The New Synagogue of Long Island
The Synagogue for Spiritual Judaism

What is a Mitzvah?

The word mitzvah is well-known outside of the Jewish world, but its meaning is often misunderstood and misused. One often hears someone Jewish saying, “It’s a mitzvah!” usually referring to a charitable, beneficial act performed by another person.   However, the Hebrew word mitzvah (pronounced meetzVAH or MITZva) does not mean “a good deed” in that sense.   So, just what is a mitzvah?

Mitzvah (מִצְוָה; plural: mitzvot or mitzvoth, מִצְווֹת) is Hebrew and translates literally to “commandment” or “connection.” The term is perhaps most recognizable in reference to the bar mitzvah, son of the commandment, and bat mitzvah, daughter of the commandment, which marks, for each, the entrance of a Jewish child into adulthood at 12 for girls and 13 for boys.

Other words do appear in the Torah in reference to the commandments, specifically with what became popularized as the “Ten Commandments,” which is actually more accurately translated from the Hebrew​aseret ha'diburot as, literally, “the 10 words.” Despite the popular understanding in the secular world that there are only 10 mitzvot, there are actually 613 mitzvot in the Torah.

A mitzvah is not simply a “good deed.”  Mitzvot are commandments, traditionally understood to come from G-d and to be intended for the Jewish people to observe.  A mitzvah is the ultimate expression of how Judaism views religion. It’s not a specific time, place, or with a specific thing.  One just has to have a relationship - a connection - with G-d.  Judaism says you can, you should, have a relationship with G-d over your morning coffee as much as you do over the awe-inspiring day of Yom Kippur. There’s no set place and time that’s just for G-d, to the exclusion of all other places and times - every place and time can shout out      “G-d!” And that’s just the idea of the mitzvah.

Perhaps the two most important mitzvot are: “You shall love the Lord your G-d, with all your heart, with all your might and with all your soul.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The most difficult part of the second mitzvah is to love yourself.  After you love yourself, you can then love your neighbor.  Practice, practice, practice.

Performing mitzvot creates light in the world and that accumulation of light can lead to everything from joy and fulfillment to enlightenment and inner peace.  Sometimes it can be easy to forget; the idea of performing good deeds can feel routine.  But being kind to others results in a sort of dual effect: creating light for someone else and warming yourself by that light at the same time.

There are always people in need of light. A good deed, an act of kindness, a mitzvah - big or small, and whatever you may choose to call it, regardless of your background or beliefs - creates light in the world, a light that will brighten your day, too.

A “Mitzvah” starts at home.  It speaks many languages, follows many cultures and faiths.  A “Mitzvah” isn’t just a “commandment.”  It’s a “connection” – a connection to G-d and to your fellow sisters and brothers. When you do a Mitzvah, you’re expressing that connection.  You and your world become one with G-d.

Next time a mitzvah comes your way, make the connection! The opportunity for a mitzvah is always present.

G-d loves you and we love you!

Rabbi Stuart Paris, HaKohen

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Torah Completion and Celebration

Sunday, May 15, 2016

7 Iyar, 5776

Rabbi Stuart Paris and Rabbi Gedaliah Druin

Rabbi Gedaliah Druin completing the last letter of the Torah