The other day I listened to a talk by one of my favorite teachers of mindfulness, Gil Fronsdal, about the war in Israel and Gaza. I listen to Gil’s meditations and short talks several times a week. I’m drawn to the clarity, simplicity, and depth of his teaching. I find that practicing with him early in the morning, or while I’m walking the dog, is helpful.

Like his previous talk on the war last fall, in this talk I was impressed and gratified to hear Gil acknowledge and embrace the humanity of everyone who has suffered, is suffering, and continues to suffer because of it: Israelis, Palestinians, and all of us who care about and are connected to them. There were, predictably, some things I might have phrased differently, or some places I found myself disagreeing. But on the whole, I found it good and helpful.

Towards the end of the talk, Gil said something that has stuck with me. I’ll paraphrase: A lot of people approach me with demands–to sign this or that, to condemn this group or that group, to “stand with” these people and “stand against” those. And Gil said (quoting now): “I don’t operate that way.” He didn’t say this with an edge, but just matter of fact. Instead, he said, he responds to requests, invitations. Demands just won’t work.

I’ve been lingering on that line for a couple of weeks. On one level, it reflects a commonplace among meditation teachers (imagine me speaking in meditation teacher voice now): “And now, if it’s comfortable for you, the invitation is to… gently close your eyes” or “allow your awareness to settle on the breath” or whatever the next part of the practice is.

This is actually such a common expression that we joke about it sometimes at work. It’s foundational to mindfulness practice, the notion that we are all free to enter and leave the practice as we like. We are here not because anyone is forcing us, but because we have decided to be here and do this in this moment–and we can decide in the next moment not to. We have free will, and no one can take that away from us. Thus we shouldn’t presuppose that we or anyone else is bound to do anything. And so, no demands–only invitations and requests.

This is one of the places where Judaism as a mindfulness practice can get complicated. Why? Because at the heart of a life of Torah is the concept and experience of mitzvot, traditionally translated as commandments. Biblical and Rabbinic teaching is suffused with the idea that the Divine commands or demands of us to obey these rules–and will reward us for doing so and punish us for acting otherwise.

This approach works for some people, but it doesn’t work for others. For me, this orientation was particularly useful as a young person, as my fear of being judged–by others, by what I understood God to be, by my own conscience–helped push me into study and behaviors that created a groove in my heart and mind: Shabbat, kashrut, praying, hours and hours learning Hebrew, Aramaic, and our people’s extraordinary textual tradition. I felt good about how I was spending my time because I felt I was living in alignment with what I understood that God commanded me to do.

But at a certain point, that stopped working so well for me. I found something missing in my inner life, as though I were performing a set of roles rather than genuinely living in a way that integrated my outer actions with inner sensations. And that led me, over many years, to studying Hasidut, experimenting with new forms of prayer, and eventually to IJS’s Clergy Leadership Program (applications are open for our next cohort–please share with rabbis and cantors you love!) and into the practice I engage in, teach, and help develop today.

I bring all this up because the name of this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, invites us to reflect on this question of the meaning of mitzvah (tzav is a verb form of the noun, mitzvah). Rashi, citing the midrash, observes that tzav connotes zerizut, alacrity, as if God is saying, “Perform this commandment right away–bring energy to it, don’t dilly dally.” That fits well within a framework of externalized motivation: Get this done quickly so that you can earn the reward (and avoid the punishment). A mitzvah, in this context, continues to be (or at least seems to be) a behavior that a Higher Power commands us to do, backed up by overwhelming force.

But there are other ways to understand mitzvah. The Hasidic masters, drawing on the Zohar, routinely play up the aspect of mitzvah as connection, e.g. mitzvot are the means by which “The Ineffable [expresses] desire that we connect, embrace the Divine, through holiness” (Sefat Emet Bo 1874–there are many more examples). This framework does not necessitate jettisoning the notion of mitzvah as duty or obligation. But, for me anyway, it has the effect of wrapping that heavy notion of commandedness in a softer envelope of love (or, perhaps, the harsher approach is the package, and the love is the soft center; or, really truly, neither is inside or outside–they’re both deeply intertwined). As I’ve continued on my own spiritual and religious journey, that has been profoundly important and helpful.

This approach can get tricky for me, though, if it leads me to experience mitzvot as entirely voluntary. I’m not willing to say that everything is an invitation, because I believe that I, and we, have moral, ethical, and spiritual duties and responsibilities. I can’t, with a straight face, understand Torah, halakha, and Judaism as simply a response to a series of invitations; it is also a response to a set of demands.

Yet I think Gil Fronsdal is right: Demands are not always, or perhaps even often, effective. Why? Because so many of us experience our lives as a set of choices we make, grounded in freedom of thought and action. So the notion that God or a politician or an activist on social media demands of me that I espouse this position or take that action–can be experienced as a categorical error: Who gives you the right to tell me what to think or do? It would be far more effective to engage in a good faith conversation and enable both of us to speak, listen, and make up our minds.

This is an experience I think a lot of folks have run into vis a vis mitzvot and Judaism. Yet if we can ground simultaneously in an understanding of mitzvah as both commandment and connection (imagine popularizing the phrase, “Mitzvah means connection!”), I think we can open up a rich and deep relationship with Torah, Jewish life, and the Holy Blessed One. That is what I’m trying to do in my own life, and it’s what we try to do at IJS all the time. If you’re not already on that journey, I hope you’ll consider joining us (no, actually–I’m demanding that you join us; just kidding.)

Josh’s Friday Reflections

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.