What Music Evokes
Fourth Sunday in Lent

Hiddur Mitzvah: Doing Things Beautifully

This past weekend was a busy one at KC, with a full-day Lenten retreat on Saturday and two worship services, a mission trip training and a class on evil on Sunday. There's a lot to ponder on Monday after a weekend like that. The depth of reflection, insight and wisdom of the KC community continues to amaze me. But today I'm not just thinking about what people said or wrote. I find myself reflecting on the beauty of what some people did.

When I arrived at the church building for our retreat on Saturday, Rebecca had already been at work, setting up a number of "stations" with tools for meditation. One of the first things that I saw was a "senses table". On it were things that were meant to delight each of our five senses, including a quitely burbling tabletop fountain (with an invitation to listen), a bowl of anise seeds (with an invitation to taste) and a bouquet of fresh basil (with an invitation to smell). The whole table was set up so beautifully--it had the quality of a thoughtfully arranged still life.

Downstairs, Bonnie and I had created a simple, three-circuit labyrinth on the carpet using three different kinds of tape. We did in on Friday, which was a snow day for my three kids, and I had just grabbed every kind of black tape I could find in our basement. Some of it stuck better than others, and we ran out before it was completed and filled in the missing parts with blue chalk, which showed up fairly well on the carpet. It wasn't pretty, but I was in a hurry to get home, so I was satisfied once it looked "good enough". When I came back on Saturday, Bonnie had fixed the whole thing up with thick black duct tape which really did stick to the floor. She had straightened out our crooked parts, set up candles around the room, and managed to make the whole room beautiful.

On Sunday afternoon, it happened again. Harriett and Ken were leading a training for those of us who are going to Louisiana for a mission trip in three weeks. The whole training was done with a lot of thought and insight, but one of the things that impressed me most was that the had set up lunch on the table with a green tablecloth, bright yellow napkins, and colorful Mardi Gras beads spread between the platters of cold cuts and rolls.

In each of these situations, someone put extra effort into making something beautiful. And in each case, it really wasn't necessary that they do so. It would have been perfectly fine to just put the lunch meat out on the table on a paper plate and leave it at that. No one would have complained, and I don't think anyone would have complained if the tape-labyrinth has been sloppy or if no one had arranged a sensory meditation table. But the fact that someone put thought into those things, made an extra effort, really touched me.

Why? It's not just that these things pleased my sense of aesthetics. It's deeper than that. For me, Rebecca and Bonnie and Ken and Harriett's extra effort had the feel of "hiddur mitzvah", a Jewish concept that doesn't really have a Christian equivalent. Hiddur mitzvah is a phase that comes from Exodus 15:2, "This is my God and I will glorify him." The Hebrew sages interpreted the call to "glorify" God as an invitation to carry out God's commandments (mitzvah) in a beautiful way. In this way, we show God that it's a joyful thing to observe the commandments. We're not just trying to do the bare minimum to get by. We're not just doing it because we'll be in trouble if we don't.

The idea of "hiddur mitzvah" shows up in some wonderful ways in Jewish tradition. For example, sometimes the Hebrew letters in a manuscript are decorated with delightful little lines like little buds growing out from the top. Beautiful silver kiddush cups, candlesticks and menorah are another part of this tradition. It's a mitzvah to light candles at the start of Shabbat, but it is even more wonderful to observe that commandment in a beautiful way.

It's easy to lose sight of this value when you are busy, and almost impossible to uphold when you feel put-upon. If the request to do something feels like just "one more thing" you have to cross off your already too-full list, you do what you need to do, no more. I'm well aware of this dynamic, and of the internal muttering "you should be glad this got done at all." I've put many a meal on the table for my family with exactly that feeling.

I feel no need to make my life as beautiful as Martha Stewart's, and to make every meal a gourmet one. In fact, in our culture of consumption and excess, I often feel the call to pare down, to do things more simply, to reuse or repurpose instead of buying something. But I want to be sure to keep this other value in mind as well. I don't want to just give God--or my family, or the church--the bare minimum. It is a gift to God to do something beautifully.

Comments

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Bonnie

Thanks so much, Heather, for this reminder. I often find myself doing "the bare minimum to get by" and feeling relieved that I manage that much. I am so appreciative of those who manage more, particularly something beautiful. This busy weekend provided many moments of restful beauty - the sensory table, a roaring fire, the video of the wonders of our world (my personal favorite - the swimming elephants), the haunting music at the retreat and the evening service, the cloth on the communion table. All deepened my experience of being in a sacred space. And all were indeed hiddur mitzvah.

By the way, I was once told by a Jewish guy I was dating that it was a mitzvah to make love on the sabbath. Maybe the "to your spouse" part got lost in translation.

real live preacher

This is nice. I've had a feeling for hiddur mitzvah but name for it. Thank you!

johnhamilton

Thank you for the concept "hiddur mitsvah." There's a loveliness, a grace, of the Spirit present in these little extras. My wife is really good at them.

paul

...thanks! yes, yes...

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