Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Making Mitzvot My Own

I was blessed some years ago to meet, quite by chance, a wonderful couple. They were older than my parents and we seemed to enjoy each other's company. We began to speak and visit on a regular basis. They had lived an early life that was quite extraordinary and romantic before becoming emigres to this country more than 50 years ago.

I felt a loving affinity towards the wife in particular and we discovered many connections in our lives. We soon came to greet each other warmly and I felt lucky to have her and her family in my life.

Over the past two years, my friend's husband has had health challenges and recently, he faced the most serious illness yet. While I spoke to her a few times each week during this period, I was very sensitive to their wishes for privacy. I worried and prayed for him, and hoped that all would be OK. I understood his wish for dignity at this very difficult time in his life and I waited and cared from afar.

Six weeks ago, he miraculously began to improve, and I started to visit them each week. It began as a mitzvah, a good deed, the right thing to do. I said it was to see him, but it was also to spend a little time with her, to share her stress and bring her some happiness from outside. As she was with him 24/7, it was the least I could do. I wanted to support her and share the difficulties and the small victories.

But something happened along the way to being a mensch: I found that the visits benefited me, too. It seems obvious, but there's more to it than simple good feelings about doing the right thing.

Each Saturday, I go to services and then visit my friends. It is what I do; it's become a part of my routine. I also visit my mother regularly on Saturday, but that isn't mitzvah, it's obligation. There's a difference here that I only now have begun to understand. When I see my mother, I fulfill my role as her caretaker. I want to do it but it feels different. When I visit with my friends, the mitzvah has gracefully morphed into something I want to do, that I can't imagine not doing. With G-d's grace, my friend will soon be well enough to be back home and I hope that I can continue our weekly conversations.

There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, 248 of which are "positive" deeds and thoughts that the Torah asks of us to perform and accomplish. In its wisdom, the Torah mandates us to give of ourselves in this way, giving service to our community. There is a higher purpose, but it's really a simple way of teaching us to be better people.

When the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they said, "We will do, and we will hear." First the doing, then the understanding.

I get that now.

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