Farewell to Chanukah

Body and soul

The rabbis said "the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah," meaning that the commandment is rewarded by the nearness to God that the one who performs it feels, the joy of spirit that lies within the deed. This indeed is "a greeting of the shekhinah," and without it the commandment is empty and lifeless, the body-shell of a mitzvah without any soul.

-- The Me'or Eynayim on a verse from parashat Vayera (as translated by Art Green)

How can I try to ensure that the mitzvot I do have both body and soul?

The question presupposes that I'm doing mitzvot in the first place. I hope that I am; I mean to be; but too many times I've let the perfect become the enemy of the good. One of the most insidious forms the yetzer ha-ra ("evil impulse") takes for me is the whisper that if I can't do something right, I might as well not do it at all. If I can’t take the time to daven all of shacharit, slowly and with intention in every prayer, I might as well just skip it and try again tomorrow. Or if I can't make the time for a long visit with someone who is sick or sad or suffering, I might as well let them be and wait until I really have the time to engage before I call. I have a perfectionist streak, and my yetzer ha-ra knows that.

How to work around this? The practice of doing small mitzvot even when I don't have the space or the ability to do large ones. Even if I can't daven for an hour every morning, I can try Reb Zalman’s suggested practice of the seven-minute daven, which at least gets me plugged-in and connected. I can't feed all the hungry in our town, but we can open our home to a friend in need of respite and soul-care. And so on. There is always -- there will always be -- more work to do in the world and on myself. So my imperfections are no reason to throw in the towel. (Take that, yetzer ha-ra.) And neither is losing the kavanah (intention or focus) I meant to bring to any given mitzvah.

During meditation minyan, my rabbi used to remind us that in mindfulness practice, it's natural to lose focus. The mind runs in circles like a puppy; we can't change that. So when focus vanishes, he told us, just recognize that reality and let it go, without self-castigation; return to the breath and try again. It's as true when I'm trying to do mitzvot as it is when I'm trying to meditate. The yetzer ha-ra would prefer that I sink a bunch of time and energy in kicking myself for screwing up, so I've got my work cut out for me.

I would like to be someone who is perennially conscious of God’s presence in all things. Spiritual muscle memory helps; I'm working on training myself to respond to the world in grateful and mindful ways, but sometimes it's slow going. One way or another, the work of "ensoulling" mitzvot is, for me, a form of mindfulness practice.

Of course, as something becomes commonplace or familiar it can fade into the background. For a while I wanted a shviti desktop image, so that every time I looked at my computer screen I would be reminded to keep the divine presence before me. In lieu of an actual shviti, I've been using an image of the ceiling from an old Budapest synagogue. Which was terrific until it became like wallpaper. Now most of the time my eyes scan right over it, which means it loses its mnemonic power. That's human nature -- or the yetzer ha-ra at work; pick your paradigm -- and it requires me to be creative in reminding myself of God.

I know I'll slip up. What's important is how I pull myself back to the focus I'm aiming for. In Yosher Divrei Emet, the text I've been learning on Sunday evenings, R' Meshullam Feibush writes that it doesn't so much matter whether we manage to truly achieve devekut (full cleaving-to, or union with, God) -- what matters is that we continue to strive toward it, even knowing it may be out of reach.

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