When I was young, my mom would ask me if I asked any good questions in school that day. As my son was growing, I added to that dinner table question with “and did you do any good deeds today?”
Some days it took my son longer to answer that second question. He got better at it, or at least answering me. Good deeds, be they small or large, are outward, action-oriented expressions of faith. It is taking action to improve our world, today, in whatever way you can.
In Judaism, the Hebrew word for that is mitzvah.
What is a mitzvah? Literally, it translates as commandment, and there are 613 of them in the Torah, including the original 10. Jewish tradition states that of those 613, 248 are positive, or “go do something” and the remaining 365 are “don’t do’s.” A positive commandment would be to honor the old and the wise (Leviticus 19:32). A negative, would be to “not to stand idly by when a human life is in danger” (Leviticus 19:16).
In modern life, mitzvahs have taken on different actions, as well. Jewish children have a bar (for a boy) or a bat (for a girl) mitzvah, when they are 12 or 13 years old. This rite marks their coming of age and assuming the responsibilities of a Jewish adult. In the year preceding their bat or bar mitzvah, most Jewish kids will take on a project designed to help them improve the world in small or larger ways.
Mitzvah projects run the gamut, from coat drives for the local shelters, to tree planting, locally or abroad. The young person chooses the project, which becomes their personal mission to make a positive impact on the world.
Living the commandment to love the world and make it better can also be expressed in small ways and by all people, not just Jewish folk. To a degree, it can just be to take action to help someone, opening a door for someone in need, literally or figuratively.
Recently I was wheeling my mom out of the doctor’s office, a wonderful individual rose from her chair, crossed the waiting room, and held open the two doors exiting the office, making our passage that much easier. It could be taken as such a small action, but her effort was greatly appreciated.
My mom talked about her the whole way home. That small action brightened my mom’s day.
As we go about our lives each day, our actions to make this place better, whether appreciated or noticed or not, are important. Whether it is picking up a bit of wayward trash at the gas station and throwing it out, or standing up for someone being bullied, each of us has an impact on the world around us.
What we chose to do to have that impact, is our most telling expression of faith.
Edie Yakutis works with Ritual Life at Temple Solel in Fort Mill. Contact her email@example.com.