There is a great commercial for Nyquil which can teach us a lot about religion in modern America. The scene opens with a young man opening a crack in the door with a tissue near his nose, clearly suffering from a very bad cold. He says to somebody, who we assume is his boss: “Dave, I’m sorry to interrupt. I’ve got to take a sick day tomorrow.”
Then the camera shifts, and we say that Dave is a toddler standing in his crib. And, the man who was addressing him is clearly his father. And, the voice over then says: “Dads don’t take sick days. Dads take Nyquil.”
That line tells me that everyone in America understands and accepts something that is really not obvious at all: the concept of sacred obligation. We Jews call this a mitzvah. The concept of mitzvah is much maligned today. We Jews feel uncomfortable with the idea of mitzvah, even though it is so central to everything we do.
The word mitzvah is usually translated as commandment. But, we don’t like that word, for some good reasons, I think. So we change it to ‘good deed.’ A mitzvah might be a good deed. But, keeping kosher is a mitzvah and observing the Shabbat is a mitzvah and neither of these are good deeds.
Some rabbis have tried to make mitzvah more acceptable by deriving it from the root tzava which means to connect. So, mitzvah would be something which connects us to God, to humanity, to each other. That’s nice, but it avoids the most challenging part of mitzvah.
Let’s try out a different definition. A mitzvah is a sacred obligation. And what makes an obligation sacred? Simply that this is an obligation where we never miss. It’s the situation of the Nyquil commercial. There are many commitments we have in life which can be very profound, but which are not permanent, and which permit exceptions. Parenthood is not one of them.
The relationship between a parent and a child is a sacred obligation, because there are no sick days. Nine out of ten is a great score for most things in life. But, a parent who is a parent nine out of ten days would be considered negligent. It’s not only that we can’t miss. But, the very idea of missing fills us with a sense of horror and revulsion, a kind of ‘How could you!”
The most famous case of sacred obligation when it comes to specifically Jewish things is Sandy Koufax in the 1965 World Series. We all know this story. Koufax was one of the greatest pitchers of all time. But, in 1965, he was scheduled to pitch on Yom Kippur. And, Koufax is Jewish. Now, Koufax was not an observant Jew. He had no trouble pitching on Shabbat, or even on Rosh Hashanah. But, for Koufax, Yom Kippur was different.
For Koufax, Yom Kippur was a mitzvah. It was a sacred obligation. And, a sacred obligation permits no exceptions. So, Koufax didn’t pitch. The Huffington Post recently ran an article entitled “Koufax chooses his faith over World Series”. But, that’s missing the point. This was not a choice. He just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t cross over that sacred boundary. Something welled up in his soul. That’s how sacred obligation works.
So, where do we feel a sense of sacred obligation? Let me give you a personal example. I have been a vegetarian since 1972. I do eat fish. But, I have not eaten meat or chicken for forty three years. No exceptions. Well, there was one exception. Once I was at a Jewish event, where they were serving kosher turkey sandwiches and tuna sandwiches. And, I picked up what I thought for sure was a tuna sandwich. I took a bite. And, I thought to myself: that is the best tuna fish I have ever eaten!
That was the only time. For me, vegetarianism has become a mitzvah. It’s not in the Torah. But, for me it’s a sacred obligation in the sense that I never miss. I can’t miss. It’s become a part of me.
Outside of the Orthodox world, there are very few Jewish practices that would qualify as a sacred obligation the way we have defined it. But, one of them is kashrut which we read about in today’s parasha. Jews who keep kosher on any level do it as a sacred obligation. It doesn’t matter if you keep two sets of dishes or whether your kashrut is simply that you don’t eat pork. The attitude is the same.
Jews who don’t eat pork never eat it. They never miss. They don’t observe this prohibition most of the time. There are no exceptions. For those Jews, this piece of kashrut is a sacred obligation. It’s a mitzvah.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that in progressive circles the idea of mitzvah as commandment makes us uncomfortable. We live in a democracy. We have choices. We don’t like the language of obedience. We associate that with non-thinking people. We admire the ancestors who challenged authority.
We’re not wrong to fear the language of obedience and commandment. For, too many, religion turns people into sheep. That’s not what we want. But, if we are able to reframe mitzvah as sacred obligation, is there a way we can begin to reclaim the mitzvot that we have left behind? Is there a way we can reclaim the very concept of mitzvah?
The Torah itself suggests a path. When Abraham thinks that God will unfairly destroy Sodom, Abraham says ‘chalilah lecha’ – you are committing a sacrilege. You are crossing a red line, because for the Judge of all the earth to be unjust is a moral outrage. So, one way of reclaiming mitzvah is to ask: what are our red lines? What triggers our moral outrage?
When Jewish kids are beaten up on a university campus which is supposed to encourage free speech and tolerance – that should be a red line in a democracy. When that sacred boundary is crossed, it should trigger visceral outrage. But, in a society that lacks the concept of sacred boundary, we won’t get that visceral response.
But, there is also another path. Let’s go back to our tv commercial. What obligates the father in this scene? There is no powerful figure standing over this dad coercing him. There is no stultifying social pressure to conform to something meaningless. What obligates the dad is this small innocent child who needs him, who depends on him.
A mitzvah calls our attention to the people who need us and to whom our response is a sacred obligation. Saying a blessing after we eat is a mitzvah. Why? When Rabbi Kula was here, he explained it this way. After we’ve eaten, we’re full. Now, imagine if everyone felt that way. And, what are we doing about it?
Sefardic Jews have a beautiful custom. Before they say the blessing over bread, they recite this verse: “Einei kol elecha yesaberu/God, all eyes look hopefully to you. And, You, God, give them what they need.” That’s an invitation to us. Think of little Dave, standing in his crib, looking at his father. Who else is looking at us this way? Who else is looking hopefully to us?
Responding to them is a mitzvah, our sacred obligation, as it is for Dave’s dad. Every one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah at its root is a call to become aware of who is looking hopefully to us, to ask: what does the world need from us, what is the world calling us to do.
We need a reset. We’re missing out on the beauty that Jewish practice can add to our lives because we’re overly focused on the negatives we associate with mitzvah. We associate religion with self-righteousness and we resent it. But, religion at its best is about questioning our own self-righteousness. It’s about taking ourselves less seriously. Jordan Spieth spoke last week of what he has learned from his special needs sister—that there is more to life than a birdie or a putt. Sandy Koufax taught us that there are things even more important than the World Series.
When Rabbi Kula was here, he challenged us to look at our Jewish practices with fresh eyes, not as arbitrary rituals, but as triggers to deeper meaning in our lives. I would add that the very concept of mitzvah itself, of sacred obligation, is something we need to look at with new eyes, too.
I invite you to come on May 3 for the first of many conversations, in which we will take a new look at Jewish practices, and we will try them out together for forty days. And, we might find, that rather than weighing us down, they add humility, laughter and a light touch to our day and to our lives.