What Is a Mitzvah? The Unification of Infinite and Mundane
Parshas Mishpatim begins the detailed enumeration and explication of mitzvos that will pervade the remainder of the Torah. Commonly construed as laws for societal regulation and strictures for religious allegiance, mitzvos are the backbone of Jewish life and practice. But the Chassidic masters teach that mitzvos are far more than commandments. They are, in fact, the thread that elegantly weaves together the otherwise distinct worlds of spirituality and materiality.
What is the inner essence of a Mitzvah?
Generally speaking, there are three categories of Jewish life: prayer, study, and action, or as the sages enumerate them, Torah (study), avodah (service/prayer), and gemillus chasadim (acts of kindness). We began each day with prayer in order to climb above our physical reality and remind ourselves of our Godly essence and our divine purpose. From the house of prayer, we go directly to the house of study in order to take the profound insights that we gained through our meditation and capture them in a systematic intellectual framework so that they don’t drift back into the ethers and leave us groping in the dark. From the house of study, we then set out into the world of action in order to implement our plan and fulfill our task of revealing God in the depths of His creation. We do this through every aspect of our engagement with the physical world. Most of this engagement is regulated by various mitzvos in order to provide us the opportunity to bring Godliness directly into the most mundane and ordinary aspects of existence. If we wonder why there are so many mitzvos and why they apply to so many details of our lives, this is precisely the reason.
Simply perceived as laws or rules to keep us in line or to test and gauge our devotion and obedience, mitzvos are in fact much more. While the 613 mitzvos of the Torah do in fact legislate our interaction and behavior, they were established by God not simply in order to delimit our lives or to enforce His rulership. They are intended to provide us a means by which we can fuse heaven and earth by introducing Godly intentionality into base materiality. The word “mitzvah” derives from the root “tzav,” which means “command,” but it is also etymologically related to the Aramaic “tzavsa,” which means “bond.” By performing mitzvos, we are not merely fulfilling God’s commandments, but we are also creating bonds through which we connect and unite this lowly world with its ultimate divine source and reality. The mitzvos are therefore not a burden that God foisted upon us in order to control and subjugate us. They are rather a gift that He bestowed on us in order to enable us to unite with Him in intimacy and actuality.
Thus, as we complete our daily regimen of prayer and Torah study through which we have focused our consciousness and intellect on the task of revealing God’s unity throughout the day ahead, we then move into the workday world to activate and actualize that intention. Work itself is a mitzvah, as we are commanded to earn a livelihood with which we can sustain ourselves and our family. Additionally, we are commanded to donate at least ten percent of our earnings to those in need. Therefore, our labor enables us to fulfill the mitzvah of “tzedaka/charity,” which the sages equate to all of the other mitzvos combined. Furthermore, our interactions in the marketplace – whether it is the actual marketplace of goods and services or the marketplace of ideas, depending on what type of work we do – will provide us innumerable other mitzvah opportunities. These can range from the detailed regulations on fair business practices to the ethics of proper speech and interpersonal relations. Throughout the course of an average day, every one of us will perform numerous mitzvos, each of them providing us the opportunity to infuse our environment with another spark of Godly light. The mystics describe every aspect of this world as a kernel of God that is encased in a shell, known as “kelipah” in Hebrew. When we engage that portion of the world properly, we crack the shell and reveal the divine light that was hidden within it. When we are provided with a mitzvah opportunity and we neglect it, however, we leave the “kelipah/shell” intact, and we render the Godliness within it undetected and untapped.
What we begin to recognize then is that the daily order of prayer, study, and mitzcos that the Torah prescribes is a progression that lifts us out of the world and then lowers us back into it. After we have scaled the heavens in our meditative prayer, when we return below through Torah study and then mitzvos, we carry with us that light which we had gathered above through climbing the ladder of prayer. But as we descend, we must convert what we are conveying into a form in which it can be contained and utilized. In prayer, we reached up and grabbed the spiritual. With our soul’s “hand,” so to speak, we grasped something that is beyond the world. Through Torah study, we then utilized the fingers of our mind, so to speak, and brought it down into the intellect, which is still amorphous, but is at least related to the world. Finally, through mitzvos, we transfer it onto our fleshy and physical hand, infusing it into action, and literally marrying the Godly with the material.
We might compare this to a common chemical process by which a substance is condensed from a vapor to a liquid and then a solid. In prayer, we are dealing with divine breath which speaks through our mouths. With Torah, which is commonly compared to life-giving waters, we have brought God’s whisper down into a more tangible and relatable form. But like liquid, it is still shapeless and unembodied. And so we move on to mitzvos, and through them we convert this liquid into a palpable and malleable solid with which we can influence and perfect our world.
