October 31, 2020 |

The Local Mitzvah Movement

There is a budding movement spreading quickly around the country known as the Local Food movement. The Local Food movement is “an effort to build a locally based and self-reliant economy in which food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”

The idea behind this movement is that if people are more connected to their food then their food will taste better; it will also be healthier, more cost effective, and better for the environment.

Without endorsing this idea or getting into a discussion about the merits or demerits of this movement, I can share with you that I had a similar thought more than a decade ago.

When I was in rabbinical school studying the laws of Kashrut, I was learning all the intricate details of how one is supposed to slaughter an animal and then before eating it, soak it and salt it. Indeed, the most difficult areas to study for rabbinical students are the laws of salting meat before eating it. It is very complicated and highly technical. To this day, after being a rabbi for more than 12 years, I have yet to receive a single question about the proper way to salt meat.

While studying these laws I realized with some sadness that as a result of mass production and technology the laws that my ancestors grew up and lived with every day of their lives were soon going to be irrelevant for most Jews.

I personally was also having a hard time understanding and relating to these laws, so I decided to fully invest myself in studying the laws. I decided to learn how to be a shochet, a ritual slaughterer.

I studied the laws of practical Shechitah for a year and then I received my certification to slaughter fowl. I was very excited. I started counting all the money I would save by slaughtering the animals myself and not having to by it from the supermarket.

So one Friday, without telling my newly wed wife I went to the live poultry market and bought a duck which I then slaughtered and brought to my house. Alas, I made the mistake of bringing it into my house while its beak and feathers were still attached. I was in the process of setting up my instruments to soak and salt the duck when my wife saw what I was planning on doing. To make a long story short, that project ended right then and there. To this day I have never brought another duck into the house.

But I can tell you that the entire process was a transformative experience for me. Prior to this process, I had never recited the blessing one makes on slaughtering an animal. Prior to this I had never salted or soaked my food. I now understood the mitzvah and the entire process forever changed the way I look at the entire concept of kosher meat.

Without ever participating directly in the local food movement, I am sure that on at least one level the idea works. The greater the level of personal involvement, the more attached one becomes to the product. Sometimes I go to my mother-in-law’s house and she serves us her fresh vegetables from the garden. She has great pride in those vegetables and I am sure that in her mind they taste much sweeter.

This leads to my next idea: The Local Mitzvah Movement. This is the idea that when possible and practical we should endeavor to perform a mitzvah using our own energy and preparation.

The path to spiritual redemption derives directly from how seriously we involve ourselves in a mitzvah.

This morning we read about the Berit Bein Habetarim, or The Covenant of the Pieces. This is a covenant that was made between Abraham and God. In this covenant, Hashem promises Avraham that he will have many descendants who will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that he will inherit the land of Canaan. Abraham believes Hashem (ve-heemin ba-Hashem) but he also asks, “Bamah edah ki arishenah, how will I know that I will inherit the land?”

Rashi explains that Abraham did not ask for proof that God will fulfill his promise. Instead, Abraham is saying, “Hodiani be-eizeh zechut yitkaymu bah, through what merit will my descendants inherit the land.” Abraham is asking Hashem to teach him where his merit will derive from. To which Hashem then responds, “bezchut hakorbanot, with the merit of the sacrifices.”

Hashem’s answer can be read very specifically as a reference to sacrifices or more broadly as a reference to all the mitzvoth that we perform. In a broader sense Hashem is teaching Avraham that how we perform the mitzvoth will directly impact whether or not we deserve redemption. If we want Hashem to keep His part of the covenant then we must keep our side as well. We must perform the mitzvoth in a way that brings us closer to Hashem.

The way to do this is to be intimately connected to the mitzvah.

You can not compare the effect a mitzvah has upon you when you are directly involved in the process versus when you are a passive bystander. Think about some of the mitzvoth you personally do. Do you feel more of a connection to the mitzvah of visiting the sick when you write a check to a hospital or when you personally visit a sick person? Do you feel more invested in the mitzvah of Torah study when you attend a class or when you actively study with a partner or even deliver a Dvar Torah yourself?

The more intimately we connect ourselves to mitzvoth the more intense our spiritual experience will be.

This is one of the downsides of technology. In many cases we have lost a genuine connection to our most intimate mitzvoth. People can now just buy their mitzvah in a supersized Judaica bookstore without being involved in its preparation. We can coin a new term for this and call it a McMitzvah!

As a result we see people becoming more and more disconnected from the deeply powerful rituals of the Torah. People start taking mitzvoth for granted and the subjective relationship of the mitzvah to the person is diminished.

In some cases the mitzvah loses its meaning as a result of technology. Let me give you an example.

