Tale one I myself heard and now repeat to you. One night while driving home from work after a very long day, around eleven p.m. I saw a mother standing on the curb with two little boys and a baby in her arms. She hailed me in Spanish, but I looked away and continued on.
Suddenly, I remembered my own mother telling me that the best Mitsvot were the ones you don’t want to do, but you know you must do. The feeling of responsibility for others, and to God, was what turned a simple good deed into a Mitsvah (a Jewish duty).
I was just starting a new career at that time and very self-involved and self-centered. Yet I realized that the woman and her small children might be in danger. So I drove around the block and stopped.
The mother had a business card in her hand for a car wash that was quite far away. She spoke only Spanish, but I gathered her husband was working there and she was trying to bring him his dinner.
She had gotten off the bus at the wrong place and was now walking in the wrong direction. To be honest, I regretted stopping since she wasn’t in any danger; my mind was telling me I was a softy.
All I could think was, “I’m so tired, now I’ll have a long drive over there and back, and I have to get up very early.”
Nonetheless, despite my irritated and regretful attitude, I put seat belts on the little boys in the back seat; and the mother and baby in the front. When we arrived at the car wash, her husband, the night watchman, was waiting and worrying. He saw his family and his face lit up.
His wife quickly told him the story.
His gratitude was so great that I felt ashamed I had passed her by at first. And I was doubly ashamed by my attitude. It cost me only 45 minutes of my time and I was rewarded by a deep, guiltless sleep that night.
The memory of that Mitsvah changed me forever. I see the world and the people around me with new eyes and pay attention to them religiously.
I’m still grateful to her, because through our encounter I learned a huge lesson about my own self-centeredness and those of others during this year of Covid-19 and masks..
I learned that if you do a Mitsvah, even with the wrong attitude, you’ve still done the right thing; and by some divine law you will become a better person.
Now, whenever I become too absorbed into how important I am in this world, where personal freedom and personal choice is considered the ultimate, I look outward and upward to see where my next lesson will come from.
I know I will get a spiritual jolt from an opportunity to help someone. The greatest chapter in the Bible is Leviticus 19. It starts out by telling us “You should be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Study the whole chapter and you will see that holiness is more important than successes, happiness, or even self-fulfillment. I do not do a Mitsvah because it is what I want to do; and frequently, doing a Mitsvah isn’t fun. But Mitsvot lead us to holiness, and holiness connects us to God, a much higher plane than happiness.
Holiness is a life filled with doing Mitsvot for those around us, as well as the One above us. Holiness makes life divine.
Tale two is from the distant past. The Talmud tells a tale about a teacher who was not a very scholarly teacher, or a very interesting teacher; but was, like a Tu B’shivat tree planter, a very diligent and patient teacher.
Rabbi P’rida had a pupil who had to be taught a lesson four hundred times before the student could master it. One day Rabbi P’rida was requested to participate in a mitzvah [after he taught this student]. He taught the student [as usual] but the student could not grasp the lesson. Rabbi P’rida said to him, “What is the matter today?”
The student said to him, “From the moment the Rabbi was told that there was a religious matter to be attended to I could not concentrate my thoughts, for at every moment I imagined, now the Rabbi will leave, now the Rabbi will leave.”
Rabbi P’rida] said to him, “Give me your attention and I will teach you again”, and so he taught him another four hundred times.
A Bat Kol [a Heavenly Voice] issued forth asking him, “Do you prefer that four hundred years shall be added to your life or that you and all your generation shall be privileged to have a share in the world to come?”
Rabbi P’rida said, “That I and all my generation shall be privileged to have a share in the world to come.”
Because you have chosen a good outcome for the whole community; rather than your own individual good outcome, God said “Let him have both this and that.” (Talmud Eruvin 54b)
This is how to be part of a chosen people.