I have noticed that many translate the word “mitzvah” into English as “good deed”. Perhaps this is because the word “commandment” falls hard on our modern ears, living in cultures that extol freedom, liberty and individual rights. Those are wonderful values rightly deserving of celebration, to be sure. They should, however, be balanced against the values of obligation and responsibility. These values find true expression in the concept of “mitzvah”. This should not cause discomfort, even in our modern world.
As we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot, we reflect on the binding nature of our covenant with God. It is expressed in the response “Naaseh ve’nishmah”, “we will do and we will hear”. Or perhaps more accurately, “we will hear and obey”. It is also expressed in the well known Rabbinic formulation:
שבת פח. (שמות יט, יז) "ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר" א"ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב"ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם
“And they stood at the bottom of the mountain (Exodus 19:17)-” Rabbi Avdimi the son of Chama the son of Chasa said, “This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, held the mountain over them like a barrel and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, it is good. And if not, here shall be your graves.'”
I think of this idea of the mountain over our heads as chuppah imagery. Often in Tanach, our relationship to Hashem is compared to a marriage. The binding quality of marriage is a deep part of what makes the relationship so meaningful and profound. We are given pause when the upcoming parsha of Naso describes a breakdown of communication and trust in a marriage through the mitzvah of the Isha Sotah. The binding of commitment to obligation and responsibility can avoid such pitfalls, and help us reach our potential.
May this year’s encounter with Zman Matan Torateinu renew our sense of commitment, obligation and responsibilities as members of a nation in a brit with Hashem. May our fullfillment of the mitzvot bring Redemption ever nearer.
Michael N Unterberg (Unterberg = Under the Mountain)