Mitzvah: Good Deed or Commandment?

This past shabbat we launched our participation in the Mitzvah Initiative - a program run out of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NY. Chancellor Arnold Eisen has encouraged congregations in the Conservative movement to focus teaching, sermons, and programs on the concept of mitzvah.

So last shabbat I asked the congregation what mitzvah means. Most said it means good deed and a couple said it means commandment. Mitzvah in fact does mean commandment and I pointed out the differences between those definitions. All agreed that the mitzvot - commandments - are good to do, but the distinction lies in why we do them. Most agreed that the motivation is important. It is vital to feel like you would want to do that particular deed. But the other definition - commandment - implies that there is a responsibility or an obligation to perform the act, whether you want to or not. So which is better, to feel obligated or to feel self-motivated?

In fact the rabbis debated that very point over 1,500 years ago and they seemed to agree that it's better to perform a mitzvah out of compulsion or habit than to wait until feeling the desire or proper intention. The action itself could and should lead to motivation.

As we continue this discussion in shul we'll focus more on individual commandments, but in the back of our minds will be this debate. Conservative Judaism believes that the 613 mitzvot are divinely inspired - they are actions we can do to feel connected to God. They aren't optional and we shouldn't wait until we feel like doing them. Our goal should be to learn about them and ultimately incorporate them into our daily lives. By doing so we will transform how we live and increase the level of holiness. That is what the mitzvot are all about.