What is a mitzvah, really?
Good deed? Commandment?
You might be most familiar with the word mitzvah as it appears in Bar or Bat Mitzvah which is usually translated as a son or daughter of the commandment.
Or, you might translate the word mitzvah as “good deed”, as in “I did a mitzvah today”.
There is not a thing wrong with those meanings, but let us delve a little deeper into the matter.
First, there is not one place in the Torah (in Hebrew) that the phrase Ten Commandments appears. Not one. You will not find Aseret haMitzvot anywhere.
For purposes of expedient comprehension, we have mistranslated the Torah’s phrase for the Ten Commandments. In Hebrew the phrase that occurs in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 is Aseret haDevarim meaning the Ten Utterances/Articulations/Words.
This fact alone opens up all kinds of possibilities for the content. The deeper concept is that the Aseret haDibrot serve as categories for the 613 mitzvot. So we are not solely obligated to fulfill the Ten Commandments…as in “I’m not doing so badly, at least I’m following [most of] the Ten Commandments”.
Our involvement in fulfilling our purpose here goes beyond the ten. There are mitzvot that cover many areas of life.
This post is not about that.
Nor is it about the details as to why these statements are more commonly referred to as Aseret haDibrot and not Aseret haDevarim (there is more about the word devarim here, or you can click here to read a discussion about the usage of dibrot versus devarim).
This post is about the word mitzvah מצוה with shades of meaning that offer us a better understanding of why we do mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) in the first place.
It is very challenging to understand the deeper messages embedded in the Torah without a grasp of Hebrew. So in exploring the Hebrew, we will gain insight into the meaning of mitzvah.
Every word in Hebrew can be distilled to a two or three letter root word.
The two letter root word for mitzvah is tzav צו (tzadee, vav) meaning a decree, a directive, an order, a command. So far that confirms what we know. However, the verb form mitzah (mem, tzadee, hey), has spiritual significance for us and goes beyond that meaning. Mitzah means to use to the fullest extent, to squeeze and extract from, to drain.
In the Shema, when we say that we will love God to the fullest extent of our hearts and minds, body and soul, and our strength and drive….we can see the connection. Within our capacity, we need to be all in. To the fullest extent possible, we need to squeeze ourselves to the limit. We need to ask ourselves….am I doing what I need to do at my limit? Can I do more?
We need to fulfill mitzvot to have that ideal come to realization. The mitzvot are our connection to God in a complete way.
In mystical traditions, the idea is that you are placed here with the talent and ability to do a mitzvah beautifully. In addition to fulfilling other mitzvot, you were given the tools to sing your own song, to do what only you can do.
What is that mitzvah for you? What do you engage in that makes your heart sing? What are you doing that makes you lose all track of time? What feeds your soul?
How and in what ways can you turn that into a mitzvah?
Because that is what you are meant to do. You are especially gifted with certain talents to fulfill your purpose here.
Please comment below if you are interested in participating in an online group to help determine your own personal mitzvot.