Among other things, we suggested each student take on a new mitzvah — a new Jewish ritual or ethical practice.
We had not expected this to be a daunting suggestion. But it was. Students said, “I don’t know where to begin.” “This sounds so traditional.” “The people I live with aren’t Jewish, so a lot of things are out.”
We encouraged them to bypass their personal barriers and brainstorm. So they offered ideas: a daily prayer practice, a regular evening forgiveness meditation, daily reading of an inspirational Jewish saying, donating consistently to neighbourhood beggars.
They listened to one another politely, and with great interest. Still, they were skeptical about following through.
Every human being, I said, has a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. In rabbinic literature, the yetzer hara appears as something like our id — raw desires that occasionally burst right through our conscience and cause us to act on impulse. The Ba’al Shem Tov reframes the yetzer hara, using the term to describe our inner voice of negativity. When we want to take on a new mitzvah, the yetzer hara whispers, “You are not good enough to do that.” “Stop faking; you are not really spiritual.” “If you try, you will fail, and no one will respect you.” Be aware, says the Ba’al Shem Tov, of this automatic reaction! Let the voice chatter — and walk right past it.
Class members smiled. They recognized their own inner chatter. But they did not know how to bypass it.
Together we read an essay by the Piacetzner Rebbe about chinuch, education. The Piacetzner presents Rashi’s research on uses of the word chinuch in Biblical Hebrew. Consistently, the word describes the beginning of a process of actualization. For example, living in a new house until it becomes a home, or studying an art until you become master of the craft. Chinuch, education, is the process of finding your unique potential, and working with it consciously until you become an excellent version of yourself.
Inspired, I reframed the invitation to take on a new mitzvah: What potential in you would you like to actualize this year?
Here, I said, is a practical example. I used to be a good vegetarian cook, but my skills fell into disuse when I married a carnivore. Now that my son has become a vegetarian, I would like to revive my old skills. I know I have the potential, because I used to practice the craft; now I would like to make it actual.
And here is a less tangible example. I would like to be less angry with people for small things. Sometimes, when anger comes on, I notice what triggers me and why. At those times I understand that I — rather than the other person’s action — am the source of the anger, and I moderate my response. I know that I can achieve this insightful equanimity, because sometimes it happens automatically. Thus I know this skill lies in me as a potential. But I would like to make it a frequent conscious practice; I would like to actualize it.
Aaaaahhhh! We breathed together. The invitation to a new mitzvah is not an invitation to choose a random item from a Jewish list, or a traditional list, or any list at all. Instead, it is an invitation to find positive seeds inside ourselves, and grow them with attention, discipline, and creativity.