One area of communal behavior at which we Conservative Jews excel is beating ourselves up. More than any other denomination, we’re unhappy with the shape we’re in. We don’t pray regularly; we cut corners with kashrut; we ignore Shabbat; we are Hebraically illiterate; and our knowledge of Judaism is thin at best. On top of all that, we are dying as a movement. We know this because every Jewish media outlet takes great joy in printing our obituary week after week. After reading the Jewish press, I feel like standing up and singing that Spam-A-Lot tune, “I’m Not Dead Yet.”
In truth, we all could be doing a better job in the Jewish identity department. Equally true is the fact that all Jews, no matter who they are or which denomination they belong to, could be doing a better job in the Jewish identity department. One of the greatest lessons of the Torah is that it ended before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Why? Because one never truly enters the Promised Land. First of all, if one entered it, it would cease to be the Promised Land, as a promise fulfilled ceases to be a promise. And secondly, to enter the Promised Land implies the end of a journey – and that’s impossible, because as long as we live, the journey continues. In short, we could all be better Jews.
It’s been well over a year since any of us at my shul have heard the term mitzvah translated as “commandment.” We have switched to referring to a mitzvah as a sacred connection, from the Aramaic term of the same root, tzavta, meaning a joining together or collection. A mitzvah is something that connects us to our history, Bible, God, people, and so forth. But what do we really mean when we talk about mitzvah as a connection?
A recent edition of Science Illustrated (January/February 2013) had an article entitled “Twins of The Same Mind,” about Tatiana and Krista Hogan. These two Canadian girls, now six years of age, are conjoined at the head, sharing major parts of their brains. It is an extraordinary story. Only one in 2.5 million twins are conjoined in this manner, and of that tiny group, only one in four survives. Tatiana and Krista are actually a success story as they have not only survived, but seem to be developing normally, to the extent that is possible. Their connection is so real and so organic that when Tatiana looks at an image, it is registered mentally by Krista, even if Krista hasn’t looked at the image directly, and vice versa. What Tatiana sees, Krista immediately visualizes. We would not wish their anatomy on anyone, but the photo of the two of them standing together, holding hands and smiling, is deeply reassuring. And they share a cognitive intimacy that few of us have ever or will ever know.
All this has a bearing on referring to a mitzvah as a sacred connection. Imagine, if you will, a magic potion that would allow us to think like an Israelite about to cross the Red Sea, like an Israeli assigned to a military operation in Gaza, like a Polish Jew in the 1940s who has just been loaded onto a box car – or, incomprehensible as it may be, like God. There is no such magic potion, of course. But there are mitzvot, and the mitzvot are designed to connect us to our people, wherever they are, and whenever they have lived.
Wait, wait, you may be thinking. You know plenty of Jews, observant Jews, who fulfill mitzvot daily, regularly, religiously, and never have you heard them being connected in this manner. That may be true, and the explanation is twofold. First, do you know for sure that they are not so connected? Have they ever shared with you the experience of mitzvah and how a specific mitzvah impacts on their lives? That may be a discussion worth having. And secondly, let’s say that in ascertaining exactly what the experience of the mitzvah is for them, we find that it doesn’t really go much beyond the physical, mechanical act. In that case, I have a question of them: Have they really experienced the mitzvah? And if the answer is that many so-called observant Jews who fulfill mitzvot do so mechanically or thoughtlessly, is there a huge difference between them and those terrible Conservative Jews who don’t observe the mitzvah at all? Personal opinion: I think not.
The other day, I was speaking with a lovely young lady from the Former Soviet Union. She said that for her, Pesach is the most important Jewish holiday. She remembers her mother pulling her out of a Jewish Sunday school, out of fear of the reprisals that might come upon the family for subjecting their child to such foolishness. Every Pesach, she told me, her grandfather would stand in line outside the synagogue in the wee hours of the morning, waiting for a special package, and then bring home a case of matzah. She would munch on that matzah and realize that to sacrifice freedom for a few creature comforts was no way for a human being to live. She’d rather align herself with a people that pursued freedom, even if she had to subsist on hard, thin, “taste-challenged” bread. When she ate that matzah, on Pesach, in the FSU, even though she had no knowledge of what blessing to recite, she definitely fulfilled the mitzvah. She was connected with her broader family, the Jewish people around the world, who dedicate their lives to freedom and truth.
One of the strengths of Conservative Jews is that, on balance, we question not tradition, but the meaning of tradition. We want to know why we ought to do mitzvah x, y, or z. We ought to take pride in that thirsting for a reason, for unless we know the point of a mitzvah, the way in which it will connect us sacredly, we cannot really fulfill it.
When we are able to engage in a mitzvah experience the way it was truly meant, a sudden thought will pop into mind – one that has been generated not by our mind, but by God’s. It is with God’s mind that we connect whenever we perform a mitzvah that is brimming with meaning. And that’s the way it was meant to be done.