Rabbi Cassi’s Yom Kippur Afternoon Sermon 5781

One mitzvah leads to another – A contagion worth spreading

On Rosh Hashanah, many of us took part in a ritual called Tashlich, in which we toss our metaphorical sins into the water. Whether communally or individually, we took time to reflect on the year’s ups and downs, our missteps, and the choices we plan to make in the year ahead. We took time to unburden that which weighs us down. Each year I leave Tashlich feeling lighter and ready for the new year. If you haven’t yet done Tashlich, I encourage you to.

Although the Tashlich custom did not emerge until the fifteenth century[i], it shares similarities with a much older tradition, which is mentioned in the Torah portion traditionally read on Yom Kippur morning. It is the custom of the scapegoat.

Leviticus 16 explains that the high priest was to place his hands upon a live goat and confess the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites. Whether inadvertent or deliberate, these sins were placed upon this unsuspecting goat.[ii] The people who heard them would respond by affirming the priest’s words and admitting their wrongs.[iii] Only then could they truly begin the work of teshuva – repentance. Just as we throw our sins into the water never to be seen again, the goat was sent away into the desert, and thrown off a cliff. And you thought PETA had a problem with Tiger King!

This one ritual, however archaic feeling today, was essential to the community’s wellbeing. Through it they took responsibility for missteps. They let go of all the burdens from the past year. They dreamed of a better future that they could create together. They allowed one another to start anew.

A Tashlich ceremony is personal, but the scapegoat custom was communal. This one goat held all the community’s sins and missteps. As the goat left the community, every individual felt lighter, and more prepared for the year ahead.

There was just one problem; the goat would not go alone. It required someone to bring it into the desert.

That is where I believe this story truly gets interesting. This mitzvah could only be fulfilled byad ish iti – with the help of a “designated man.” “The ish iti, the designated man, is essential to the life and healing of the community,” explains Rabbi David Stern, “but he is unnamed, and in cultural memory, largely unnoticed.” This man was not a priest, or someone of high status.[iv] He was not someone who we might expect to take on this arduous duty on behalf of his people. He was an everyday man who left his friends and family to go on a dangerous journey. He vowed to do whatever is necessary – including carrying the goat,[v] if need be, to fulfill a sacred mission, and there was nothing in it for him.

The designated man volunteered out of the goodness of his heart. He knew there was a job that needed to be done, and that he could achieve it.

In short, he wanted to do a mitzvah.

Mitzvah is often translated as a good deed, something nice that we do for another human being. The Talmud first made this connection by associating a mitzvah with any charitable act, but it fails to mention one key component, that mitzvot come from God.[vi]

A mitzvah is not just a good deed; it is a “God deed,” explains Rabbi Perry Netter.[vii] Just as God clothes the naked, so are we called to clothe the naked. Just as God visits the sick, so too should we. God implores us to console the bereaved, just as God does.[viii]

The word mitzvah comes from the Hebrew root tzaddi, vav, hey, meaning “commandment.” When we teach this to our students in the Torah school, they are always a bit skeptical, and I don’t blame them. Most of us don’t appreciate being commanded to do anything. That changes when we explain that a mitzvah isn’t so much about being told what to do, as accepting the sacred calling to do our part. We are responsible for one another.[ix] And we are blessed with opportunities to give of ourselves in ways that not only meet one another’s needs, but that provide our lives with meaning as well. That is the heart of every mitzvah.

At Temple Beth El, we understand this. We show up for one another. We are present, virtually or in person, when community members are mourning. We call when people in our community need support. We offer meals and clothing to people who have fallen on hard times. We recently helped a young homeless woman get back on her feet. We do these things not just because they are the kind thing to do, but because we feel called to do them. We feel a pull to take care of each other.

More than anything most people wish to live in a society that is moral and kind. They want to be part of a community in which people treat each other well, where they feel appreciated, loved and grateful for the groups to which they belong. “We get a visceral sense that we do not live in such a moral world when we see people behave in petty, cruel, or selfish ways,” explains psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “But when we see a stranger perform a simple act of kindness for another stranger, it gives us a thrilling sense that maybe we do live in such a world.”[x]

The ish iti, the unnamed man, felt called to do his part in creating such a world. He could not do this with goods or money; he did not have them. He could not serve as a prophet or leader; he lacked those abilities. He fulfilled sacred obligation in the only way he knew how.

