I had a call the other day from a friend asking for some advice about her son. Her child has big aspirations. He is playful and inquisitive; he likes to study and learn about different subjects. He loves to start projects, but he doesn’t always finish them. His latest idea was to study Mishnayos, the collection of Oral Torah, with the goal of finishing all 63 tractates. My friend was hesitant. Should she encourage him? Dissuade him? What if he started and couldn’t finish? What if he started and didn’t want to finish?

AsHad I stopped to think about it, I wouldn’t have started my friend described her son, my mind went back in time to 20 years ago. My husband, who was my fiancée at the time, introduced me to the idea of saying Psalms on a daily basis. He told me that the entire book of Psalms was divided so that within a month, you could complete all 150 Psalms.

At the time, I didn’t speak Hebrew, so if I had actually stopped to think about it, I wouldn’t have started: 150 Psalms sounded unattainable. Maybe I should have learned Hebrew first? Maybe I wasn’t at a level in my religious observance to be one of those people who say Psalms? What if I started and couldn’t finish?

But I didn’t think it over. My husband suggested it to me, so obviously, he felt confident that I could do it. “And why not?” I said to myself. I started with the first one, which was one more than I had said previously. Twenty years later, I still complete the entire book of Psalms each month. That means I have said at least 36,000 Psalms since he first suggested it to me. That’s a lot!

I refocused and brought myself back to the telephone and my friend. The words of the sages in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) were ringing in my ears.

He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it; If you have studied much Torah, you shall be given much reward. Faithful is your employer [G‑d] to pay you the reward of your labor; And know that the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the age to come (Avot 2:16).

I told her: “Don’t calculate so much. You don’t know how much he’ll be able to accomplish. If he even learns just one Mishna, that will be more than he knew yesterday, and for each mitzvah (commandment, act of kindness, prayer, learning Torah, etc.) done, one receives reward. Right now, due to the situation of the virus, he’s home from school. He has so much time on his hands, what a beautiful way to use it. Just encourage him to start. The rest isn’t up to you.”

Many years ago, after beginning my sophomore year in university, I sought involvement in the Jewish student organizations. At the time, there were only a handful of observant Jews living on campus. The vast majority of Jewish students were not religious. I think only three or four ate strictly kosher food.

The Jewish student organization on campus used to host Shabbat dinners, but much to my surprise they weren’t kosher, and so the handful of observant Jews couldn’tI didn’t know how to cook, let alone for a bunch of people! participate. I didn’t understand this and went to the director of the program at the time, telling him that it simply didn’t make sense to make Shabbat dinners inaccessible to Jewish students. He was very encouraging and told me, “Great, so you do it!” Then he gave me the key to the kitchen.

I grew up eating kosher at home, but I had no idea how to go about making a kitchen kosher. (I also grew up in a home where we pretty much ate out in restaurants every evening.) I didn’t know how to cook, let alone for a bunch of people! I had no idea what to do, but thank G‑d, I didn’t think about it. I just did it.

I called up the local Orthodox rabbi, and he came with blowtorches, big pots of boiling water and a smile to help “kosher” the kitchen.

I remember the scene vividly. I was 19, dressed in a gray “Hard Rock Cafe” T-shirt, big baggy black jeans, my hair in two funky long braids, and I guess I, too, had a smile. Two rabbis came to help me. One of the two rabbis, an elderly man with a dark-gray beard and piercing blue eyes, looked me in the eyes and in accented English said to me, “Elana, Israel needs you.”

That Thursday night, I stayed up all night with a friend cooking. We cooked for a crowd of more than 100 people. We started with one dish and just kept going. Everything came out delicious, and for the first time those four Jewish students were able to eat Shabbat dinner. I am told that now, more than 20 years later, all Jewish student meals at the school are kosher.

We all get overwhelmed sometimes. We hear about something that seems interesting or something we might want to try or do, and yet the idea seems so daunting. So many of us nowadays feel like life is all or nothing, and the fear of not completing the task or goal often paralyzes us from even trying. We are home, locked in our homes and we don't know what to do. Is there anything to do? Anyway to help in our current situation? One asks, “Who am I to do anything? Can I, sitting here on my own, really do anything that would make a difference in another person’s life?”

A long time ago, there was an illiterate shepherd named Akiva. Akiva married Rachel, and she told him, “Akiva, go learn.” But Akiva didn’t know anything, how could he just go off and study? How could he learn?

She encouraged him, pushed him, convinced him to start with aleph and then bet.She encouraged him, pushed him Akiva, a man in his 40s, sat among preschoolers to learn the basics. Neither Rachel nor Akiva knew what would become of his “learning.” Maybe nothing. Maybe something. But day after day, Akiva sat and studied and grew, as Rachel just kept encouraging him.

Many years passed. In the process, Akiva began to teach and eventually became one of the most influential sages of his times. Even now, 2,000 years later, we still learn from Rabbi Akiva’s teachings. Who would have known?

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. ... Faithful is your employer [G‑d] to pay you the reward of your labor ...

Whenever there is a desire to do something, don’t let time pass. Now more than ever is the time. Dive in. You don’t have to know if you’ll finish it or what will become of it. Every mitzvah done is a huge deed in itself. I will never forget those words that rabbi told me many years ago, “Elana, Israel needs you.” Now, I am telling you the same, “Israel needs you.” Please do anything that you can. Every mitzvah done is a huge deed in itself.