There is a question that comes up every year as the High Holidays approach, and every year I attempt to answer it. Why are we here?
Many people will consider themselves the “once-a-year-Jew” who I know I will see now and next in 12 months. And every year I struggle with this question — why do these people come? Or more aptly put, what value does this attendance at High Holidays, in a Jewish space, have for people who only come once a year. What drives them to come out and attend a service. Maybe they come to assuage some inner guilt. But guilt deadening is not a positive motivation for action and, to me, doesn’t seem strong enough to bring out the High Holiday crowds.
At the end of the day the question still hangs — Why Come.
This question really exists in a much larger form, not confined to High Holidays or synagogue participation. The question arises every time we are given the choice, the opportunity to do a singular mitzvah. What value can this one decision, this one mitzvah, have? A habit forming choice, a resolution to join a synagogue, these make logical sense. But one mitzvah? Almost sounds like deciding to diet for one day.
We speak in Chassidus of the infinite, eternal value, of each mitzvah. What I am attempting to explore here is a practical quantification in real-world terms.
Earlier this month as I was thinking and studying in preparation for the High Holidays it struck me: to do a mitzvah, is to vote.
Walking into a polling booth each person gets to vote for their candidate. Sometimes the voter is very informed, knowing exactly who they are voting for and why. But how many time have you gone in and after completing the top of the ballot with all the recognizable candidates, look further down and see PROP A, Y/N? Hmm, I’m an optimistic person I guess I’ll vote YES because yes is positive answer? Next is a city tax law, with little to no knowledge as to the details. Maybe you vote, maybe you don’t. But if you did, well, it counts.
Now, how valuable is that vote? One Vote. How valuable are my informed votes? One Vote. And whats the value of a vote — the whole democracy rests on it. Pretty valuable indeed.
One vote can tip the scale in an election. In local or statewide elections that not just a phrase but a fact. And that’s huge. A vote is very, very valuable.
And yet, each person can only have one vote. A governor, a senator, an eighteen year old freshman all have one, single, vote.
So a vote has two sides of value. On the one hand a huge and almost infinite value, a value powerful enough to change a society, powerful enough to make or break a democracy. And on the other, so terribly finite and measured, down to the singular existence of each voter. A single infinite vote.
Theses votes, does it make a difference how they were cast, it does not. A vote can be made will full knowledge of both sides of the issue, a decision. Or a vote can be a shot in the dark. In either case that vote carries with it the full weight and ramifications of the single infinite vote.
Each mitzvah is a vote. A vote for goodness, for G-dliness; a vote for tradition and continuity and community; a vote for holiness and a better brighter world.
And like a vote, a mitzvah can be cast with decisive knowledge or in passing impulse. With full seriousness or with careless frivolity. Like a vote, it still counts.
Like a vote, you can show up for the first time in 10 years and it still works. Doesn’t get rusty or stale. Like a vote, you can make sure to be there to cast every one you have.
One of the many interesting studies done on the recent election cycles discovered that the millions of dollars spent on Ads across TV and the Internet didn’t change many people’s opinions. Most of the ads were not meant to move people from one political side to the other. The majority of the ads were to get people to vote. The side that could get people off the couches, into the voting booths, was the side that swung the election.
And that’s because they realized that as long a people vote, informed or not, rightly or wrongly cast, the votes count.
Like the super-high-value, super-low-value, single infinite vote, the super-high-value, super-low-value, single infinite mitzvah is independent of any previous or subsequent actions.
A mitzvah done with or without intention, whether in a string of other mitzvahs or alone on a corner, each mitzvah is a vote. A vote for love, a vote for G-d.
This then is the value of coming here today. The value of a single infinite vote, a single infinite mitzvah.
And yet, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t pushing you to take another step.
As we approach the midterm elections, the big campaigns now are asking everyone, people who don’t consider themselves “regular” voters, to perceive themselves as voters and vote in these elections as well, not just the big Presidential ones.
My request to you today, as we examine our year past and plan forward to the year ahead, to look at ourselves as voters, mitzvah voters. In which, when presented with opportunity to cast our mitzvah, we do. And we do it again and again, because after all — we are mitzvah voters.
And in which, when presented with the opportunity to inform our vote, we look to do so. To explore, examine, and think, about the traditions, the values and reasons behind each mitzvah. Allowing us to cast our mitzvah with confidant knowledge.
So as we gather together, we can take pride in our vote to be here today. And secure in our value of today’s single infinite mitzvah, we can look to the future and tell ourselves this is what I do — am I a voter, I cast mitzvahs.
Shana Tova. Vote for Judaism!