On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Mitzvah- Continued” From Jane Shapiro

Participants in the Mitzvah Initiative have confirmed that when the conditions are right, Conservative Jews appreciate open discussion about the role of mitzvah in their lives. It has been moving for many to speak honestly to their rabbis and fellow congregants. Many rabbis have reported hearing stories about congregants that they never knew. Recently one rabbi told of a session when he invited the head of the Chevra Kaddisha to the class, only to find out that most of the people in the class had been active members in the society for many years, maintaining the necessary discretion so well that the rabbi did not have a clue they even knew what a taharah was. Another rabbi learned that ever since he had koshered the kitchen of a congregant eight years previously, the wife of the family had sent a card or called someone who was ill every single day to mark the change in her life. She did not realize it was a mitzvah. These are gratifying encounters.

But they also show the way to the next level of engagement with mitzvah. Honest discussion, recognition of diverse manifestations, and declarations of “signature mitzvot” should also energize people to walk farther along this pathway. If study leads to practice, as Rabbi Akiba once said, then mitzvah must lead to hiyuv.

But how to define hiyuv minus the yoke? As a sovereign self who balks when thinking about laboring to do God’s will, I also know that passionate Jewish living comes from the activities that I practice all the time. Practice, not as a verb but as a noun, guides me. A practice is a set of actions, which have integrity, flow, and coherence. If I do not do them often, it is not a practice. A practice is also open-ended. It is never accomplished or completed. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes not, but it does not matter, because it is practice. I do not have to measure my practice against anyone else’s, but it is supportive and comforting to see other people in my peripheral vision working on their practices as I do.

In the second year of the Mitzvah Initiative, participants who have studied many ways to express a commitment to mitzvah get a chance to build their own practice. For a month, the entire group is asked to try a mitzvah b’hiyuv. Rabbis and other participants serve as coaches and support. There is preparation to begin and time to reflect on the experience afterward. Some of the rabbis themselves have used this opportunity to try something new in their own practice. In this way, the Mitzvah Initiative is providing a safe place to take the “leap of action.”