What does loyalty and commitment to high quality religious performance mean? In an age of mass consumption, and with a tradition that emphasizes the rigor of 613 different mitzvot, how is one to acquire excellence in observance and spiritual growth?
Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, in his Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (26:22), teaches that it is more meaningful to honor a deceased parent by walking yashar (doing good and acting justly) than by saying kaddish. He goes on to say that we should honor our parents by committing ourselves to performing a special mitzvah in their honor, and that we should pass along that special mitzvah to our children as well. What a beautiful and powerful idea to own a special mitzvah to honor a loved one and then to continue to pass it through the family!
Rav Chayim Vital, in his magnum opus Sha’ar HaGilgulim, argues that the importance of transmigration of the soul (reincarnation) is that it allows humans to seek growth, perfection, and actualization in this and future lives. He argues that one must fulfill the taryag mitzvot (all of the Torah’s commandments) completely in order to achieve complete deveikut (intimacy with the Infinite), and that we must learn the Torah in all its depth and with all the methods available to us. We return to a new life over and over to attempt to fulfill that mission until our intellectual comprehension is mastered. This might provide us with a compelling model for thinking about Jewish continuity through a Torat Chayim (living Torah), because our lives are not complete until we have lived the full Jewish experience. In our lives, we each have an important mitzvah to perfect (and a teaching to master) before our soul can ascend into its next body.
It is encouraging to see how similar concepts are growing even in mainstream American society. We may say “Tizku l’mitzvot” after someone has done a mitzvah, wishing the individual the merit to perform another mitzvah. In mainstream society, the term “Pay it Forward” refers to passing on an act of kindness to another (usually unknown) person, in what ideally will be an endless cycle of good deeds. While the term and its concept has been around for centuries, it has been popularized in an unprecedented fashion in the last few years by a popular novel and film, and there are now pay-it-forward organizations that promote the concept through various means, such as passing on a bracelet to the next recipient of each good deed. If we help someone who is going through physical therapy or a lengthy period of unemployment or underemployment, we can make a measurable improvement in her life. In an era that appears to have a perverse, anti-tzedakah war on the poor, that has a virtual return to Social Darwinism, our individual acts can counteract this hostility and preserve a world where we look after and help the poor and vulnerable.
The Mei Ha’Shiloah teaches that every soul has its own root and is perfected by a different mitzvah. He teaches that one should sacrifice to actualize this root mitzvah in a way they should not normally act. By taking on one special mitzvah to truly cherish and actualize on the highest level possible, and then by sharing it with loved ones and strangers, we are able to transform ourselves and the world around us, in this and perhaps even other lives.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”