In the last installment, I said:
“Taking that a step further: if there is such variety and it doesn’t matter, why bother changing what I do? Why make myself crazy doing a little bit more when the distance to “good enough” (we won’t even bring “perfect” into this conversation) is so far away and there is no end in sight?
The whole thought makes the mitzvot into a daunting task (for me, at least), and makes those who work so hard to perform them with diligence and devotion appear to be misguided at best.”
That’s a question that has been dogging me for a while. As my family and I delve deeper into our traditions and discover the honest-to-goodness joys of Judaism, I keep wondering (not to mention being asked by well-meaning but dubious friends and relatives) where it’s all going to end.
Why are we doing this? Sure it’s fun. And it’s more satisfying than taking up golf, and it’s safer than skydiving (except maybe the part about kashering your kitchen). But why the constant push to take on another mitzvah? Who was I trying to impress?
Then I found it – a coherent answer framed in a way that actually makes sense:
Blu Greenberg wrote “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household“. In that book she gives a lot of solid, common-sense information about everything from when (and how) to light Shabbat candles to the vagaries of modest dress; from the sublime joy of Shabbat naps to getting kosher meat delivered (and what state it will be in when it arrives).
But along the way she gives some insight into why anyone would want to do all this stuff:
“What Judaism says in effect is this: Yes, commemorating a unique event in history is a holy experience, but so is the experience of waking up alive each morning, or eating to nourish the body, or having sex with one’s mate; so is the act of establishing clear demarcations between work and rest or investing everyday speech and dress with a measure of sanctity. Judaism takes the physical realities of life and imposes on them a set of rules or rituals. By doing so, it transforms this reality or that basic necessity oflife into something beyond itself. That is the heart of the Jewish Way.”
In the moment I read that small paragraph, I stopped feeling like I was in some race where the other runners were not only beating me to the finish line, but circling the track and passing me again and again.
Those guys walking around in peyot and grizzly adams beards; the ones who rush before and after work to daven 3 times a day as if their life depended on it; the ones who practically interrupt their own thoughts so they can say a blessing over one little thing or another: those guys are not jockeying for points, or trying to out-do the person next to them.
They are doing it because each extra little nuance turns what was a typical, normal, forgettable moment into a holy moment; each meaningless disposable item into a holy item with a divine purpose.
Why would I keep going, keep taking on new mitzvot or deepening my observance of commandments I already observe? I would do so when it would make the experience that much more wondrous and sacred.
Where, then will I draw the line? Where is the “there” I’ve been seeking in this essay? When taking on or extending a mitzvah would honestly bring no further sense of sanctity; when it would only represent one more chore I’d be loath to do. Then that’s my que to hold in place, to look around, to celebrate the holiness in the world.
And to be open to the moment when it’s time to move forward again.