By Rabbi Aaron Parry and Dr Tamar Frankiel
Conventional Jewish thinking defines the "religious person” as the man who puts on tefillin (frontlets), keeps kosher, and fasts on all the fast days. But he doesn't meditate or reflect on his inner life, nor does he become involved in the community to do acts of chesed (kindness).
Others will admire the "spiritual person” who is involved in deep thought, reads and goes to inspiring lectures, and studies mysticism, but doesn't keep many of the specific physical commandments. Still others think that the main thing is to spread goodness in the world, and the "good" Jew is the one who contributes to charity and is involved in community organizations. What is the truth? Who is really doing God's will?
It is possible that all these people are doing the mitzvot that appeal to them, because of either training or temperament. Surely, all are contributing to the betterment of the world. And ultimately, since we are all connected, each person fills in what others can't do. But are any of them really developing their spiritual potential? Or are they simply expressing their ego in ways that provide them satisfaction and a feeling of living a "good" life? Our natural tendency is to defend our way of life and even try to convince others that it is the best, because we want to believe that we are important. The great 20th Century Jewish leader, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler* wrote that this is simply a form of narrow "patriotism" to our own lifestyle--even if it is a lifestyle according to the letter of Torah!
Developing our spiritual potential requires that we expand our world, open ourselves to God's will, and make all our contacts with the world living and vital acts. Whether we are doing things that come naturally and easily, or struggling to develop new parts of ourselves, we need to be conscious about it. We want to connect all parts of ourselves--mind, heart, and body--to the soul and its purpose in life. The root of the word mitzvah has the meaning of "connection," and the Hebrew letter vav in the word also carries the meaning, in Kabbalah, of connection, for the word vav means "hook." When we do a mitzvah, we have "hooked up," we have made a connection of the physical senses of our own body, physical objects, and other people with our soul. This is the way the soul leaves its imprint on the world.
This means, on the one hand, that we should learn what the mitzvot are, so we are aware when we are doing them. On the other hand, it is important to overcome habit and perform each action with a sense of its unique importance in God's plan. This does not mean we should judge ourselves harshly for our habits, talents, or temperament--these are all gifts that have been given us, and even at the level of habit they can keep the world going in a positive direction. At the same time, little by little, we can remind ourselves that we are incarnated souls. We don't want the soul to sleepwalk through the day. We can remember that soul-ful people live filled with a sense of mission and purpose. Each one of us, too, can engage the soul in our daily activities, even on the most mundane physical level.
Imagine three repairmen working at Macy's to fix a broken elevator. One is thinking about getting it done as soon as possible, so he can get paid and go get a beer. A second man is also thinking about getting paid, so that he can provide for his wife and family. The third is thinking about how this escalator provides a brief respite to shoppers, and he is helping each one of them walk through their day a little more comfortably. For him, the act itself has value in the eyes of God.
In our own lives, consider a telephone conversation. When we talk on the phone, we are performing a physical action that connects us with at least three levels of worldly reality: (1) molecules making up hard plastic; (2) energy systems that transmit sound waves; (3) the person on the other end of the line. In that activity, our soul has the possibility of establishing a relationship to all these levels of creation and, at the same time, refining itself by that interaction. If we engage our soul with the activity rather than performing it only mechanically, we do a mitzvah.
How can we do this? Before we pick up the phone, for instance, let’s admire the miraculous object before us. We can think of the oneness of God--that everything comes from God, and these amazing inventions like plastic and telephones are making possible new connections between people. We can feel gratitude for having been born in such a time. When we interact with others on the phone, we can make a special effort to speak politely and kindly with the telephone service people, to be patient with the person we are calling, and to say some words of encouragement to each person to whom we speak. We can also try to avoid gossip and needless chatter. When we finish, we can make sure we putthe phone back in its place for the next person. By the time the callis over, we have performed half a dozen commandments.
* Rabbi Dessler on "patriotism" of Torah.