What can the age-old concept of mitzvah mean for us today? Does it possess relevance that can inspire, even ignite, us?
We live in a world which celebrates autonomy, self-determination, and guidance coming from within. Can the concept of mitzvah, which classically is understood as ‘commandment’, an ‘obligation’, an urgency coming from without, remain compelling, even central, to our lives?
And how would it be incorporated into our understanding of Judaism and environmentalism?
I wish to argue that not only can the concept of mitzvah be compelling for us today, but that it already is. We need to acknowledge it and name it and bring it to the fore.
Mitzvah, it seems to me, is degraded and flattened when translated as commandment. It becomes static, two-dimensional; it loses context, passion and purpose in such a translation. It becomes something that is thrown down, cold and isolated, a burden to be picked up and attended to.
But I imagine mitzvah to be totally otherwise. I see mitzvah as the choreography, the dance, of call and response; it is the very currency of relationship, of one calling out, seeking a response from the other and the other turning toward, and responding to the one who seeks.
It takes two for mitzvah to be. It begins as a need, a desire, the reaching that comes from the one calling out, extended to the other being called to. Sometimes this calling is directed to a specific audience. Sometimes, it is a broadside, cast out in desperation for anyone to pick up. Either way, mitzvah conjures up calling, need, intimacy, hearing, response.
This is the way we all live our lives, intentionally or not. The world calls out to us at all times and we respond, either by engaging or turning away. Both are responses. The first is the way of mitzvah; the second is not.
Sometimes it is a person, or a community, or even a nation that calls to us. Serving as agents on their own behalf, they put forward their needs, more or less forcefully, and wait expectantly. We either choose to engage, or we disappoint.
But sometimes it is those who have no voice, no agent, no advocate who call to us: the land, the earth, the claims of unborn generations, the hopes and charges of past generations, the vulnerable and powerless. These calls are harder to hear, but they are there. These too make claims on us; these too are potential beginnings of mitzvah. And we respond with our actions, the quotidian and grand behaviors that together comprise the fullness of our lives.
Everyday the world, its possessions and its people, call to us. Everyday we put out our call, to family, to friends, to the world at large: be with us, love us, listen to us, encourage us, teach us, make room for us… We do not expect to be turned away, empty-handed. Tears, loneliness, distress well up if we are. As we expect the world to hear and respond to us, so we are bidden to hear and respond to it.
Mitzvah, then, is about naming and acknowledging this relationship; about being honest about the truth that all life is lived in call and response. It is about the fact that our daily lives are lived on both sides of this coupling, and that our happiness, and the world’s health and prosperity, rests on the graciousness or narrowness of our response.
So it makes no sense to ask if mitzvah can be a compelling concept for us today. It already it. The only question is: how well do we tend to it?