Close to the beginning of Scripture, Our Lord observes approvingly of Abraham, that he has “obeyed my voice, and kept my precepts and commandments, and observed my ceremonies and laws.” That word, “commandment,” translates the first of many dozen times this important word, mitzvah (plural mitzvot), will appear in the Bible.
It is not the only word for commandment, nor the one we found most memorably, in the Ten Commandments. These are called, in Masoretic text, the “Ten Words.” (aseret ha-dibrot)
We know them also from the Gospel of John, now in Greek. For in John we read that in the beginning was the Word, and this Word was with God. The same was in the beginning.
It is more than philosophical Greek, and less distant from the Hebrew. Again, this word must convey command, and the commandment is the very creation of the world. It is the Word that formed the universe, and note, not evolved but formed from nothing.
The commandment is an act, not simply a word that can be uttered and forgotten, as most words that are merely conversational. Certain words, for instance those of Christ, are imperishable acts. They cannot be deleted, ever: not since the beginning of the world and not before the end. They are “theological,” or to make this sound more modern, we are dealing in cosmic physics, beyond the reach of quotidian science – in which what is made cannot be unmade.
To the Jews, in contemporary use, “a mitzvah” is a good deed. Rabbis might be consulted to affirm that what makes a deed good is its conformity to the will of God.
In the colloquial, “a mitzvah” is a nice, perhaps a loving act, perhaps a fulfilment of one of the traditional 613 commandments that were, by legend, communicated to Moses (though enumerated much later). But it is still an act.
This is a fair, rather naive, condensation of what I imagine to be the essence of a mitzvah, reduced now to secular use. For to the Jews, the Catholics, and all others who might use it, God is as we know before thinking, a loving God; and with theological insight, the essence of Love itself. He is a person; in Christian knowledge the three-in-one.
Through acts of love we echo, as it were, the purpose of the Creation. They resonate even in the confined world that we are, in a sense, creating or “co-creating.”
We do more than obey a command, in Love. We embody the command: the more perfectly as we are more perfect, more pure. Or else, we pretend that which remains above our station.
What is created out of love is truthfully part of the Creation. But in the absence of love, it is an artificial creation, a kind of fraud, or mere opinion. Humans who set out to be “nation builders,” or makers on some other grand scale, create only smoke and mirrors.
To know that God created all things, from the beginning; to worship Him; to appreciate His unity; to fear God; to love God; and not to chase after worldly illusions. This I was taught, curiously, not by a rabbi, nor by a priest, but by a learned Theravada monk who was eager to explain similarities in religion. Expressed thus, it becomes more or less identical with Buddhist teaching. Indeed, he liked to call himself a Jew, among other titles.
What contradicted this reasoning to my mind, was – to begin – the profound distinction between East and West: the Buddhist concentration on meditation, and comparative neglect of deeds. Not having been a member of any Eastern religion, I no doubt misrepresent them, but their otherness is not lost on me. There is the mark of distinction between Western, or Abrahamic religions, and the Eastern mysticism.
Yet in both, the human lust for action is there: for the often-violent action of sin. We are all fallen, just as we are all called, almost audibly within our souls.
We are Commanded, to Mitzvot, to the Word, and to a purpose which, so long as we are faithful in spirit, will never leave us to a shallow independence. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” as Augustine so memorably said, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
It is to an understanding of the first part of this most famous quotation, that I am trying to rise. “Our hearts are restless,” but this is not, in its process, a bad thing. We are alive, and really, it is good to be pro-life. Stillness is death, by this analogy. So long as we breathe, the hope is in the very breath within us.
Our freedom has lately been understood in cursory, political terms. We are free to express ourselves, according to our tradition. In that light, those who would censor or cancel our writing or our speech are the enemies of our freedom. Liberty demands that we stand, against all the silencers who exist to take our freedom away. For freedom is our cry, and our revolutionary slogan.
But this “freedom of speech,” while it is crucial to the assembly of free persons in a free society, is of subsidiary importance to our freedom. Our spoken or written words may be true or false; they may or may not be founded in good intention; they are anyway “just words.”
Whereas, freedom is a kind of action; and true when it is at the command of Love. Our freedom is in life, not prattle. It is not a sermon but a mitzvah, rather: the whole thing.
A thousand meaningless love songs have distracted us; to the confusion of love with wish-fulfilling eros. The lovelorn are very well, in their season; but love exceeds the material imagination.
It is the command that leads to everything, at the heart of the chivalrous Catholic “vision” of the world.
*Image: Moses Receiving the Tablets of Law by Marc Chagall, 1952 [Musée Marc Chagall, Nice, France]
You may also enjoy:
Michael Pakaluk’s Who Is Like God?
St. John of the Cross’s Love’s Living Flame