Getting Dressed One Mitzvah at a Time

helping-with-tefillinSo I walk into a random office and ask a guy to put on tefillin. Perhaps just to get rid of me, he agrees. I strap him up, help him read Shema, shake his hand and leave. In and out in 3 minutes.

I’m at a circumcision. During the inevitable ten-minute delay waiting for the baby to be sent down to the ceremony, I persuade the nervous father to put on tefillin. I explain to him the connection between circumcision and tefillin, which are both referred to in the Torah as a sign of our connection to G‑d, and he confides to me that this is the first time he’s worn tefillin since his bar mitzvah.

But what have we gained from guilt-tripping a guy into tefillin? It’s just a one off, with no guarantee of any followup. Is he any more religious, committed or switched on than before I started nudging him?

-Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum
“What’s the Point of a One-Time Mitzvah?”

This sort of article makes a lot more sense to Jews than to Christians since we in the church focus more on faith than activity. This isn’t universally true, but it’s all too common.

I’ve been following the conversation over at Judah Himango’s blog and he has a point in echoing James the Just in saying “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

But can you approach a “lukewarm” Christian and inspire him or her by “guilting” them into a single act of Christian compassion? Even Rabbi Greenbaum asks if “guilting” a Jewish person into a “one-off mitzvah” is worth it. Would it do any good to twist a believer’s arm to donate a can of soup to the food bank or give ten dollars to help a kid go to summer camp? Once the “motivation” is gone, won’t any further “good deeds” go with it?

This question was once posed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe by a not-yet-religious individual. The Rebbe had compared adding extra mitzvahs into one’s daily routine to wearing a tie, which adds beauty and splendor to one’s whole ensemble. In response, the man asked what seems to be an ingenious question. He pointed out that the Rebbe’s analogy would hold true only for someone already wearing clothing; however, were a naked person to don a tie, rather than looking better, he’d look completely ridiculous.

The Rebbe agreed that a naked man wearing a tie might indeed look silly, but contended the very act of putting a tie would probably wake him up to the fact that he’s naked in the first place. Sometimes the incongruity of being simultaneously underdressed but over-accessorized can lead you to rush off to cover yourself up.

I can’t help but be reminded of this:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked?

Genesis 3:6-11 (NASB)

tie-no-shirtWhat shows us that we are naked? We might never notice except when we put on an article of clothing, an accessory of some sort perhaps, and realize the rest of the outfit is missing. I think it’s that way for a lot of people who profess a sort of faith, both Christian and Jewish. We show up at our houses of worship, socialize, go to the obligatory classes, give charity, eat and drink together, but all that can be accomplished without the slightest awareness of God. Even if we are doing good deeds, are we performing such actions just because it’s expected in our social context? Are we doing so only because it makes us look like good people?

I agree that a life of faith as merely an internal state isn’t going to do much good to anyone, even ourselves. But faith and deeds must go together. Sometimes deeds happen without faith, even among religious people because we treat religion like a social club.

No, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the company of others, but in the end, if that’s the only reason you go to church or synagogue, and if the only reason you give to charity is to impress your friends, then you’re doing everything in vain. The primary reason to congregate among our fellows is to experience an encounter with God. Then out of that encounter, everything else we do including charity and good deeds makes a great deal more sense.

If we’re religious for poor reasons, then being compelled into a “one-off mitzvah,” even as a Christian, can expose our nakedness. We’re forced to look in the mirror and realize that all we are wearing are the Emperor’s New Clothes, which is to say, nothing at all.

Making this illustration may be somewhat easier for a Jewish population than a Christian one since the mitzvot that define Jewish identity are more documented and apparent. Christianity does not have a “Law” as such, since most church-goers have been taught by tradition that grace has replaced behavioral expectations.

But it can still be done because most of Torah actually applies to the church, too. Christians are all too familiar with Torah, we just don’t call it that.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Carry ten dollars in ones in your wallet. Give one dollar each to the next ten homeless people you see on the street (I’ve actually seen this done). If you don’t encounter many homeless people throughout the course of your week, it’s OK. Just keep giving until the money’s gone. Then repeat periodically.
  2. Go to your local supermarket and buy some canned goods, then drive to your local foodbank or where food is being collected for the poor (your church may even have a donation site). Deposit canned goods in donation bin. Then repeat periodically.
  3. Carry jumper cables in your car and, when you encounter someone who has a dead car battery, volunteer to help out. (if you pay attention to your environment, this opportunity happens more often than you might imagine).
  4. Google a phrase such as “how to do good deeds.” Click on one of the links returned such as 21 ways to do a good deed. Read and follow the instructions.

helping-the-poorAre you feeling more dressed yet?

Of course, as I said, none of this is as effective as it could be if you’re doing it for the right reasons. I don’t recommend that you tell anyone about your project. That way, you can avoid the temptation to brag about yourself. I do recommend that you tell God about it (not that He doesn’t know) by praying for your heart to be softened by your performance of these mitzvot. Although doing good deeds helps those you are helping, the person who really benefits is you, the good deed doer. For in giving to others, you are not only learning how to love your fellow human beings, but God as well, which is another mitzvah.

Aside for the intrinsic standalone value that each mitzvah has, mitzvah observance can also be contagious. Agreeing to opt in, even just once, can have far-reaching effects. There have been untold thousands of Jews who have made permanent changes in their lives for the better, just because they agreed to try it once.

Now that you’ve put on the tie, you might want to follow up with a pair of pants and a shirt.

From my father’s sichot: When Mashiach will come (speedily in our time, amein), then we shall really long for the days of the exile. Then we will truly feel distress at our having neglected working at avoda; then will we indeed feel the deep pain caused by our lack of avoda. These days of exile are the days of avoda, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our time, amein.

“Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Menachem Av 3, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

6 thoughts on “Getting Dressed One Mitzvah at a Time”

  1. I find the Lutheran tradition has much to offer on this. Rather than using guilt to get people to do “works”, Luther wanted people to stop being so self-focused and just do what God requires. Don’t worry about the motivation on many things. If your neighbor has no food, buy her some canned goods. If your not doing it out of the right motive, Luther said so what? She could still used the canned food. She can eat and you can worry about your motives later. Luther hoped, over time, obedience to God would shape your heart and that is how it would change. Somehow evangelicals got this backward and think you have to wait until you do it for the right reasons.

  2. Don’t worry about the motivation on many things. If your neighbor has no food, buy her some canned goods. If your not doing it out of the right motive, Luther said so what? She could still used the canned food.

    I agree that giving a hungry person some food, regardless of your motivation is good. Motives aside, the person still gets fed. However, I still think there are benefits to giving your neighbor food and doing it for the right reasons.

  3. Agreed. How does someone become the type of person who does it for the right reasons? “Agreeing to opt in, even just once, can have far-reaching effects. There have been untold thousands of Jews who have made permanent changes in their lives for the better, just because they agreed to try it once.” Amazing how effective this can be.

  4. Each mitzvah a Jew does puts another brick on the Beis Hamikdash, regardless of whether or not that Jew chooses to do that mitzvah again. But yes, it can also spark something in the Jew to want to learn more about leading a Torah mitzvos life.

    Each mitzvah or good deed done is always positive, no matter how or why that mitzvah was done. Just because the person offering the mitzvah may have a different reasoning, the person doing the mitzvah also has their own reasoning for accepting. It’s all done in good faith in the end.

    Shavua tov.

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