The Thoughtful Observer
A Jew who is Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant), adheres to the kosher laws, and keeps other mitzvot in the Torah is referred to as an observant Jew. I’m not sure where exactly the term “observant” came from with reference to Jews, but a verse in this week’s Torah portion suggests an answer.
You shall observe My commandments and do them… (22:31)
The verse instructs us to do two things, observe (or watch) mitzvot AND ALSO to do them. It doesn’t make sense to say that one simply watches or observes a mitzvah because if someone does a mitzvah, they are not merely watching it (passively), they are doing it. It is ironic that “observant Jew” is a term used for one who actually performs the mitzvot, rather than being a passive observer. Perhaps the Hebrew word used in the verse above (u’shmartem-watch/observe) is the source of the “observant” appellation because in the context of the verse, being observant means to be an active participant. So, we return to the question, how are we to understand the seeming redundancy to ‘observe’ mitzvos AND ‘do’ them?
A story I once read that took place about 30 years ago clarifies this point. A Rabbi paid a shiva call to his friend in Chicago, who was sitting shiva for his father. The friend’s father had been ‘observant.’ As a young man, the friend related, he remembered that his father would pass the newsstand every Saturday night on his way home from the synagogue to pick up a paper. Being as he did not carry money on him, he had made an arrangement with one of the newsstands to return on Sunday morning to pay him.
His father was not interested in the sports pages or even the late breaking news; in fact, he was not interested in the paper at all. He bought it for his mother, who also was not interested in sports or the news—she was interested in the dead. Every Saturday night she would comb the paper looking for announcements of tombstone unveilings that were to take place on Sunday at the local Jewish Cemeteries. Being as an unveiling is a time when people are charitable, his elderly mother would go to the cemeteries to raise funds for Yeshivot (Jewish institutes of higher learning) in Europe and Israel. She would eventually turn the coins into bills and send the money overseas. In Lithuania, there was a world-renowned Yeshiva called Slabodka, which was destroyed during WWII and reopened in Israel. A plaque hangs there today to commemorate her.
Perhaps the Torah is telling us more than just to do mitzvot. It is telling us to watch for—seek—them. Observe, be on guard and look for opportunities to do mitzvot. There are tens of mitzvot that pass us by daily. That translates into thousands every month!
For example, a parent can make breakfast, lunch, or dinner for the family and just do it because it’s part of the daily routine OR—ideally—they can have in mind, “I’m doing this so that everyone on the family will have the strength and energy to do the things they need to.” One needs energy for work so he or she can earn a living and support the family, and also give tzeduka. Instead of just putting food on the table, I am mindful of how it will enable the person I’m feeding to accomplish what they need to. Another family member needs it for the day in school and yet another needs it for an important charitable event they are spearheading. Whatever the case may be, if you have in mind that I am doing an act of kindness for the family, you have done the mitzvah of kindness. No one has forced you to do it and therefore your voluntarily providing food for the family is considered a mitzvah.
How about smiling and saying a kind word to an employee in a store? Wouldn’t you want someone to do that to you or a loved one? By doing so you are doing the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself. One of the great works on Jewish law in the early 20th century was the Aruch Hashulchan. He says that when you say “Amen” after the mishabayrach prayer (communal prayer for sick or ailing people we make every Shabbos in shul), you get the mitzvah “love your neighbor as yourself” because if you were sick, you would want someone to listen to the prayer and answer Amen afterwards (Saying Amen is like saying, “I’m seconding that motion; I want that person (or those people) to have a complete recovery.”)
Whether it’s collecting charity, helping someone lift a package or lifting someone’s spirit; cooking for someone with heart ailment or listening to someone who has just had his or her heart broken, there are hundreds of mitzvah opportunities that come our way regularly.
Perhaps the Torah is not only telling us to do mitzvot, it is also telling us to be on the lookout for those that are out there waiting for us to observe.