One of the most unusual mitzvot of Judaism is that of the warning of tzitzit: "Instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages, let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.
That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus shall you be reminded to observe all My commandments and be holy to your God" (Numbers 15:38-40). The sole purpose of the tzitzit - these fringes that were originally on the corner of the outer garment worn daily - is to remind us to observe all the mitzvot, and it is the observance of mitzvot that is the key to Jewish living. That is what will enable us to survive. But we do them not only to survive but because they give meaning and purpose to our lives.
Observance of mitzvot was once the sine qua non of Jewish life. Those days are unfortunately long gone, and somehow they must be recaptured if Judaism is to have any importance at all. Our problem is that mitzvot means "commandments" and most of us do not feel commanded these days. We do not feel that we have an obligation to do anything but what we feel like doing. So we can take them or leave them.
What after all are mitzvot? The blessing recited before performing mitzvot says, "...who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to..." They are instruments for sanctifying our lives by bringing us closer to God, closer to living good and decent lives, closer to the essence of being a Jew.
How are we to understand the phrase "...who has sanctified us by His commandments"? Indeed they come from God, but according to modern knowledge and understanding not directly but through the instrument of human beings, through our prophets and sages. It may be compared to the blessing over bread. We say God "brings forth bread from the earth," but we know that it is through the labor of human beings that we get the wheat from which we create the bread - yet it is God who enables it to be created. So too the mitzvot - they were created by humans but by humans who had divine inspiration and who aspired to find the way to living a godly and a holy life.
Judaism is truly a system of mitzvot, of concrete actions that express our beliefs. Abraham Joshua Heschel stressed that we achieve Judaism not through a leap of faith but through a leap of action. Torah is teaching, mitzva is practice. One is dependent upon the other. Torah without mitzva is doctrine devoid of practice; mitzva without Torah is in danger of being mere behaviorism without meaning.
The mitzvot of Judaism are both ethical and ritual, or, as the traditional phrase has it, mitzvot between one person and another and mitzvot between the individual and God. Both are important. Ritual actions devoid of ethical conduct are an affront to God. Ethical actions with no relationship to God are preferable, but lack a strong basis upon which to stand and deprive the individual of spiritual experiences.
The sages of old taught, "The mitzvot were given only for the purpose of purifying human beings." Taking upon ourselves the obligation to observe the mitzvot is a way of purifying ourselves, of disciplining ourselves, of constantly reminding ourselves of who we are and that God has demands upon us. Living becomes more than a series of unrelated events, but a pattern of holiness and decency. Unless we are constantly saying: I do this because I am a Jew - or I do not do this because I am a Jew - our Judaism will have little impact upon us and will have little chance of survival.
To quote Heschel again, "Sacred acts, mitzvot, are of the essence of God... Judaism... takes deeds more seriously than things. Jewish law is, in a sense, a science of deeds. Its main concern is not only how to worship Him at certain times, but how to live with Him at every moment. All of life at all moments is a problem and the task."
Of course we understand that people are not going to suddenly observe all the mitzvot of Judaism, but what is important is to recognize the importance of mitzvot, of religious obligation, and to try to live up to that as best one can. There will always be some things about which people will say, "That's not for me, that's too difficult, or I don't accept that." As Franz Rosenzweig said at a certain stage of his return to Judaism when asked if he put on tefillin, "Not yet."
What a world of difference there is between "not yet" and "who cares"! If we are willing to be serious about Judaism, to take upon ourselves the obligation of mitzvot, then Judaism will survive - and not only survive but flourish.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.