Parashah (portion) B’chukotai – The Path of Mindfulness in Judaism
Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34

Had I planned it, I could not have chosen better verses than the two with which this week’s Torah portion begins, to reflect upon this month’s value/midah: Mindfulness.

If your path is imbued with My instructions and your actions remain connected to and flow from your inner Divine source (Mitzvot,) then I will gift your rains in their time and the land will yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. [Lev. 26:3-4]

I often describe practicing mitzvot (plural for mitzvah) as the Jewish path of mindfulness. Perhaps this is in reaction to the mindless performance of the mitzvot that defined the Modern Orthodox practices of my teenage years. Back then observance was about habit. The mitzvot were, for me, a series of rituals and words of prayers or blessings to be done “by the book” even though, by and large, I did not understand the reasons behind these practices.

In truth, all of us live habit-filled lives. Perhaps the unavoidable patterns of our “conditioned self” force us to live our lives inescapably following mindless forms of chronic behavior. And so, if this is the case, why not adopt the ones from our own lineage? In following the mitzvot, we choose one specific form of behavior to navigate the world, a way to live our “conditioned” life in as Jewishly-defined holy a way as possible. The same problem remains, though, since in practicing Judaism this way we continue to live mostly unconscious and habituated, mindlessly acting out our (now Jewish) conditioning; still getting angry, upset and being altogether miserable whenever the world and others don’t seem to follow our own individuated blueprint.

My understanding of the mitzvot shifted when I became available to hear a deeper teaching on Exodus 24:7. This is the place where the Torah relates the Hebrews’ pledge to God at Sinai after receiving the commandments: “All that the Eternal has spoken, we will do and we will hear.” It no longer meant: “follow the mitzvot even if you don’t understand them” as it had through my teenage years; but rather: “Follow the mitzvot for through their practice you will awaken.” I realized that the practices themselves have the inherent power to awaken us to knowing God’s Presence moment-to-moment. Through the doing comes the possibility for hearing. The mitzvot themselves are habits to break through habits; transformative paths of mindfulness, a discipline for awakening, a way to tear through the blueprint of our conditioning. And so now I define mitzvot as “actions in our life connected to and flowing from our inner Divine source.”

In Judaism, mindfulness practice begins with words of gratitude as we wake up in the morning, and includes saying one hundred blessings each day. Can you imagine going through your day looking for one hundred opportunities to bless? It continues with kissing the mezuzah (actually or virtually,) remembering God’s Presence every time we cross a threshold, and can be as simple as practicing remaining aware of the natural flow of our breath moment to moment. Our mystics have given us mantras for meditation practice such as “Hineni – I Am here” or “Ein od milvado – There is nothing but the One,” and we have been gifted the Shabbat to have a day for a spiritual retreat once a week. The mitzvot are a powerful discipline for mindful living. And they hold the promise of balance and nourishment as spelled out in the first two verses of our Torah portion.

© 2011 Rabbi Olivier BenHaim, All rights reserved.