I recently read a story about a woman who was traveling with a few other people from her church. It had been snowing solidly that morning. As they were driving through a residential neighborhood, they saw an older lady standing in her driveway with a snow shovel. At the next intersection, one of the men in the backseat asked to be dropped off there. They let him out of the car thinking that he was close to home, but instead of going into one of the neighboring homes he walked up to the lady, took her shovel, and started shoveling her driveway. In witnessing this, the woman recalled, “I felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I went home and gushed to my suitemates who clutched at their hearts.” [xi]

While shoveling a driveway may not be one of the original 613 mitzvot, the act of caring for the needs of a stranger most certainly is. When this man felt a sacred calling to help this woman, his mitzvah had ripple effects beyond what he knew. His act reminded others of their sacred callings as well. With one small act, he inspired many more. That is the magic of mitzvot. It is why Pirkei Avot implores us to always run to do an easy mitzvah. “One mitzvah leads to another, and one sin leads to another,”[xii] it explains. When a mitzvah presents itself, it encourages us to jump at the chance. As Jonathan Sacks once wrote, “Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.”[xiii]

Much like our snow shoveler, the designated man’s selfless service brought out the best in his community. People of status were moved by his dedication and vowed to do their part to help him. Prominent residents of Jerusalem set up booths along his journey. Someone would escort him to each booth, where he would find food, water, and a place to rest.[xiv] As George Eliot once said, “What do we live for if not to make life less difficult for each other?”

Years ago, I officiated at the funeral of an eleven-month-old who tragically died from SIDS. After the funeral, her parents talked about the beauty of their little girl – the potential and the joy she brought into the world in her short life. “In her honor, let’s do some good,” they said. Attendees began purchasing coffee for others in the drive through. We bought gift cards and gave them to people who were homeless or in need. We went out of our way to hold doors and to offer complements, to make one another’s day. In the small town of Utica, NY, this pay it forward campaign spread quickly. People seemed even kinder and more generous than usual. One mitzvah led to another and another.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which one small campaign had transformed a community. I was also amazed by the way it changed me. With Jane’s memory on my mind, I searched for ways to honor her short life. A mother behind me in line dealing with whining kids? I’d buy her coffee to brighten her day. Someone distraught on the side of the road after an accident? I’d pull over to comfort them. At all times, I searched for opportunities to serve my community in ways that I never had. Because of Jane and that first mitzvah I did in her memory, I was becoming a more giving, compassionate, and thoughtful human being. I found that I had an increased capacity to notice the acts of kindness that surrounded me each day, which gave me a deep sense of joy.

All of us want to live in a world that is moral and kind. We turn on the news and are bombarded with horrific displays of hatred, violence, pettiness, and selfishness. It is important that we address these incidents. They are indicative of bigger problems that we have a responsibility to confront. Just as the Israelites owned their sins by admitting them out loud, we need to own ours. We need to contemplate, and to respond to that which is broken in our world. That is no small matter.

At the same time, the never-ending negative news stream can be overwhelming and depressing. We might think, even for a moment, that there is nothing we can do to fix it. That our vote doesn’t matter. That our voice isn’t powerful. We need stories of selflessness, and not just because it makes us feel better to listen to them. If one sin leads to another, then focusing too much on sin alone can lead to a deprivation of our souls. A recognition of the good in our world can inspire and empower us to be our best selves. Even when our actions are not recognized, we are better for having done them. The world is better for us having done them. Perhaps this is the reason we are taught “the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.”[xv]

We are called upon to do mitzvot – to respond to our sacred calling. This calling takes many forms. It is in the cashier, baker, Instacart driver, or first responder continuing to work even when unemployment would give her more money, because she feels a calling to serve her community. It is in the plasma donor who returns with frequency. It is in the doctor or nurse serving the community in a way they never could have envisioned. It is in our protests for what is just and merciful. It is shoveling a driveway or volunteering for an arduous journey.

What if every time we witnessed someone’s act of service, generosity, kindness or compassion – if every time we witnessed a mitzvah – we vowed to also hear the sacred calling and give of ourselves? Imagine the impact on the community if we intentionally allow one mitzvah to lead to another. Imagine the impact on ourselves.

“Judaism never left its ideals at the level of lofty aspirations,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “but instead translated them into deeds which we call mitzvot… and thus brought heaven down to earth.”[xvi]

A mitzvah is a contagion worth spreading.

[i] It is described in Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin’s Sefer Maharil.

[ii] Leviticus 16:21

[iii] See Chizkuni on Leviticus 16:21

[iv] Yoma 66a

[v] Including carrying the goat on his shoulders if the goat was too weak or sick to walk the whole way on his own. See Yoma 66b.

[vi] Talmud Yerushalmi

[vii] https://www.tbala.org/uploaded/Temple_Beth_Am/Netter_RH_2007_sermon.pdf

[viii] Sotah 14a

[ix] Shavuot 39a

[x] Jonathan Haidt, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/wired_to_be_inspired

[xi] Jonathan Haidt, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/wired_to_be_inspired

[xii] Pirkei Avot 4:2. Also see Avot D’Rebbe Natan 25:4

[xiii] In his From Optimism to Hope

[xiv] Yoma 66b-67a

[xv] Pirkei Avot 4:2

[xvi] https://rabbisacks.org/tenpaths/educators/whyiamajew/