It is said that the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself. There are so many ways of expressing this. It is only in recent years, as I've grown older and begun to try to make sense of my world, that the concept of "mitzvah" has intrigued and guided me. It reminds me of finding my way out of a forest when I am lost, only to realize that I have come full circle to the place where I began. It reminds me of the path of a boomerang, thrown into the wind only to return to me. I began to learn about mitzvot. There is the story, for example, of the man who set out to find a treasure, spending his life seeking its secret hiding place. When, at the end of his time, he finds it in his own home… it had been in his possession the whole time. It is in my possession now; it always has been. And I have a powerful need to know what that treasure is, how to keep it in my life, and how to pass it on to my children, for we are the descendants of those who, through the ages, have kept alive the word of G‑d. That word has kept us united as a people through holy ritual and ethical choices.
To perform a mitzvah is to experience the sheer joy of doing something for someone else, or for G‑d, but more than that, it is the experience of living a Jewish life. How does one come to do a mitzvah? Is it a commandment from the Almighty? Is it a choice we come to make? I have learned that there are different sources of inspiration and guidance. We do mitzvot when we follow rituals. They bind us together as a people so that wherever we travel throughout the world, we are never lost or alone.
I have a dear and valued friend, Lila, who is sharing with me her midlife quest for understanding of what it means to be a Jewish woman. One day, during a typical marathon phone call, she told me that she had decided not to go to work that day; she was tired, somewhat unable to focus her thoughts, and depressed without knowing why. She is the friend who once said that she likes to do things for other people… because it makes her happy. I sat quietly while she took in what she had just said. Getting joy from doing for another. It was the very essence of mitzvah…when you do something for someone else or for G‑d, it brings you joy as well. Mitzvah begets mitzvah…whether it is a ritual deed or an ethical one.
On this particular day of her feeling downcast and spent, I suggested to her that she do a mitzvah for herself. It was a beautiful autumn day. The air was sweet, invigorating and inviting, and just about perfect for someone who enjoyed driving out into the countryside. She asked if I would consider joining her. I knew she seldom had the opportunity to be by herself, to hear her own thoughts. It took a good deal of persuasion to convince her that she deserved the luxury of setting forth on this adventure, alone. "What shall I do all day?" she wondered. "Just be," I answered. "Just let yourself be."
I learned later that my friend had experienced a blessed day. Not long into her drive along the shore, she happened upon a large seagull that lay on the side of the road in obvious distress, his weak bleating testament to his suffering. She was tempted to drive by, not knowing what she would find, or what to do about it, and was actually frightened that the bird would mistake her ministrations for aggression and hurt her with its sharp beak. She found herself pulling over to the shoulder of the road, leaving her truck, and slowly approaching the gull. She talked to him quietly and was able to get close enough to kneel beside and see that he was completely tangled in some kind of net. His struggles had made it worse and his strength was spent. Would he let her help him? There seem to be times when one stops reasoning intellectually and simply does what needs doing. Talking to him all the while, she managed to work him free, stroked his feathers gently and set him on his feet. For a few moments, they both looked at each other, nothing more. And then, with a great flapping of his wings, the gull took to the sky. If she expected gratitude, there was none forthcoming, but it almost seemed as if her heart took flight with him, and she was glad.
Later that day, on her way home, my friend noticed a young man with two young children walking along the dunes. He was waving to her, and holding up a water container. She pulled up and stopped her truck, uneasy about the circumstances, but reassured by the presence of the children who seemed to cling to his hands and join him in waving her to stop. In a few minutes, it became clear that the fellow was father of the children. They were city folk unused to the wise preparation for a day out in the country. They had been out hiking in the area, gotten lost, and needed a ride into town and needed to replenish their water supply. My friend, still high on her previous encounter with the gull, invited the three to get into the back of the truck, and shared her water with them. When they finally pulled into a mall area where the young man had left his car, he thanked my friend profusely, explaining that he had spent such wonderful time with his children that day, and had not been able to afford more than what they had done.
My friend sat in her truck, watching the little family settle into their car and the thoughts of her own family were strong. She had not been spending much time with them lately. Her work took up most of her waking time. Trying to succeed in her firm and also trying to be a good mother and wife, she had expended her strength until there was little left not only for her children, but even for her parents. They were quite elderly now; it had been a month since she had called them and since the children had seen their grandparents. Picking up her cell phone, she dialed their number.
Lila was rather surprised that, not only was she resolute about calling her parents, but that she had more than enough energy to do so. Her mother answered the call, as usual taking several rings to do so, since her advanced years had markedly slowed her down. They exchanged news of family and friends. Lila found herself eager to tell about the gull and the family. There was an exhilaration in the telling. This from a woman whose life had been overtaken with by work, stress, and a distancing from her husband who missed the vibrant, loving woman he married. In her usual conversations with her mother, Lila would seek reassurance and nurturing, and, if her aging parents needed her in some ways, she had little to give.
Her mother was silent for a few moments and then said, "Lila, you sound so happy… do you know? You have had a blessed day… you have done some wonderful things today… mitzvot… and you are having the blessings of these things because all mitzvot come back as gifts from G‑d." Listening to these words, my friend felt a sudden lifting of a heavy burden and she knew the truth in her mother's words. She returned to my house and we sat talking for a long time. Actually, I listened and she talked.
I listened and I thought, there had been a tsunami of mitzvot today, actually starting with me! I had recognized that my friend was in need and, in essence, had given her permission to spend a day nurturing herself. Lila had recognized a living creature in trouble and pain; she had set it free without giving thought to her own safety. She had recognized a family, lost and thirsty, and she had taken the time and trouble, not only to supply them with water, but to drive out of her way to show them the beauty of the area and have fun doing so. In the process, Lila had found a source of happiness within herself, and she went on to share some of that happiness with her parents. By the time she returned to me, Lila was glowing. But, having started a domino effect of goodness and kindness, I think I felt the best of all.