What a brilliant touch in God’s creation that not only can this piece of plant provide us vitamins, sugars, minerals, fiber, and suchlike, that our bodies require to function, but they are delightful and delicious! How sweet and tart and crunchy an apple is, how refreshing and energizing! How incredible that this strange little red, green, and yellow bulb of plant matter that hangs off tree branches is so good to eat and so good for us. And how entirely appropriate it is that, noticing or reminding ourselves of these things, we should rejoice in our good fortune, and thank God for this little thing that would be so easy to take for granted in our lives.

There are brachot for everything–eating, drinking, seeing things, hearing things, smelling things, meeting people, marking time, and any number of other things–and that is no accident. There are times daily for us to formally pray, an action which is not merely about praising God, or asking Him for stuff, but for us to meditate, to introspect–the Hebrew word for prayer, le-hitpalel, at its root, actually means something along the lines of “self-examination”–to know ourselves a little better, and to pour out our hearts to God, who always listens. There are holidays–even one every seventh day–where we mark the passage of time, and have the opportunity to pay attention not only to the motion of the world around us, but to our lives, our needs, our emotions, our relationships with others. We keep kosher so that we are forced to think about what we eat and what we don’t, and what it means to consume things, and how we want to do that. We have hundreds of different rules about treating other people fairly and/or well, about social justice, about keeping our interpersonal relationships directed towards holiness. Rules for business, for travel, for building, for planting, for marrying and divorcing, for raising children, for burying people, and for everything in between.

And all these things are there to give us constant moments of awareness of ourselves and our lives–how intertwined we are with other people, how many experiences we Jews have in common with each other, how remarkable living in the world is, and how all these things connect us with God, who made it all. Moments of prayer– if we permit ourselves that awareness, that “radical amazement,” and let it flow into the words that accompany those moments, in which we acknowledge God.

It is a great loss to modern Jewish society that we have been extremely bad at teaching this. One of the most common complaints I hear from students (and the parents of students) is that too much of what I teach–Torah, halachah, and so on–is archaic, only partially or tangentially relevant to modern life, not useful. And while it is true that observing mitzvot is unlikely to directly increase one’s chances of getting into a better college, securing more profitable employment, or hone the skills of business or career, that in no way means that they are not useful.

People thirst for meaning. They yearn to touch the numinous. They seek satisfaction–more than mere career success, academic achievement, or material wealth. They crave spirituality, even when they don’t know to put that label on what they want. The more secular society becomes, the more rational and ordered Western life becomes, the easier it becomes to accumulate belongings or wealth, the greater the profusion of casual diversions available to us–the more we want something deeper, something important, something that challenges us to become better people.

In compounding the error of not teaching people to recognize observance of mitzvot for what it is– or what it is supposed to be, at least–we also have succumbed to the Western temptation to view everything as a commodity to be acquired, and so we treat Judaism. Shuls charge exorbitant membership fees to come to services with ever more clergy, ever more musicians and instruments, in huge and expensive buildings; and members come occasionally as they please, participate minimally if ever, and they treat Judaism as if it were something one gets in a sanctuary, from a pew seat. And then they wonder why they find it so unfulfilling, especially in view of how much they might enjoy yoga or Buddhist meditation or pop psychology.

But what they want– what we all need– is here. It’s with us. Our entire tradition is constructed around it, out of it, for it. And we don’t recognize it anymore. It is the ability to make everything into tefillah. The chance to be aware of meaning all the time. To live with radical amazement.

The spiritual discipline of mitzvot is our great tool for self-improvement, for building community, for helping improve the world, for opening ourselves up and being aware of ourselves, for growing our awareness of the world around us, for learning to see the hand of the Artist in all His works around us and within us.

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