Parashat Ki Tavo Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
What do you think of when you hear (or read) the word "mitzvah?"
In every day speech, it's not unusual to hear someone (Jewish) say "He did a real mitzvah?" or "Would you like to do a mitzvah?"
When we talk about "doing a mitzvah," we are talking about doing a good deed. Performing some act of kindness for someone else.
Now . . . what do you think of when you hear (or read) the word "commandment?"
You might think of the Ten Commandments: one God; no idols; Shabbat; honoring parents; no adultery, etc. It's also not unusual to think of commandment as the reason we do ritual things like pray, keep kosher, light Shabbat candles.
It is fascinating to me that these two terms "mitzvah" and "commandment" should evoke such different associations . . . because they are Hebrew and English translations of each other. A mitzvah is a commandment. A commandment is a mitzvah.
The opening verses of this week's parashah / Torah portion shows us exactly how "mitzvah" and "commandment" are, indeed, the same.
"When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before Adonay your God: 'I have cleared out the consecrated portion [that tenth of yield] from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments.... Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel....'"
The "mitzvah" of taking care of the vulnerable people in our society is the "commandment" to give a tenth of one's income to support the community [the Levite who had no land and therefore no income but who maintained the religious structures upon which everyone in the community depended] and the vulnerable [the stranger who was vulnerable because he or she had no communal ties and the widow and orphan who did not have the resources to maintain themselves].
The concept of mitzvah/commandment is an enriching one, for it puts into our hands the power to transform a myriad of actions into moments of "kedushah", moments of sanctity. A check to the Rhode Island Free Clinic, or Crossroads, or Amos House, or The Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry becomes a sacred act, a mitzvah. Paying your synagogue dues is analogous to supporting the Levite and is, thus, a sacred act. Putting others ahead of ourselves, sharing our resources, supporting the community that ties us together are all acts of kedushah, sacred acts.
May we stand together as God looks down from heaven, secure in our knowledge that we have done as God has commanded us and that we are deserving of God's blessing.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.