I’ve always dabbled in code. Recently I got tired of dabbling and decided to just go ahead and commit to becoming a full-stack developer already, because… why not? I have an analytic and creative enough brain for it, and there are plenty of resources these days for learning on your own, so I’ve been diving in headfirst.

Since I’m dedicated to doing this the right way by consuming massive amounts of information quickly but retain-ably, I realized it would be best to start with a refresher on a topic I’m already quite familiar with. I chose basic web development, a sort of programming home for me since the days of GeoCities and AOL. (PS- Click on those links, you won’t regret it.)

The basics of web development include two entirely different programming languages that work in sync to produce what you actually see in your browser. The first is HTML or HyperText Markup Language, and the second is CSS or Cascading Style Sheets. Without getting too in-depth, HTML is the content you see and CSS is how that content is styled. HTML will include the actual text on the webpage, any tables, lists, titles… that sort of thing. CSS will determine what fonts are used, the size and color of every element on the page, and even where the different elements are placed in relation to one another.

For a visual example of what HTML and CSS really do, let’s take a look at an awesome project called the “CSS Zen Garden”. The quality of the name aside, this project allows developers to use the same exact HTML (the content) and just go to town with CSS (the style). The result is pretty fascinating.

If you look through some of the demos on the CSS Zen Garden site carefully, you’ll notice that the text and content are exactly the same in each of them. Not a word changes, yet they look like entirely different webpages. That’s because they essentially are. The addition of CSS allows for unlimited customization and massive levels of individuality… even while the HTML content remains completely constant.

Now the question is: so what? Yes, it makes for a more pleasant web browsing experience, but why should people who don’t get paid to do web design for a living really care about this?

Because HTML and CSS can make your relationship with G-d stronger, that’s why.

That may sound a little extreme, but the intimate relationship between HTML and CSS has a lot to teach us about the way we keep Torah and Mitzvahs. That’s because we, as human beings who tend towards simplicity, like to focus on one thing at a time… because it’s easier that way. For that reason, most Jews fall into one of two camps:

“I keep Torah and Mitzvahs, why are you bothering me about how much thought and feeling I put into what I do? I just do it, isn’t that enough??”

or the other end of things:

“You think G-d really cares about all the details of what I do on a day-to-day basis? I’m a Jew at heart and I love being Jewish and I love G-d, and that’s what matters.”

Each of these has benefits. The first type of Jew is correct in saying that action is the main thing… Judaism isn’t a passive religion, it takes a lot of doing, not just being. There are 613 opportunities that G-d gives us to connect with him, and they all involve some sort of action in the physical world, whether it’s lighting Shabbat candles or wrapping Tefillin or putting a mezuzah on our door. These physical acts make up the HTML, or the content and structure, of daily Jewish living. The text boxes on the pages of our lives are filled with the things we do that openly express, in a plain and simple and physical way, our connection to the Creator.

On the other hand, the second type of Jew is correct in the fact that the beauty of being Jewish is something less tangible. It’s about feelings, emotions, whether our heart is really in it. In Hebrew this is called “kavanah,” or the intention behind what we do and why. It’s about allowing the depths of our souls to pour into our love of G-d and passion for just being Jewish. These feelings are the CSS, the styling and beautification of our relationship with G-d.

However with just one or the other, Judaism is lacking. The same way that a webpage needs both HTML and CSS to truly be called a “webpage”, a Jewish life needs both action and feeling to truly be called “Jewish.” The same way a webpage with only HTML and no CSS is boring, a Jewish life filled with action but no kavanah, no real intention and feeling in those actions, is dull.

And do you know what a webpage with only CSS looks like? It’s empty. The style is there, the beauty and the feeling and expression are all just waiting behind the scenes to make themselves known, but there is nothing for the CSS to latch onto. Without HTML, CSS stays relegated to the realm of “potential,” and the same is to be said of Jewish life. Without physical actions to express themselves in, the love and feeling and beauty of Judaism is trapped in an intangible and theoretical state of existence, with no way to come down into this physical world.

It takes both action and intention, both HTML and CSS, to make our Judaism vibrant and alive and beautiful and fully expressive of our connection to G-d. And just like the same HTML with different CSS can produce unlimited variety, Judaism is open to expression. The way one person lights Shabbat candles may be physically the same as the way another person lights Shabbat candles, but the feelings and the intentions transform them both into completely unique expressions of that individual’s G-dly purpose for existing.

Judaism isn’t about sterile action, but it’s also not just about how we feel. It’s not cookie-cutter, or boring, or subduing personal expression, but it’s also not up to us to decide what it means to live a Jewish life. What is up to us is taking that structure that G-d provides through giving us 613 mitzvahs, and making that “content” truly and uniquely beautiful. We each have the power to take Judaism from a page of plain text to a gorgeous display of individuality. G-d’s providing the HTML. What the CSS makes it look like is entirely up to each of us. So go ahead. Take it slow if you need to: start with one “line of code” at a time. But pick a mitzvah and finally make it yours.

For more details on doing holy acts vs feeling spiritual, check out this Q&A.