The real mitzvah to beautify

The real mitzvah to beautify

It was a wonderful sight. So many people descending on a local Judaica store to buy the lulav and etrog sets they would need for the coming Sukkot festival.

The purchasers stood around the rectangular collection of tables, carefully scrutinizing each etrog (a citron), trying to pick out the most beautiful fruit possible. Others were concentrating on seeking out the most perfect lulav (palm branches). Still others were looking at deliciously crafted cases in which to hold the etrog and fancy carrying bags for the lulav.

The goal of all of this was to “beautify the mitzvah” of the so-called four species, one of the unique commandments of Sukkot. “On the first day you shall take the product of citron trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of myrtle trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (See Leviticus 23:40.)

As I said, it was a wonderful sight.

It was also a very sad sight, however, because while so many people are willing to go to any effort or expense to “beautify the mitzvah” if it is a ritual commandment, they are not prepared to do the same for the commandments that truly matter – the ones that deal with how we relate to other people and to the world around us.

Yet this is the very thing Isaiah talked about in the prophetic portion that we read on Yom Kippur morning, a reading deliberately chosen by the sages of blessed memory for that day precisely because of its message.

This portion has been sorely misunderstood as a rejection of ritual in favor of social commandments. That is absolutely not true. Rather, Isaiah is saying – in God’s Name – that the most exacting performance of ritual is valueless unless attention is also paid to the commandments that the ritual is meant to reinforce.

The specific ritual in this case is fasting on Yom Kippur. We are assured that the Rubashkin family, for example, are very religious people. We are also told that how they treat their workers is separate from whether the meat they slaughter and sell is kosher. Isaiah disagrees.

“To be sure,” Isaiah quotes God as saying, “they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God, they ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: ‘Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?’ Because on your fast day, you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.” (See Isaiah 58:2-4.)

That, says God through Isaiah, is not acceptable: “Do you call that a fast…? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free…; to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, to clothe him, and to ignore not your own kin.” (See Isaiah 58:5-7.)

This brings me to the point of this column: Of all the mitzvot in the Torah, there is one that is never quite spelled out but clearly lies at the heart of the Torah itself. We are the people Israel and we are each responsible one for the other.

As the sages of blessed memory put it in the Talmud, “all are responsible one for the other…; all Israel is responsible one for the other.” (See BT Sanhedrin 27b and Sh’vuot [Oaths] 39a.)

That responsibility takes many forms. Right now, with this country and most of the world in the grips of economic chaos, it takes the form of seeing to the needs of the broader Jewish community.

Some people reading this column have seen their retirement nest eggs wiped out in the last few weeks – and it is not like they can start all over again because they are already long retired. Others in a few short weeks may not have enough money to buy food, or pay their heating bills, or pay for their health insurance, or keep their children in day school or college.

In truth, the need has already begun to be felt. Jewish social service agencies in our area have registered sharp increases in requests for employment services, for financial counseling, for short-term loans, for scholarships – and for food. The economic crisis is also having a serious impact on the emotional stability of families, with a rise in verbal and physical abuse.

If you want to “beautify a mitzvah,” this is the mitzvah that should be beautified: “to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

There are a number of ways you can help. Lawyers, doctors, dentists, social workers, financial advisers, and psychologists can volunteer their time to Jewish Family Service so that it can continue to supply urgently needed services. Also, JFS, UJA of Northern New Jersey, and many local synagogues are establishing food banks, and you can help by providing food – unopened, non-perishable. There is also a growing need for donations of new or gently used clothing.

You also can help by providing money to the UJA-NNJ campaign because it and its agencies need all the money they can get right now.

It is admirable to send money to this yeshiva or that hospital or some Jewish civil rights agency, but our community needs that money more than they do right now. When Isaiah (or, more accurately, God) urges us “not to ignore [our] own kin,” our immediate community is what he is talking about.

Consider, too, helping to replenish your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Rabbis of all streams will be called upon with increasing frequency to help out individuals and families who suddenly cannot make ends meet. They will not be able to help anyone, however, if they do not have the money to do so.

Do these things and you will be truly beautifying the right mitzvah. Ignore the need and the most beautiful etrog you can find will be nothing more than a glorified lemon.