The process of effecting the revelation of the imperceptible divine truth by translating mystic consciousness into routine action through the performance of mitzvos can be see this in the following Talmudic citation:
אדם נותן פרוטה לעני זוכה ומקבל פני שכינה שנאמר אני בצדק אחזה פני (תהלים יז, טו)
Adam nosein prutah l’ani zocheh u’mekabeil Pnei Shechina, shene’emar “ani b’tzedek echezeh panecha.”
When a person gives a prutah (coin) to a poor person, he merits to receive the Divine Presence, as it is stated in Psalms 17:15: “I will behold Your face through charity.”
(Talmud, Bava Basra 10a)
Here we find that it is specifically through the very simple and physical action of giving “tzedaka/charity” that God’s presence is revealed in the world. What’s more, this is accomplished not through any prodigious act of lavish generosity, but even through the donation of a single coin. How can such a simple act effect such a profound revelation? What is it about a small and ostensibly inconsequential action that is so much more impactful than deep and extensive meditation or profound intellectual cognition? The answer is that a mitzvah deed is the will of God materialized. As such, it is the bridge that fuses the highest and lowest worlds. Before the act, there may be an abundance of consciousness and understanding, but there is no physical confirmation. There is theory and belief, but there is no transference and activation. God is an idea prior to the act of the mitzvah, but once the mitzvah is performed, God is present and apparent. A physical/animal being, by “nature” has every reason to be self-serving and self-preserving, and no reason to be self-effacing or altruistic. When such a being chooses, through the performance of a mitzvah, to subvert its innate instincts in service and devotion to something beyond itself, this is the appearance of a Godly aspect of that being that was previously concealed beneath its flesh.
The Alter Rebbe expresses this remarkable revelation of God’s essence through the performance of mitzvos in his work Tanya as follows.
חִיְּיבוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ־זִכְרוֹנָם־לִבְרָכָה לָקוּם וְלַעֲמוֹד מִפְּנֵי כָּל עוֹסֵק בְּמִצְוָה, אַף אִם הוּא בּוּר וְעַם
.הָאָרֶץ, וְהַיְינוּ, מִפְּנֵי ה׳ הַשּׁוֹכֵן וּמִתְלַבֵּשׁ בְּנַפְשׁוֹ בְּשָׁעָה זוֹ
Chiyvu Razal lakum v’laamod mipnei kol osek bamitzvah, af im hu bor v’am haaretz, v’haaynu mipnei Hashem hashochein u’mislabeish b’nafsho b’shaah zu.
The sages made it obligatory to rise and stand before anyone who is engaged in a mitzvah, even if he is a boor and uncultured person, that is to say before the face of Hashem that dwells and is garbed in his soul at this time.
(Tanya, chapter 46)
While a “nitzotz Elokus/spark of God” is vested within each of us at all times, it is only when one is engaged in the fulfillment of a mitzvah that the Sages ordained that others must rise and stand in her/his presence. And this show of respect must be paid to anyone who performs a mitzvah, regardless of whether s/he is a communal leader or a social outcast (See Kiddushin 33a – while this does not apply to all mitzvos today, it was applicable during the time of the Temple when one performed the mitzvah of bringing the First Fruits or other similar rituals.). This is because the mitzvah act – each and every mitzvah act – makes one’s inherent Godliness so apparent that it is as if one is in the presence of God Himself. Significantly, this does not apply to Torah study, as we learn in the Talmud:
אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר אָבִין בּוֹא וּרְאֵה כַּמָּה חֲבִיבָה מִצְוָה בִּשְׁעָתָהּ שֶׁהֲרֵי מִפְּנֵיהֶם עוֹמְדִים מִפְּנֵי
.תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים אֵין עוֹמְדִים
Amar Rebbi Yosei bar Avin bo u’reeh kamah chaviva mitzvah b’shaata she’harei mipneihem omdim mipnei talmidei chachamim ain omdim.
Rabbi Yosei bar Avin says: Come and see how beloved is a mitzvah performed in its proper time, as they stood before those who were fulfilling a mitzvah, whereas they did not stand before Torah scholars.
(Talmud, Kiddushin 33a)
One might think that such respect would be more appropriate for scholars and leaders, as opposed to ordinary people whose simple act could have been performed by anybody. However, this standing before those engaged in even a simple mitzvah act displays how it is specifically through the practical performance of deed in the world of action that God is openly revealed in the world.
— Excerpted from PNEI HASHEM, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah. www.pneihashem.com