Jerry Seinfeld once joked about health clubs. “You see all these people, and they are working out, and training, and getting in shape. But, the strange thing is, nobody is getting in shape for anything. The only reason you are getting in shape is that so you can get through the workout. We are working out to be in shape when we have to do our exercises.” Essentially, as his joke states, you do the workout, only so that you can keep doing the workout or do it again next time.
This week we read Parshat B’Ha’alotcha. The Parsha begins with God telling Moses to instruct his brother, Aaron the High Priest, how to administer to and light the Menorah. Then, the Torah tells us (Num. 8:3) “And Aaron did so/וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן אַהֲרֹן.” Rashi explains that the Torah tells us this to emphasize that Aaron did not deviate from God’s word in his performance of this mitzvah and is worthy of praise.
In Pirkei Avot (4:2), the Rabbis tell us the reward for performing a mitzvah is a mitzvah. The Me’or Einayim* explains that the real reward for performing a mitzvah is hidden in the word itself, and should be understood through the Aramaic word of unity/b’tzavta/**בצוותא. He teaches that through the performance of mitzvot, one joins in union with God.
Is that all it takes? Really? I imagine that many of us can recall performing mitzvot, such as lighting Shabbat candles, or praying, or giving to charity, etc. and we felt nothing at all. Certainly, we did not feel cosmic union. I think I would remember that! The Me’or Einayim knew very well that it takes more than the mere performance of an act to bring about such an awareness. For him, we need to unite body and mind in order for this to work. If we do a mitzvah without proper intention/kavanah/כוונה, then that is like a body without a soul. But, if I can properly focus on the meaning of the mitzvah and what I am trying to accomplish, then, I have united body and soul and can then, in that moment, be rewarded with divine union.
Working out without concentration will generally not lead to desired results--I remember an old workout buddy of mine always telling me to focus on the muscles I was trying to strengthen, the muscles wouldn’t grow themselves from sloppy motions. The same is true for our performance of mitzvot. It is a challenge to maintain focus during the many many mitzvot that we as Jews are commanded to do. This week, let us try to have extra kavanah for just one mitzvah that has become rote in our lives. May this week be one of mitzvot and their rewards.
*Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl (born 1730, Norynsk, Volhynia - died 1787, Chernobyl, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth) was the founder of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty. He was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, and published one of the first works of Hasidic thought.
**Mitzvah (מצווה) and B’tzavta (בצוותה) share letters and sound similar.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.