Sign In Forgot Password

Nediv Lev - The Willing Heart

First Day of Rosh HaShanah, 5769
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Congregation Rodfei Zedek, Chicago

At the annual meeting of the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council last spring, I was asked to participate in a forum on the theme, “What Is the Biggest Challenge Facing Your Religion?” I didn’t even need to think about my response, which came immediately to my mind and heart: The biggest challenge to Judaism today is to preserve a sense of being commanded by God as a people, to be set apart for certain perspectives and observances, as a service to humanity.

Now please don’t get scared away. I know that this is a very hard job description or mission statement to deal with, even at High Holy Days services.

The new Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Arnold Eisen, has studied the responses of many modern Jews of all affiliations and especially those of no affiliation, to determine their views of Judaism. He asked what people like about Judaism. Typical among the responses was that of the man who said that “there can’t be anything I don’t like about Judaism. I elect to observe it as I elect to observe it. If something is potentially annoying, then I avoid it. It would be wrong for me to do something I have not chosen to do.”

If this is the outlook of most Jews, Eisen concluded, we must have a serious conversation about mitzvah or Divine commandment. The word “mitzvah,” he decided, “has many more connotations than something you got to do because God commands it. The word ‘command’ is just insufficient to cover the range of meanings which mitzvah tries to capture. You think of obligation immediately. But you also think of discipline. You think of…acts done out of engagement in a particular relationship….” Maybe, Dr. Eisen decided, it is best to ask people what makes them feel obligated as Jews and to get into a conversation about that. He therefore launched an initiative for Conservative congregations to talk about mitzvah and to clarify what makes members of Conservative synagogues feel commanded and what actions they perform for Judaism and the Jewish People.

The problem is that the concept of mitzvah is not so broad in the classical literature of Judaism—that is, in the Bible and the Talmud and among the medieval philosophers or the mystics. It is also pretty clear‑cut in modern Jewish philosophy and theology, except when the philosopher or theologian specifically says that he is breaking with tradition. Mitzvah does mean “commandment.” It suggests a Divine Commander, God, and a human commandee, we the people. It is very much top down, with the top having a capital “T.” It requires that we know the 613 mitzvot that our Sages counted in the Bible, and be able to relate our actions to those mitzvot.

This is a very hard concept for twenty-first century Jews to take. It was not very easy to take in the twentieth or nineteenth centuries, either. Nor was it easy to stomach in Rabbinic times, two thousand years ago. The Rabbis of the Talmud taught that one who performs the mitzvot, the commandments out of a sense of being commanded, of submitting to the Divine will, is on a higher plane than those who develop some rationale to do the mitzvot. To have been provoked to have made such a strong statement, those Sages must have gotten a lot of flack about being commanded.

Interestingly, Moses is cited in the Torah as telling the people that they should observe the mitzvot because it is good for them—it leads to a better life, they will be seen by their neighbors as wise for observing the commandments. He even says a few times that certain commandments will add years to our lives. In these places he comes across sounding like the self-help gurus of today. The concept of mitzvah had to be made more palatable back in biblical times. It is not an easy one.

I know that in our congregation individuals have many different reasons for the aspects of Judaism that they observe. People have told them to me through the years. They have also told each other, usually at discussions we’ve had at lunch on Shabbat morning or in our Friday night Chavurah dinners. Some do regard the Jewish People as specifically commanded by God to observe the mitzvot. Some, following Mordecai Kaplan, regard the commandments as Jewish folkways, to be done because they are the drill of Jewish life as developed by the civilization of the Jewish People to express spirituality and to bridge the generations in that expression. There are many views in between. Most of us have settled for the American definition of mitzvah as “good deed” rather than “commandment,” and have left it at that.

The truth is that we Conservative Jews have been discussing mitzvah for years. Long before Chancellor Eisen called for “a conversation about mitzvah,” my brilliant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Seymour Siegel, of blessed memory, who was, by the way, a Chicago native, used to have a nickname for Conservative Judaism. Dr. Siegel used to refer to our Movement as “Conversative Judaism.” By that he meant that we are always talking, always conversing, about what Jews should be doing to observe Judaism.

We could engage endlessly in conversations about mitzvah. In the meantime, we have congregations to run, we need to get people involved. Above our Ark we find the words of the ancient Israelites at a noble—or vulnerable?—moment when they embraced Divine commandments: Naaseh v’nishma, first we’ll do the commandments and then we’ll understand them—or converse about them.

We are glad to have members of our congregation for whatever reason they are members. Golda Meir had the right attitude when, years ago, she met a large group of Jews who had turned out in support of Israel. “Thank you for coming,” she said. “Thank you for being Jews.”

We embrace all who come no matter what reason. We who have come today feel some kind of affinity, some kind of bond, even, I dare say, some kind of obligation and responsibility toward Jewish life and Jewish institutions.

We are glad to see you whenever we see you. But the truth is that we need to do the things that we have a congregation in order to do. If it is meaningful to some to discuss and to redefine mitzvah before getting started, then it is a turn off to others. Some are not comfortable with the religious language, and some believe that trying to redefine the religious language dilutes the religion.

My personal faith is that God has ways of reaching us, sooner or later, and we have ways of engaging God even when we keep God at arm’s length. Someone sent me a sermon recently with a quotation that I liked: “A Jew is one who gives God the benefit of the doubt.” I liked the phrase and looked to find out where it was from. I’m embarrassed to say that I noted that the preacher, a rabbi in New Jersey, had quoted it from an article I wrote in the Jewish Spectator some 15 years ago. I guess that’s why I was sent the sermon. Tomorrow we’ll talk more about God. Today, I would offer a simple formula for doing.

