Meaningful
Mitzvos: To Change The World Start With Why

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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In the last month of his life, Moses said some of the most inspiring words ever uttered about the why of Jewish existence: "Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?  Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation by miracles, signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?" (Devarim 4:32-34)

In a much-watched TED Talk, Simon Sinek asked the following question: how do great leaders inspire action? What made people like Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs stand out from their contemporaries who may have been no less gifted, no less qualified? His answer: Most people talk about what. Some people talk about how. Great leaders, though, start with why. This is what makes them transformative.

Sinek’s lecture was about business and political leadership, but the truth is the most powerful examples are directly or indirectly religious. Indeed, I argued in The Great Partnership,  what makes Abrahamic monotheism different is that it believes there is an answer to the question why. Neither the universe nor human life is meaningless, an accident, a mere happenstance. As Freud and Einstein both said, religious faith is faith in the meaningfulness of life.

Religion, or the belief in a higher power, is not exclusive to Judaism. Other nations had gods to whom they prayed and offered sacrifices. But no other nation saw one God as their sovereign, legislator, and lawgiver. Elsewhere, laws represented the decree of the king or, in more recent centuries, the will of the people. In Israel, uniquely, even when there was a king, he had no legislative power. 
 
Only in Israel was God seen not just as a power but as the architect of society, the orchestrator of justice and mercy, liberty and dignity. Judaism’s genius was to take these high ideals and translate them into life by simple daily deeds called mitzvot. These mitzvot bring God into our lives through the intricate and beautiful choreography of a life lived in accordance with His will. They are the poetry of the everyday, turning the life of every Jew into a sacred work of art. 
 
Mitzvot mark a fundamental difference between Judaism, the life of faith, and the civilization of ancient Greece and its supreme expression, philosophy. Philosophy represents truth that is thought; Judaism represents truth that is lived. The Greeks sought knowledge of what is. Jews sought knowledge of what ought to be. 
 
So, though Judaism is a set of beliefs, it is not a creed. Instead it is a series of truths that only become true by virtue of the fact that we have lived them. By living them we turn the ought into the is. We make a fragment of perfection in an imperfect world and create a living truth, a life of faith. Truth becomes real when it becomes deed. That is how we transform the world. 
 
It is through mitzvot that we do not just contemplate truth: we live it·. We don’t seek to understand creation by studying theoretical physics; we live it by making a hundred daily blessings acknowledging God as the creator of all we enjoy. We don’t think about our responsibility for the environment; we set aside Shabbat, one day in seven, to limit our exploitation of the world. We don’t just study Jewish history; through the fasts and Festivals we re-enact it. 
 
Mitzvot teach us that faith is active, not passive. It is a matter of what we do, not just what happens to us. There are those who see the world as it is and accept it. That is the stoic way. There are those who see the world as it is and flee from it. That is the mystic, monastic way. But there are those who see the world as it is and change it. ·That is the Jewish way.  We change it through mitzvot, holy deeds that bring a fragment of heaven down to earth. 
 
The great principles of Jewish faith are creation, revelation and redemption. Yet, these are not truths we discover; they are truths we make real by living them. Nor do we philosophize about these things, rather we enact them. On Shabbat we live creation, through learning Torah we live revelation, and by performing acts of chessed and giving tzedakah, we live redemption. 
 
In fact, every mitzvah is a miniature act of redemption, turning something secular into something holy. With the mitzvah of kashrut, we turn the food used as fuel for the physical body into spiritual sustenance for the soul. On Shabbat we sanctify time, celebrating what we have instead of striving for what we do not yet have. The Festivals allow us to sanctify history by transforming it into personal memory; forging a connection between our ancestors’ past, our present, and our children’s future.
 
When I observe the Festivals I know, more powerfully than in any other way, that I am not a disconnected atom: I am a letter in the scroll, not yet complete, written by my ancestors, whose past lives on in me. 
 
