The Case of the Missing Mitzvah

May 29, 2021

Author(s): Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz,

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Parshat Beha’alotecha
May 29, 2021 — 11 Sivan 5781
The Case of the Missing Mitzvah
by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA


            I want to tell you an odd story, not well known. I’ll call it the case of the missing mitzvah.  The Hebrew Bible relates two cases when important mitzvot were lost to the Jewish people.  Jews just stopped doing them, in one case for 40 years, in the other case for hundreds of years.

            The first case of the missing mitzvah concerns brit milah, circumcision.  This is as foundational as it gets. God commands Abraham, and all Jewish parents of male babies for the rest of time, to circumcise their son on day eight as a sign of the covenant.  Yet the Book of Joshua tells us that for forty years, brit milah fell into disuse.   All the sons born to all the parents of the generation of the Exodus were not circumcised.  The generation of the Exodus  that personally experienced God’s saving power with the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea somehow failed to perform the most basic command of Jewish identity: to circumcise our sons.

            But it was not only brit milah that fell into disuse.  The mitzvah of observing Passover  also fell into disuse.  The mitzvah of observing Passover is foundational, the first mitzvah directed to the entire Jewish people, the single most commonly observed mitzvah today.

            And yet, the Second Book of Kings tells us that Passover observance fell into disuse for hundreds of years.  The Judges, shoftim, in the 11th century BCE, forgot about Passover.  King Saul, King David, King Solomon, all forgot about Passover.  The judges of the divided kingdom all forgot about Passover until finally one king, named Josiah, in the year 622, resurrected Passover observance.

            How does generation after generation lose the foundational mitzvot of brit milah and observing Pesach? The Hebrew Bible does not tell us how or why it happened, just that it


            I had always considered the question of how or why a mitzvah fell into disuse to be a dangling curiosity, interesting but not urgent and not our problem.

            But now the case of the missing mitzvah is no mere dangling curiosity.  It is urgent.  It is our problem, especially now, today, May 29.

            We stand today at a pivot point.  Yesterday, Friday morning, we had our last zoom daily minyan.  Tomorrow, Sunday morning, our daily minyan is back in person.

            Today is our 64th and last pandemic Shabbat morning service when the Rabbi Samuel Chiel Sanctuary is bereft of you, our beloved congregation. Next Shabbat we are back in person for the first time since March, 2020.

            You might think that people who love this place, who miss this place, who love one another, who miss one another, would be beating down the doors to come back.

            And that’s where the case of the missing mitzvah is so haunting. Is coming back together in person going to be our generation’s missing mitzvah?

            Let me tell you about a genre of conversation I have had so many times I cannot  count them all. 

            The person I am talking to thanks the clergy team for doing services during the pandemic.

            The person will then say online services are fabulous! Easy! Convenient! I don’t have to shower. I don’t have to get dressed. I don’t have to drive. I don’t have to park. I don’t have to put my social face on.  I can drink my cup of coffee, stay in my comfortable clothing, click in, get whatever part of the service I want, click out, no hassle. I get a dose of spirituality, and it doesn’t take the whole morning.  I prefer online to in-person.

            Or the person will say: I used to go to shul regularly on Shabbat mornings, but the whole zoom thing does not work for me.  I just can’t get into it.   But oh my God.  I am loving my Saturday mornings during the pandemic.  I used to go to shul, now I play tennis.  Now I work out.  Now I knit. Now I bake. Now I do art projects. Now I sit at home, unhurried, in my bathrobe, and I read and relax.  I never used to do that before.

            These conversations leave me worried.  We can come back to shul.  But will we want to come back to shul, or do we now find ourselves in the middle of our own case of the missing mitzvah, being an in-person community?

            I am not talking about people who have physical limitations or challenges that make coming in person difficult.  One of the most wonderful things about our pandemic year was that our online move made our services and classes accessible to people who could not have been here in person.  Being welcoming and inclusive to those who struggle to be here in person was, is and will always be a hugely important value of our community.

            But what about those who could be here in person?

            We had such an interesting online meeting of our Board of Directors Wednesday night.  One of the issues that came up was: should our Annual Meeting in June be in person or online?  Our directors are fully vaccinated.  The overwhelming majority of adults in our community are fully vaccinated. Could we do what Saturday Night Live did last Saturday night?  Its last show of the year was the first show of the year when they performed in person before a full house.  Could our last meeting of this pandemic year be a robustly addended meeting in person in Adelson Community Hall?

            Now some of our Directors have young children at home who are not vaccinated yet, and to protect their children, they want to stay on zoom.  Of course we get that.  But other directors were reluctant to come back in person not because they have children at home but for other reasons.  Though vaccinated, they are not yet comfortable.  Or, there was a sense that we can get more people, attendance will be more full, if the meeting is online.

            I get and respect the importance of being comfortable. And I know that our numbers are higher online than in person.  By the way, because zoom is so easy and convenient, and because coming in person takes a commitment of time and energy, online numbers will always be higher

than in person numbers.

            But that means we all share a collective challenge now.  We have always been an in-person community.  Have zoom and livestream worked so well that they will endanger our becoming an in-person community on the other side of the pandemic?

            In the two biblical cases where a foundational mitzvah was lost for a long time, the fix

was external.  An external force, Joshua the military leader, Josiah the king, commanded the

people to resume brit milah and to resume Passover observance.  The people could not say no.

            But in our case now, there is no external command.  There is only our internal voice.  If we choose to come back to shul again, it will only be because we have made that choice.   Why would we make that choice?

            I recently asked our 7th graders if you could do anything in the world when we are on the other side of the pandemic, what is the one thing you would most like to do?  Every seventh grader said the same thing:  I would most like to hug my family and friends. 

Being with family and friends, in person, happens here.

Brit milah was lost, then it was found.  Passover observance was lost, then it was found.  Coming together in person was lost.  Next Shabbat, let’s find it together. Shabbat shalom.