Mitzvah is related to God-language and to God. It always will be. It is demanding and commanding and therefore requires involvement and commitment before it can begin to resonate meaningfully.  The Torah promises us that mitzvah is close to us, in our mouths, that we don’t have to cross land and sea to find it.  But as if to note that mitzvah is a rather lofty and daunting concept, the Torah offers us a far easier and more accessible entry into the life of faith and of the Jewish communuity.  It is called “nediv lev,” the willing heart.  “The Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take me an offering; of every person whose heart is willing (yidvenu libo) shall you take My offering” (Exodus 25:1‑2).  There is no mention of tzav or commanding here.  God says to Moses and asks him to speak to the people.

You will remember that the response was phenomenal.  Not only did the people bring more material goods than were needed (Exodus 36:5‑7); even more important, ken asu b’nai yisrael kol ha avodah, they did all the work (39:43).  Only then, in the same verse, does the Torah come back to being commanded.

Rodfei Zedek, like every American synagogue, needs people who are nediv lev, willing of heart, out of whatever motivation.  We need more people to get involved. It is the willing of heart who keep our doors open, for whatever motives.

Let me give one example.  We generally succeed at having a minyan, a quorum for prayer, every morning.  We do so because people who wanted to say Kaddish when they lost a loved one found the minyan congenial and comforting, and they remained to help others.  We have a committed core group who attend the minyan and some who lead it regularly, whenever they are in town. Among these are two, and occasionally three, married couples.  They are all early risers, and they are therefore naturals to advance the early service.  Not everyone came initially out of an interest in prayer, but most are interested in prayer now.  Not everybody came with a sense of being obligated to come, but they feel responsibility for the minyan now.  The rest of us can provide them with regular or occasional help and encourage them.  That is how we keep what our Sages call the “Shaarey Tefillah,” the Gates of Prayer, open every morning at Rodfei Zedek.

This is the perfect example of what nediv lev is all about, supporting and bolstering and building the work of the congregation by becoming involved, if for no other reason, to encourage those who are involved and who keep the congregation going. Nediv lev is all about giving time and giving of ourselves to encourage those who keep the synagogue available to us.

Nediv lev is also about expanding what the synagogue has to offer. When we convene lectures and classes that might interest to you, you can encourage the work of the committees or of the speakers, many of whom are fellow congregants, by being present. Better still, when there is something you want to learn, you can arrange to study that topic here and to involve others.

After that magnificent concert we had last spring, members of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute Chorus told us, in Hebrew and in English, that they rarely perform to such a knowledge­able and warm and receptive congregation, where both the men and women are conversant with the words of the prayers and songs performed. We have marvelous resources in our congregation, both to mentor and to be mentored.

Ours is a congregation of gifted and insightful individuals with fascinating stories and inspiring achievements. We do have an impressive congregation of all ages. We invite our members to speak or to participate whenever possible. We emphasize programs to bring the generations together. Younger members must encourage the elders, and elders, the younger members. That is what nediv lev, willingness of heart, is all about.

When you think of it, American democracy is based on nediv lev, willingness of heart. There is no law or commandment that we must vote, yet society depends on each of us voting his or her conscience. We are blessed with two candidates for the presidency who emphasize public service and the value of nediv lev, a willing and generous heart. We must follow their example and vote our conscience. But even after the election, nediv lev, a willingness of heart, a generosity of spirit, demands that we each do all that we can to see that quality of nediv lev prevail in our nation’s capital.

Senator John Danforth was an ordained minister. One day, some time after he left the pulpit for politics, he met one of his former parishoners in the halls of Congress. Curious, the former congregant, who obviously missed his pastor, asked Danforth: “Why did you leave the ministry and leading a church to come to Washington and to become a senator?” Spontaneously, Danforth responded, “Because I couldn’t stand the politics.” He explained: “At least here in Washington, we may argue and disagree during Senate floor debates. But after session we go out with other senators from across the aisle, have dinner, talk and we leave that stuff behind. In the congregation, it never stopped.”

I suspect that Danforth romanticized Washington politics and underestimated the capacity of religious institutions to get things done graciously. But certainly for any politics to remain constructive and productive, the spirit and the actions of nediv lev, of the willing heart, must prevail beyond elections and meetings.

The word, “politics,” comes from the Greek, polis, community. It is a way of shaping the community. Why not shape community with nediv lev, with a willing heart? In our Program Book you will find opportunities to hear members of the community address us on ways we can bring a willing heart to the wider community as well as to Rodfei Zedek, beginning with a major community concert featuring Justin Roberts on Sunday, October 19, for the Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen, at which everyone from small children and up can do some hands-on nediv lev helping.

Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed by mitzvah, by commandment, as we all do at one time or another? Then let the willingness of your heart take over. It will be meaningful to you and helpful to the synagogue and to the community.

Once you find yourself in the doors of the synagogue, other doors will open, doors of spiritual treasure, even as our Sages taught in an ancient midrash on the words of Proverbs (8:34), in which wisdom or Torah beckons:  “Happy is the person who hears me, who is daily diligent and eager at my doorways, who keeps my doorposts, for one who finds me finds life and warrants a blessing from the Lord.”  Our Sages taught:  “If you attend the house of prayer…have the intention to enter doorway inside of doorway, for it is not written, ‘be eager at my doorway,’ but rather, ‘at my doorways,’ in the plural.  And why is this so?  Because the Holy One counts your steps and gives you a reward for each doorway.”  Amen.

Return to The Pulpit Shelf

Tue, February 20 2024 11 Adar I 5784