“When she came into the room, she picked up a little plastic toy duck that must have belonged to her grandchild and took it over to a plastic basin on the windowsill. In the soft afternoon light coming through the window, she began bathing the duck. It was like baptizing this little plastic toy. What impressed me most was that she did it so wholeheartedly. Here were these objects that were so mundane, in some sense the opposite of spiritual, just a dirty old plastic toy, yet she did the whole process so wholeheartedly. It immediately centered me just watching her.”

From a devotee’s first meeting with the Buddhist teacher Dipa Ma.[1]

The Ethics of the Fathers (4:2) states:

“One mitzvah (sacred act) brings about another mitzvah and one aveyrah (wrongdoing) brings about another aveyrah.

The Hasidic master, Dov Baer of Mezeritch explains: “One mitzvah brings about another mitzvah”, because the word mitzvah comes from the root tzavat, to join. When we do a mitzvah it brings about our “tzavat (joining), hetchabrut (binding) and devekut (attachment) to God.”

“One aveyrah brings about another aveyrah”, Rebbe Dov Baer continues, because the word aveyrah comes from the root avar, to pass over or move away. When we do an aveyrah, it brings about a distancing or separation from God.[2]

We can extend these definitions of Rebbe Dov Baer beyond the halachic (legal) categories of mitzvah and aveyrah and apply them to everything that we do in our life. Everything that binds us to God is a mitzvah. Everything that distances us from the Eternal One is an aveyrah.

Every time we raise our thoughts, words and actions toward higher aspirations, we are doing a mitzvah. We are creating another bond between God and us. Every time we give in to our lower desires and instincts, we are doing an aveyrah. We are building a barrier that separates us from our spiritual source.

Any division between the spiritual and the non-spiritual realms is artificial. Everything that we do will either take us toward God or away from Him. Even the mundane actions that we consider neutral are not really so; every act affects who we are and what we will become.

On the one hand, the mitzvot are impregnated with Divine livingness and have a special spiritual potency. This transmission of power occurred at the moment of the giving of the Torah at Sinai and has been passed down through the generations. The love and devotion of all those who have practiced the mitzvot over the past three thousand five hundred years has transformed this transmission into a tremendous reservoir of spiritual energy. Whenever we do a mitzvah with sincerity, we tap into this immense reservoir of spiritual power and utilize it to strengthen the bond with our soul.

On the other hand, every experience has both a spiritual and a physical dimension. It is the level at which we interact with an experience that will determine whether or not it becomes a mitzvah. If we turn our mind toward God and dedicate our actions to Him, then all of our thoughts, words and deeds will become sanctified. Everything we do will be transformed into “spiritual glue” that binds us to God.

There are many stories in the Zen tradition that tell us how the Zen Masters reached enlightenment by seeing the Infinite in a finite action, by finding the Eternal in a temporal object; by discovering significance in an insignificant mundane experience.

Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, a well-known Zen Master, once exclaimed to his audience as he held up a pen:

“I now raise my pen in my hand. If we are able to realize that this seemingly insignificant act in the same moment is at once the absolute act penetrating through the whole universe and is directly connected with the fundamental source of life, then we are able to see the secret of creation.”[3]

It is this transcendent place where the insignificant and the absolute meet that is the goal of every mitzvah. The purpose of a mitzvah is to take a moment in time and reveal the underlying Eternity. The goal of a mitzvah is to transform an ordinary act into a spiritual experience that lifts us into a higher state of consciousness and binds us to God.

The Midrash [4] tells us that the Biblical figure Hanoch was a cobbler, whose every stitch would unite the Holy One, blessed be He, with the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.

The Baal Shem Tov explains:

“Thought is Yud Heh Vav Heh, [the Divine Name associated with the Holy One, Blessed be He] and action is Adonai [the Divine Name associated with the Shechinah]. When he [a person] joins thought and action at the moment of acting, it is called the uniting of the Holy One and the Shechinah.” [5]

“With each and every movement, one should unite the Holy One, blessed be He and the Shechinah. When you join together thought with action, by taking care and being aware of every movement, this is called union… and if you do not do this, then all of your actions, reckonings, thoughts, knowledge and wisdom; it all is in Sheol [the netherworld], in the place of the klipot [evil husks].” [6]

According to the tradition, the Torah was the blueprint for the creation of the world. If the Torah is the blueprint, then the mitzvot are the building blocks for that blueprint. The mitzvot are our link to the Infinite, the pathway that will enable us to experience the eternal moment of Creation. A mitzvah is the spiritual glue that binds thought to action and cements the personality to the soul. A mitzvah is a “Divine stitch” that unites Heaven and Earth.

Copyright © 2010, by Yoel Glick
first published 25/6/2010


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Amy Schmidt, Dipa Ma, The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master, p. 86
  2. Dov Baer of Mezeritch, Likutei Amarim, page 50
  3. A Flower does not Talk, Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, p. 134
  4. Yalkut Reuveni in the name of the Asarah Ma’amarot
  5. Shub, Baal Shem al haTorah, Torah portion Berehsit # 179
  6. Yitzchak of Kamarna, Otzer haChaim, Torah portion Kedoshim, mentioned in Baal Shem al haTorah, Torah portion Berehsit # 179, footnote # 154