How Mitzvah Day gives a warm start to winter

The festival-free month of Cheshvan was called ‘bitter’. by the rabbis. But now it is the focus for social action.


By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, November 17, 2011
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Ready to share the fruits of their labours: a group of volunteers for Mitzvah Day, which takes place this Sunday

Ready to share the fruits of their labours: a group of volunteers for Mitzvah Day, which takes place this Sunday

'Now is the winter of our discontent", proclaimed Shakespeare's Richard III. Our rabbis agreed. Moving from an intense period of festivals and fasts, packed with commandments, to the first month of the winter which has no festivals at all, they felt deprived. They called this period Marcheshvan or "the bitter month of Cheshvan".

Now Cheshvan has had a makeover. Under the banner of the Jewish Social Action Month and Mitzvah Day, the Hebrew month of Cheshvan has become the focus for an enormous range of social action projects across the Jewish world. Is this a positive development or a heretical abandonment of the traditional position that every day should be a 613-mitzvot day?

The Talmud describes King David entering the bath, and then panicking as he catches sight of his own naked body and realises that at that moment there are no commandments that he can fulfil; his connection to the Almighty seems broken and this leaves him distraught (Menachot 43b). Only when he remembered his circumcision, a mitzvah which was constantly with him, were his nerves calmed.

King David's passion for a religious life, powered by an endless stream of religious obligations, is beautiful and inspiring, As an Orthodox rabbi, it reflects the way that I live and the Torah that I teach. But I recognise that for many Jews, God and Judaism feel more distant and harder to relate to. They look to religion to fulfil their personal spiritual needs and connection to their people, creating structures which are based on traditional Judaism, but without the same sense of total submission to traditional Jewish law. Limmud and the independent minyanim are further examples of this post-modern phenomenon of people developing their own Jewish narrative.

The Gemara explains that God gave the Jewish people hundreds of commandments, enabling each of us to shine (Makot 24). Why did He not just give us one commandment which we could all have fulfilled. That would have been far easier than trying to keep the huge body of laws that make up our religion. Maimonides explains that the many laws enable each person to express themselves. They give room for everyone to find their own niche, the particular mitzvah at which they can excel.

This idea is reflected in a striking talmudic story. A rabbi once met Elijah the prophet in a market. He asked the prophet to identify people whose conduct rendered them worthy of a place in the world to come. Elijah's choices were surprising. He pointed to a rather strangely dressed prison guard and a pair of jesters. When he asked what made each one special, the guard explained that he dedicated his energies to protecting the female prisoners from sexual assault in the cells and occasionally spied on the Roman generals to ensure the safety of the Jewish community. The jesters explained that they helped unhappy couples resolve their differences and revive their marriages (Ta'anit 22a).

I treasure the idea that alongside the daily rituals, Judaism values our personalities and individual talents, allowing us to incorporate them into our religious observance. I love the fact that Elijah the Prophet's judgment did not conform to stereotypes but identified the beauty in unconventional Jews.

When, under the lead of Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchior, we organised the first Jewish Social Action Month as an initiative of the Government of Israel in 2005, we quickly realised that acts promoting social justice would speak to thousands of Jews.

Our communities are deeply divided over theological, halachic and political issues, so it was particularly inspiring to see Jews of every stripe adopting their own social action projects. Whether religious or secular, they all understood the incredible importance of Jewish values of social justice, compassion, charity and loving-kindness. They are backed by the Chief Rabbis of numerous countries and admired by politicians, community leaders and other faith leaders, who are urging their communities to use Cheshvan to start mending the world.

Last year, over 20,000 British Jews volunteered on Mitzvah Day: this Sunday, there will be more. In so doing, they fulfil the commands of "Love your neighbour as you love yourself" (Leviticus 19: 18); "You shall surely open your hand to your brother in need" (Deuteronomy 15: 11); and the rabbinic decree that "We help non-Jews as we support our own people" (Gittin 61a).

Jewish Social Action Month and Mitzvah Day may be less onerous than the 24/7 commitment demanded by Orthodox Judaism, but its impact is huge and positive. Many of last year's volunteers continued with their acts of loving-kindness long after the cold month of Cheshvan was over. Others who had been very distant from their faith rediscovered their synagogues, reconnected to their people, re-engaged with their faith and helped the needy of our society.

If the bleak month of Cheshvan has been warmed a little, and as a result, Jews are drawing closer to their religion rather than fleeing it, these are certainly changes we should embrace.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi

    Last updated: 11:23am, November 17 2011