Where in the Torah does it mention doing good deeds? Are these the 216 Mitzvahs?
Let us make sure that we are speaking the same language. The word ‘mitzvah’ – מצוה – is often incorrectly translated as ‘good deed’. That is wrong. The root of the word is TZ-V-H, צ-ו-ה, which is a command. Good deeds are ambiguous; often based on each of our own fallible and malleable consciences. A mitzvah is something that God commands us to do whether or not we agree with, sympathize with, or understand His request.
As an example, it is a mitzvah to love your friend (the word friend isn’t a great translation of the Hebrew either): Leviticus 19:18. It is also a mitzvah not to wear something made of a combination of wool and linen: Leviticus 19:19. You can see that some mitzvot (the plural) are more popularly quoted than others. There are 7 mitzvot, commandments, that are incumbent on all human beings. These are known as the 7 Mitzvot of the sons of Noah – in other words, everyone. These include setting up a court system, avoiding sexual immorality, and not murdering.
Jews, as a group, have 613 commandments. In practical terms, no one is obligated with all 613. Some are only for men, others only for women. Some only apply while living in the land of Israel, others only when the Temple is standing. Some only apply to descendants of Aharon (Aaron) while others apply only to farmers. Some apply only in certain situations, for example when you build a building with a roof or when you go to war. Nonetheless, there are quite a number of commandments, both positive ones (do) and negative ones (don’t) that apply to all Jews today.
Most of us fall short at keeping all the commandments incumbent upon us. Doing so requires study of what they actually mean as well as exerting great discipline over ourselves. We fail because we are human. What is less acceptable is when people tout certain commandments (often at face value), such as, “be kind to the stranger,” while explaining that other commandments, such as wiping out the memory of Amalek, are irrelevant and wrong. The first type of person is inconsistent; the second type is dishonest. We don’t get to pass judgment on God, applauding Him when we like what He says and dissing Him when we don’t.
It reminds us of what the security guard watching over a priceless work of art by Michelangelo said to the tourist who was trying to make up his mind about the painting: “Sir, when you stand in front of the Mona Lisa, she is not on trial, you are!”
To sum up, God gets to decide what a mitzvah is, not us. When we do CH-S-D, translated loosely as kindness, we are only doing so if we are not disobeying any of the mitzvot – commandments – in the actions we are taking.
Hope this clears things up a bit,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
This Ask the Rabbi is dedicated in memory of Doron and More Meyer, ages 58 and 17, a father and daughter who were murdered together on October 7, 2023.
With prayers for the safe release of Ella and Dana Elyakim, ages 8 and 15, who were taken hostage on October 7, 2023, as their father was murdered. May they be returned to their family and people along with the rest of those who were kidnapped.
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