Think about the mitzvah of matzah. There is a special law that the matzah one eats on Seder night should be shmurah, guarded. It needs to be watched so that from the moment of the harvest not a single drop of water falls on the wheat.

Today we walk into the store the day before Pesach and simply buy shmurah matzah. We might pay a little bit more for this special matzah, but after that we don’t think about it too much.

But just imagine if we actually did the guarding ourselves. The wheat is harvested around Rosh Hashanah time. From Rosh Hashanah through Pesach the wheat goes through several forms and processes, and all this time the wheat is guarded against even a single drop of water.

If we would guard the wheat ourselves then when we would sit down at the Seder table the idea of shmurah matzah would have so much more meaning. It wouldn’t just be the more expensive matzah that is round and hand baked; it would be the matzah that we guarded every day for six months. And it would have even greater symbolism. We would be reminding ourselves that if we want to be redeemed and to have a covenant with Hashem we need to guard ourselves and prepare every day for six months.

I want our community to be leaders in this idea of the Local Mitzvah Movement. I want us to look at mitzvoth as an opportunity not just “to be performed,” but to be performed properly and in a personal manner.

First and foremost this should take place in our homes. It should take place when we daven, study Torah, and perform mitzvoth around our house. This can take different forms like making a beautiful menorah or writing a personal Dvar Torah to our family that we share on Friday night. It can also mean making sure we set our Shabbat table with our nicest table ware and buying fresh flowers to make the Shabbat home beautiful.

But I also want us to do this on a communal level.

In one sense we are already doing this on a communal level as it relates to our ongoing Torah project. This project will bring two more Sifrei Torah to our shul. But on a deeper level it will also allow us to be more connected to the Torah scrolls we read from every week. We will be personally invested in those Torah scrolls and we will be more attentive when they are read from.

But now, along these same lines, I want to introduce another project for our community to undertake. The purpose of this project will allow us to take on a mitzvah in a holistic manner so we can have a deeper connection with Hashem. It will also allow us to prepare for the mitzvah well in advance so that the mitzvah can be performed with as much beauty as possible.

I am referring to the mitzvah of baking our own shmurah matzah.

This is an intricate project and it requires a tremendous amount of preparation, which is why I am speaking about it in October. And if you want to get involved in this mitzvah, I urge you to come to a presentation to learn about this process that we will have on Sunday at 9:30 am.

This is a unique mitzvah and I promise you that if you are directly involved in the process of baking matzah you will have a religious experience that is unlike any other religious experience you currently have. You will feel with even greater spirituality the mitzvah of eating matzah on the night of Pesach.

This is also an opportunity for all of us to get involved in a project in which the participants will generate a tremendous amount of good feelings.

The preparation of the matzah is suffused with so many details that encourage and foster a personal closeness to Hashem.

Just as an example, here are some unique laws about the process of baking Matzah:

The matzah we use on Seder night must be made leshmah, for the purpose of the mitzvah of eating matzah. It must be made with special water called Mayim Shelanu; this is water that comes from a well and is drawn at dusk and left overnight before using it.

According to the great Code of Jewish Law known as the Tur it is a special mitzvah to personally bake matzah on the eve of Pesach and then to use those Matzot for the Seder that night. This is called Matzot Mitzvah

The mitzvah of baking matzah for me symbolizes how we must approach each mitzvah as an opportunity. There are two ways we can eat Matzah on Pesach. We can go to the store and buy the Matzah. Or for the next six months we can plan and prepare ourselves to bake the matzah so that when Pesach arrives the mitzvah of eating matzah will be the culmination of months and months of work.

According to the Tur, many people even have the custom of singing Hallel when kneading the dough on the afternoon of Pesach.

That is the essence of what it means to be a servant of Hashem. When we perform the mitzvah, we do so singing the Hallel and praising Hashem as much as possible.

Later in this week’s portion Hashem gives Avraham another chance to form a covenant with Him when he tells him about the mitzvah of Berit Milah, or literally, the Covenant of Circumcision. The Torah says, Hithalekh lefanai vehyeh tamim, walk before me and be perfect.”

When we perform a mitzvah properly we have the ability to be tamim, perfect, as close to Hashem as possible. We must keep that idea front and center in our minds every time we do the mitzvah.

We should focus our spiritual energy on performing mitzvoth with great enthusiasm, excitement, pride and care. We must recognize that we are being given a gift from Hashem and a commandment from our Maker.

Most of all we are being given an opportunity. Whether it is acquiring a new Torah or baking matzah or studying Torah a mitzvah is an opportunity to come closer to Hashem. The path to a meaningful relationship with Hashem rests upon how we (as individuals and as a community) approach that opportunity.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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