Mitzvah Day is a day of action. Here we offer some thoughts about the reasons for running a Mitzvah Day from some thinkers of our day. We hope you find some time to enjoy and absorb these short pieces and it makes Mitzvah Day all the more satisfying for you.
The Very First Mitzvah - by Rabbi Natan Levy,
It is so very difficult to find a singular Jewish source text for our responsibility to mend this fractured world, because the Torah itself is in its entirety the DIY guide for making the world a healthier, wholer and saner place. And thus, the first breath that that the first human takes is not within the confines of the perfectly manicured Garden of Eden, as we so often assume, but rather in a much more difficult and demanding setting. As Chapter 2 of the Genesis story opens we read: These are the unfoldings of the heavens and the earth, in their creation, on the day that God made heaven and earth. The bushes of the field had not yet come up, and the grasses had not yet sprouted, because God had not caused the rain, and there was no human to work the land...God formed the man, dirt from the ground, and breathed into him the breath of life. (Gen 2:4-5)
But what kind of creation story is this!? Were not humans created on day six, and grasses already growing on day three? How can Adam begin his existence in this barren landscape? And even further, what purpose can it serve to begin all of human memory from such a desolate starting point? Rashi, our 11th century Biblical commentator offers this insight: Though on the third day of creation the grass was told to spring forth, it waited at the lip of the earth, until the creation of the human.
So why is the grass and indeed creation itself so truculent to emerge? Adds Rashi: Because until the appearance of Adam there was no one to realize how badly the grass needed rain to grow, and no one to work and pray for change. Adam does not step into a lush Garden, but a desiccated landscape, not a finished product, but a task left undone. Ever since Adam, our obligation has remained thus. To open our eyes to the broken and fractured world that surrounds us, to ask ourselves what is needed to bring healing to this place, and then to work and pray to bring that change. Mitzvah Day UK is the embodiment of this process. On this unique day we go out with the eyes of Adam. Eyes that see a littered stream, a bent old man, or the cries of the hungry, and we say to ourselves: For this I was created! What work can I do, what prayer can I sing, to transform this scene into the Garden of Eden?
The Value of Volunteering - by Baroness Neuberger DBE,
Chair of the commission on the Future of Volunteering
The UK has one of the highest rates of volunteering in the world - it's part of our culture. Even so, there are lots of people who don't volunteer, and more surprisingly, the biggest growth in volunteering is amongst 35-44 year olds, often the busiest of all. People volunteer for all sorts of reasons- altruism, a reason to get up in the morning, and a way of making friends. Younger people volunteer to get experience and to put something on their CVs, and older people volunteer to use the experience they have already gained earlier in life. People do it for all sorts of reasons, often with very mixed motives.
But there's something else at work here. People increasingly volunteer to provide services as well as expecting to receive services provided by volunteers. In health services, support groups for particular conditions are largely run by volunteers and new members, with a first diagnosis, receive huge support from others who have already been there. They then can pass it on to others when they have had the experience, and so they continue by providing support, comfort and information to others. It's a form of mutualism that benefits everybody, and that's why the Commission on the Future of Volunteering was so keen to get the idea of volunteering into the DNA of our society. It makes for links across communities and generations, it allows people to meet who would not do so otherwise, and it allows people to feel that they are making a contribution of their own free will.
To add to that, most people enjoy volunteering hugely - indeed, some of the research talks about a volunteering 'high'. So people volunteer for all sorts of reasons, and the fact that they do makes our society, our communities, better places to live in and builds up trust in neighbourhoods. That’s why volunteering has so much to bring to our society, why we should encourage it as well as enjoying it and think of new ways for people to volunteer with friends, families, and even from home.
E Pluribus Unum (As We Say in Hebrew)- by Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield,
Movement for Reform Judaism
President Barack Obama said it all in his victory speech: “Out of many, we are one”. I don’t know of a more disputatious people than us Jews. ‘Two Jews, three opinions’, is an understatement. But it’s a strength, not a weakness, if, out of our many opinions and perspectives, comes one unifying conviction.
Mitzvot (or mitzvehs) are the best example of all. Many perspectives, one passionate conviction.
Orthodox Jews believe that mitzvot are divine commands and that there are 613 of them, all derived from the Torah.
Progressive Jews believe that a mitzvah is an obligation that flows from the Jewish people’s covenant with God and that the precise number and formulation develops in accordance with our understanding of God and the needs of humanity.
Reconstructionist Jews believe in the mitzvah as central to the fabric of the way of life of the Jewish people whether or not there is a Commander (Metzaveh).
Secular Jews know that helping others and repairing the world, doing good deeds is what being Jewish is all about.
Each formulation reflects a different understanding of Judaism and the meaning of being Jewish. Because we are Jews, most Jews reading this will want to debate my four propositions, and argue that what I’ve said isn’t quite right or isn’t their definition. That’s fine.
However – and here I am taking a huge risk – every Jew will agree that the mitzvah is central to Judaism, that the ethical mitzvah lies at the heart of Jewish life and that performing mitzvot – reaching out to “the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant” as the Prophets put it; contributing to the repair of the world – is what we’re all about.
Incidentally, if you think, like me, that the mitzvah is both distinctively Jewish and what we share with other faiths, I’m encouraged. The whole world needs mitzvot and the mitzvot we perform with people of other faiths (and none) are the most productive mitzvot of all.