The Jewish Path of Mindfulness
B’chukotai: Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
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 mitzvotthat 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 conform to our expectations.
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.” The word mitzvah itself comes from the Aramaic meaning “to connect.” Because it is when we engage mindfully in our everyday actions that we connect ourselves to Source. Our sense of “disconnect” often stems from our living mindlessly.
In Judaism, mindfulness practice begins with words of gratitude as we first wake up in the morning and includes setting the intention of finding one hundred opportunities to bless each day. We practice when we kiss the mezuzah (actually or virtually,) remembering God’s Presence every time we cross a threshold in our day. We practice when we are simply aware of our breath moment to moment. Beyond that, our mystics have given us mantras for daily meditation such as “Hineni – I Am here” or “Ein od milvado – There is nothing more that That which alone is,” and we have been gifted a weekly Shabbat for spiritual retreat. All these mitzvot —practices that connect— are a powerful discipline for mindful living. They hold the promise of balance and nourishment spelled out in these first two verses of this week’s Torah portion.