In the last month of his life, Moses said some of the most inspiring words ever uttered about the why of Jewish existence:
 
“Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?  Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation by miracles, signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” (Devarim 4:32-34)
 
Moses was convinced that Jewish history was, and would remain, unique. In an age of empires, a small, defenseless group had been liberated from the greatest empire of all by a power not their own, by God Himself. That was Moses’ first point: the singularity of Jewish history as a narrative of redemption. His second was the uniqueness of revelation:
 
“What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to Him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Devarim 4:7-8) 
 
Moses emphasizes to the people that having a close relationship with God is both a privilege and a responsibility. He reminds us of the Divine covenant, and that in saying “we will do, and we will listen,” (Exodus 24:7), we are eternally committed to not only study the Torah but live by its mitzvot, God’s commandments. 
 
Most of these commandments fall into one of three categories, written first in the Torah and then repeated later in the Passover Haggada: 
 
“When, in times to come, your children ask you, “What is the meaning of the testimonies [eidot], statutes [chukim], and judgments [mishpatim], that our God has commanded you?” (Devarim 6:20)
 

Mishpatim, judgements, which include all the detailed provisions of civil and criminal law, the rules of reciprocal altruism and of distributive justice that make up Judaism’s social legislation. 

Chukim, statutes, such as the laws against eating milk and meat together, or wearing clothes of mixed wool and linen. These are sometimes thought of as commands that have no reason. Maimonides, however, maintained that chukim are “laws embedded in nature”, and by keeping them we respect the integrity of the natural world. 

Eidot, testimonies, commandments that have to do with our identity as part of a people and its story. For example, on Pesach we return to Egypt, eating the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery; on Shavuot we are back at the foot of Sinai, joyfully receiving the Ten Commandments and sharing in the covenant; and on Sukkot we dwell in a hut, re-enacting the Israelites’ journey across the desert, sheltered by God’s Clouds of Glory.

“See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me… observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, surely this great nation is a wise and an understanding people.” (Devarim 4:5-6)
 
Why did Moses care whether or not other nations would buy into Jewish beliefs and values? Why was it important that they view Israel’s laws as wise and understanding? Because even though we were not called on to convert the world, we were called on to inspire the world. 
 

Essentially, what Moses was saying is that if you want to change the world, start with why. Clearly, Moses, the greatest of leaders, knew the secret to inspiring action in others thousands of years before Simon Sinek made his epic internet debut. 

“You have been told, Mortal Man, what is good, and what God requires of you: only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Now, we must ask the question: why did God choose the Jews?
 
We are not just another ethnic minority. We are the people who predicated freedom on teaching our children to love, not hate. Ours is the faith that consecrated marriage and the family, and spoke of responsibilities long before it spoke of rights. Ours is the vision that sees alleviation of poverty as a religious task. We do these things not because of political affiliation or a social contract, but because we believe that is what God wants of us.

The prophet Isaiah also gives multiple examples of what God expects from the Jewish nation:

“My witnesses are you, declares  God, my servant, whom I have chosen. to the end that you may take thought and believe in Me.”  
(Isaiah 43:10)
 
Even though the Jews are chosen to have a special relationship with the Creator, we know that God is concerned with all humanity. And therefore, what we do as Jews makes a difference to humanity, not just in a mystical sense, but as exemplars of what it means to love and be loved by God. 
 
“I, God, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you as a covenant people, a light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6)
 
From these verses we understand that our vocation is to be God’s ambassadors to the world, giving testimony to everything He has done for our ancestors. To serve him and to bear witness to His grace and glory. To uphold a society of law-governed liberty for which we all bear collective responsibility, and to walk faithfully in His ways.
 
How do we accomplish this?
 
In his TED Talk, Sinek says that when it comes to successfully selling anything to the masses, it is not what, where, how, or when that matters.  The key to gaining a robust and faithful following hinges not on what one is selling, but rather on one’s ability to effectively communicate core beliefs and values (the why) to a like-minded demographic. 
 
As the prophet Zechariah put it, a time will come when, “ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say: let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23). 
 
Daily Goals:
There is much written in Judaism about what is permitted, what is forbidden, what is sacred, what is secular. There is much discussion on how to learn, how to pray, how to grow in our relationship with God and with other people. But in order to fulfill our unique mission we must embrace our obligations as God’s chosen nation, and focus on why we are here in the first place; to make this world a better place. By keeping mitzvot and following the commandments we help transform the world that is, into the world that ought to be. Every mitzvah is a window in the wall separating us from God and each mitzvah lets God’s light flow into the world. When we perform a mitzvah, we come close to God, becoming His “partner in the work of creation.”

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