by Reb Gutman Locks @ Mystical Paths
Is a mitzvah a ritual, an exercise, or an actual spiritual deed?
A ritual is something we do that stands for something else. It is a ceremony. We have to know what it stands for in order to know what is happening. No matter how many times we do the ritual, unless someone tells us what it stands for, we would never figure it out from the ritual.
An exercise is a practice to develop something, or to train you for some time in the future when you are going to do the actual act that you are preparing for. Although an exercise might not be the actual deed you are training for, still it improves your performance. It does something to you.
A spiritual deed is an act that actually makes physical and spiritual changes when you do it. It implements something. It puts something into effect. Whether we understand what that particular spiritual deed does or not, still, it does something when we do it. Surely, if we understand what it does when we do it, it will be more effective, but even if we have no idea what is going on, the deed changes something physically and spiritually in some way.
Mitzvahs are not merely rituals, and they should not be performed as if they were. They are not mere exercises either. Mitzvahs are physical deeds with spiritual purposes. Each mitzvah is designed in its own way to bring about some physical and spiritual change. They improve the world, and when done properly, they also increase spiritual awareness. I have seen many Jews who have never seen tefillin even once in their lives break down crying when I helped them to put them on. A ritual cannot do this, nor will a physical exercise do it.
But when a Jew puts on tefillin, or does any other mitzvah, not only does something physical happen, but something spiritual happens, too.
A good example is the mitzvah of tzedaka (charity). Every coin you give changes something physically, and it changes something spiritually. It is not a ritual, nor is it just an exercise. The poor person actually gets the physical coin, and you who gave the coin receive a spiritual coin in its place. The physical coin reduces the poor person’s suffering, and the spiritual coin elevates your opportunity to receive blessings in this world, and its benefit stays with you forever, even in the World to Come.
Even the rabbinical mitzvahs that might seem to be mere rituals accomplish something spiritual. For instance, the command to light Shabbos candles comes from the rabbis, and to many it might seem to be a ritual. But if we look, we find many spiritual things happen when we light those candles, and we begin to understand why the rabbis taught us to bring in Shabbos this way.
Whereas Hashem told us to observe and remember the holiness of Shabbos, the rabbis taught us to usher it in with light. Light is a spiritual reminder. We cannot see the light itself, but we see what it does. It removes darkness and it reveals what is around us. Since we light only after we have everything prepared for the holy day, we begin to feel peaceful when we light. It is a “time of favor” which means that G-d is paying specific attention to our prayers. There is so much more happening when we light Shabbos candles then just physically lighting the candles.
Try to see what is happening when you do any mitzvah. Are you binding G-d’s words to your arm? What does that change? Wearing His holy uniform? How should we feel when we are dressed as a servant of the Holy One? Recognizing His greatness in song? Guarding our home by affixing mezuzahs? Sharing His gifts with the poor?
If we do mitzvahs only understanding their physical characteristics, we will still get credit for those mitzvahs, but most likely, we will not gain the spiritual awareness that is supposed to come when we do them. Spiritual awareness begins to bring the spiritual reward to us while we are still in this world, and not only in the Word to Come.