Should Mitzvot Become a Habit?

For the week of September 1st, 2012

Parashat Ki Teytze
(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

Among the amazing assortment of mitzvot (commandments) taught in this week’s Torah portion, we find the following instruction:  “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life (Deut. 22:6-7).”  The purpose of this mitzvah, at least according to some of our teachers, is having compassion for the suffering of animals (i.e., the mother bird doesn’t have to witness us taking her young away).  The Hebrew name for this category of mitzvot is Tza’ar ba’alei chayim (preventing the suffering of animals) and there are a number of examples in Ki Teytze.*

But the midrash (the classical literature of Biblical interpretation) offers an additional lesson.  In Deut. 22:7, the Hebrew commandment to send the mother away is written as Shaleiach t’shalach (a repeated form of the verb, usually understood to imply some special emphasis as in, “You shall surely send….”).  In Deuteronomy Rabbah, our rabbis teach that the verb, shalach is repeated “…to tell you that if this precept comes your way a second time, do not say, ‘I have already done my duty,’ but every time it comes your way you must fulfill it.”**

Here, we confront the difference between fulfilling a mitzvah (a religious obligation) and just doing a nice thing.  If I’m helping out because I’m trying to be a nice person (and I want to feel good about myself), my kindness often extends only as far as my good feeling.  If I’m feeling especially grumpy (or experiencing “compassion fatigue”) and you ask me for help, I might tell you, “I gave at the office” (in other words, “Leave me alone; I’ve already done my part”).  But if I understand compassionate behavior as an obligation, no matter how I’m feeling at that moment, I’m supposed to try to help if I can.  Doing so is simply  my responsibility.  For that reason, according to the rabbis, compassion needs to become a fixed habit–the way I try to live in the world, every single time.

For many of us, especially in the liberal Jewish world, the idea of committing to a religious habit is a challenge.  We generally want each individual, religious act to feel meaningful, to be a satisfying, outward expression of our own feelings of fairness, compassion and our connection to holiness.  In fact, many of us tend to discard religious practices that we don’t find “meaningful” (or, if we’re honest, sometimes, that we don’t find convenient).  We’re suspicious of rote observance–of religious practices that people seem to do automatically and without much real feeling. So, why would we want to commit to developing a consistent habit, requiring ourselves to perform a religious act, over and over, even when we don’t feel like it?  In other words, why would we want to accept something as a religious obligation, as a mitzvah?

For my part, the answer depends on what is at stake in the religious behavior.  In this week’s instance, I believe that showing compassion for animals is almost always right, even when I don’t feel like it.  Acting so as to avoid unnecessary suffering for animals is not only the kind of person I aspire to become; it’s the kind of person I believe God calls me to become.   And if a religious commitment is truly and deeply the right thing to do, it’s not supposed to depend on my mood.  Instead, I must try my best to develop that behavior into a habit.  Of course, I try to make the action a habit not in order to empty it of meaning but to insure that I do my best to live a life consistent with my highest aspirations and most deeply held values.

Yes, the optimal religious experience is not only doing the right thing but doing it with the right intention (Jewish tradition calls this “kavnnah“) and, in the act, feeling deeply connected to our own humanity and whatever we understand by the word, “God.”  But if every, single instance doesn’t feel like a moment of deeply personal, religious expression (and how could it, really?), I suppose we can take consolation in the fact that, in the long run, the accumulation of such actions will still move both our individual character and the world towards greater holiness.


*See, for other examples, Deut. 22:1, 4, 10 and 25:4.
**Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 6,7