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Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide: The Performance of Mitzvot
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In some spiritual traditions, the spiritual seeker has to perform difficult tasks, beyond the bounds of normal human beings. Judaism, too, has a tradition of stories about saintly people who went the extra distance to do mitzvot, God's commandments, and treated people with extreme kindness. An ordinary person can fulfill these same commandments, however, and can endeavor to live according to their ethical principles.
Jewish spirituality is rooted in the present time and in physical experience. The best example of this is Shabbat, a day whose holiness is defined by time. Traditionally, Shabbat begins 18 minutes before the setting of the sun on Friday evening, and ends with the appearance of three stars in the Saturday night sky. Lighting the candles on Shabbat suggests all kinds of symbolic meanings of light, and these do infuse people's experience of the day with holiness. On the other hand, you can think of these lights as the last fire kindled to be able to see and eat together and read on a long evening of not getting up to tend a lamp, as people in ancient times experienced it. We are connected to the natural world through the experience of day and night, and to each other through our history together.
Even in our own day, people observe Shabbat through physical action--drinking wine, eating bread and delicious food, walking outside in nature, being together with our families. The prosaic experience of taking a nap because you aren't working--in Judaism, this is a taste of the world to come. The entirely achievable delights of a nap, a nice meal and some time with your family are like heaven itself--there's no better example of the ordinariness of the spiritual in Judaism.
Even practices that were once the province of learned elites have been adopted by ordinary Jewish communities. The Friday evening service begins with Kabbalat Shabbat, original the most arcane of practices of the 16th century kabbalists of Safed in Israel. They were the ones who personified Shabbat as a queen or bride. Kabbalah means reception, and Kabbalat Shabbat has more than one meaning. It's the kabbalists' Shabbat, the Shabbat of people who have received mystical wisdom from their teachers. It's also a reception of Shabbat like the reception after a wedding--like a big party. It's also reception in the sense of a transmission like radio waves, where we're tuned in to a universal wavelength.
One way Jews have classified the commandments is by breaking them down into two groups: mitzvot bein adam l'makom, commandments governing the relationship between the person and God, and mitzvot bein adam l'havero, commandments governing the relationship between human beings. Ritual actions like prayer, affixing a mezuzah to the doorpost and keeping kosher are all examples of the mitzvot between the individual and God. Donating to charity, providing for the needs of a wedding and comforting mourners are examples of mitzvot between people. Both kinds of mitzvot can be opportunities for spiritual experience.
The concept of beautifying a commandment, hiddur mitzvah, elevates every mitzvah to another level. If you are making blessings on Shabbat and you use a beautiful Kiddush cup or a challah cover that your children made in preschool, you know what I mean. It's a special thing, to feel connected to one another through ritual objects when we act out these rituals that are between us and God.
The best thing in an interfaith family is when you can incorporate the cultural traditions of the non-Jewish side of the family in these mitzvot. What could be more beautiful than using the Greek or Portuguese grandmother's recipe for challah, or making the Italian wedding soup in honor of Shabbat? It's a double mitzvah, because honoring culture is like honoring our parents, which is a very important commandment.
A good example of a mitzvah that a lot of people perform frequently is hachnassat orchim, welcoming guests. It's a mitzvah found in Torah, first described in Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah run to extend hospitality to three strangers. In Talmud, reaching out to guests is more important than study or prayer. The act of opening your door and offering someone food is integral to Jewish spirituality, and you're probably doing it a lot already. If you get up and walk your guests to the door, you are performing a mitzvah, because you escorted them into and out of your house--and you have treated them like the Divine Presence.
It's difficult to capture the religious mentality of wanting to do what one is supposed to do, and therefore creating additional opportunities to do it. If what you think you are supposed to do is to be a good person, to treat your parents and your children well, you're ready for this. If you are the person who makes a casserole whenever anyone gets sick or has a baby, or who asks behind the scenes if someone needs financial help and gives it, who helps people move house, who cries at weddings and who cares what happens in your neighborhood, Jewish spirituality is all about that.