What’s the Hardest Mitzvah?
What’s The Hardest Mitzvah?
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Temple Chai, September 2021
What is the hardest mitzvah for you? Is it not eating shrimp or bacon? Is it remembering to light shabbat candles each week? Is it saying Modeh Ani when you wake up in the morning? My suspicion is that, for many of us, the most challenging mitzvah is not fulfilling a ritual obligation, but, rather, fulfilling the mitzvah of “Ahavat Yisrael- loving the people of Israel.” We are known as am k’sheif oref- a stiff necked people. We are notoriously challenging. Barbara Kingsolver wrote that “. . . nothing wondrous can come into this world unless it rests of the shoulders of kindness.” Yet we find it so hard to be kind and caring to each other! How wondrous it could be if we could devote ourselves to the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael.
We can take a lesson from the lulav and etrog. Among many interpretations of these 4 species, we understand that each of these elements represents a member of the community- those who are devoted to learning and to loving acts of kindness, those who do neither, and those who emphasize only one. When we bring them together on Sukkot, we remind ourselves that there is a place for everyone, and that the Jewish people would be incomplete without each and every person, just as we need the myrtle, the willow, the palm, AND the etrog .
Because it is so easy and attractive to be judgmental, the lulav and etrog reinforce our dedication to being more kind, supportive, understanding of each of our unique strengths. As we enter the synagogue, we are encouraged to look around the sanctuary, to align our prayers with those who join us, to express our commitment to love our neighbors as ourselves, to have compassion on them, even with all their inadequacies. When we come to services, we remind ourselves to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Even if we know individuals who are in the category of those who don’t study, they don’t do any good, the way to encourage them is to pray for them and support them, and to never give up hope. I love the way Marcia Ford expressed it, “If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that we’re not all that great at treating the people we love with lovingkindness; how on earth can we be expected to treat people we dislike better than the way we’re now treating our loved ones?” It is a mitzvah to be kind to others even if we don’t think they deserve it and especially with no expectation of any reward.
In this way, we imitate God’s quality of chesed. We are at the season of completing the book of Deuteronomy, and the Talmud notes that the Torah ends with God’s act of chesed in burying Moses. And then it begins again with God’s loving act of kindness in providing clothing for Adam and Eve. (BT Sotah 14a) We who are made in God’s image, we can express that best in how we treat others and how we see the image of God in every person. We can strive in every conversation to listen for what the other individual needs and consider how we can support them. Curiosity and care will go a long, long way in healing and building relationships. Can we extend these to every member of the community, even those we find most challenging?
As we bring the lulav and etrog together, can we bring our community together? As we bless the lulav and etrog, can we bles each other? “Develop the practice of blessing others- May you. . . I wish you. . . I hope that. . . May God bless you with. . . Through our blessings we become vehicles for increasing connection- connections to hopes, to the Holy One whom we hope will respond, to eternity, and to the heart of the person before us. Blessing others brings softness to our hearts in moments of challenge, suffering, and joy.
We’ve just completed our season of forgiveness and reconciliation. Sukkot offers us an opportunity to deepen our commitment to each other- let’s not blow it immediately! Chag sameach!
 Ford, Marcia, quoted in Shapiro, Rabbi Rami, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindess: Preparing to Practice, VT: Skylight Paths, 2011, page ix
 Based on Friedman, Rabbi Dayle A. , Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2105, pp. 130-134