Random acts of kindness, a good deed, doing someone a solid; my mother calls it a “mitzvah.” When I was growing up, she told me about the mitzvah box, or pushka, that her Baba (grandmother) kept in the kitchen. “It was a little box from the synagogue, and she’d put a few cents into it every day,” Mom explained. “Occasionally, a poor Rabbi or a wanderer would come to her door asking for food or water, or to use the bathroom.” Mom’s Baba would let him in, give him a meal and let him sit, and then send him off with the change from the mitzvah box.
I always loved that story, and the idea of doing mitzvahs for others, even if I didn’t know the background behind the tradition. The word mitzvah actually refers to the Jewish commandments. There are 613 mitzvahs in the Torah; they range from resting on Sukkot to abstaining from tattoos. But the word is often used synonymously with doing a good deed.
My mom is Jewish, and my father is Puerto Rican (he was raised Catholic). Growing up, Judaism and Catholicism were discussed, but there wasn’t a focus on either. We celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas in our family. As a child, I was fascinated by the burning candles in our menorah; the warmth of the flames, the wax that dripped down into vivid pools of color. Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights, and light is a reoccurring theme in Jewish tradition.
I recently learned, over a discussion at a friend’s Sabbath dinner, about how performing mitzvahs creates light in the world, and how that accumulation of light can lead—depending on your particular viewpoint—to everything from joy and fulfillment to enlightenment to the return of the messiah.
During the conversation, I had my own moment of light—or rather, a lightbulb moment. (No, it wasn’t about the return of the messiah.) It was a reminder to me about how important mitzvahs are, that act of bringing light into other people’s lives, even if it’s a tiny spark of it at a time. Sometimes it can be easy to forget; the idea of performing good deeds can feel routine, or like it has to be a big gesture, or about money, or that doing something for someone else takes away from what we need to do for ourselves. After all, people frequently tell you to be kind to yourself. (That’s important, too; although, I’ve always imagined that it entails taking a bubble bath, getting a manicure, or washing a chocolate bar down with a can of soda.) But being kind to others results in a sort of dual effect: creating light for someone else and warming yourself by that light at the same time.
Take, for example, the message I recently received on Facebook from a neighbor: “Hi Luisa,” she wrote. “Thank you so much for saying hello to me the past couple of days. It has been a tough few days and your kindness, just a hello, wave, smile, has really been so helpful.”
Thinking back, I had noticed that she seemed stressed out, and I’d made a point of greeting her and doing so with a genuine smile. It turned out that I had actually helped, even if just a little. The warmth and sense of community I felt after reading her messages was kind of immeasurable, and while my own happiness hadn’t been the point, it made sense to me—especially after the conversation about mitzvahs at that Sabbath dinner, where two candles had created light for everyone at the table.
I’ve committed myself to at least trying to perform a daily mitzvah, and it’s exciting to me that in our modern world, there are so many ways to reach other people. For instance, I went online and found a classroom with students in need of magazine subscriptions. It just so happened that I’d written for the publication in question, so I sent out some emails to my former colleagues. The subscription was donated! I felt I’d created a little bit of light and warmth—not just for the teacher and her students, but for me and my old colleagues, who’d also gotten to perform a mitzvah.
There are always people in need of light. A good deed, an act of kindness, a mitzvah—big or small, and whatever you may choose to call it, regardless of your background or beliefs—creates light in the world, a light that will brighten your day, too.
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