At Religious School a few weeks ago, the class that I work in (mostly ages 3-6) was learning about what a “mitzvah” is. Religiously speaking, a mitzvah is a commandment, and the Torah does not have only 10 like many people believe. There are actually 613 mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) in the Torah! While a mitzvah is a commandment, which is certainly stronger than a “good deed,” the word seems to sometimes be used to recognize when someone acts in a charitable or noble fashion that falls in line with the teachings of the Torah.
My son, Cameron (Chayim Ben-Yehoshua V’ Penina in Hebrew of course) is in the Religious School class that was learning about mitzvot. This Sunday lesson led to what I believe was his first micro experience of dissonance between his Jewish upbringing and the dominant culture of assimilation. Cam was playing with his friend from school one afternoon, and they were laughing, riding bikes, playing with toys, and doing all of the things that typical 5-year-olds like to do. Cam’s friend was being very nice to him, and decided to share one of his special toys. “I don’t do this for everyone, you know” Cam’s friend made sure to point out. Cam quickly replied, “Thank you so much! That’s a mitzvah!” He looked back at me eagerly for approval regarding his use of the word, and I gave an encouraging and proud nod. His friend looked at him confusedly, and said, “What?” Cam, seemingly amazed that someone might not be aware of everything that he is aware of said, “You shared with me. It was nice. That’s a mitzvah!” His friend, now sure that this conversation was not going to be resolved in any satisfying manner, quickly moved on. Cam looked back at me in a puzzled fashion, and I explained to him that not everyone knows what a mitzvah is.
I didn’t think much of this little interaction until a couple of days later. Living Jewishly in America requires the striking of an interesting balance. Many people, not only children, are simply not quite aware of Jewish cultural norms. In a previous post, I wrote about how my mother had to call the school on the High Holy Days when I was a child to fight for no new work. The more that I unpack living Jewishly, the more important I think it is to publicly embrace our Judaism and all of its beautiful and robust traditions. This is easier said than done. We are living just one year removed from the horror that was the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting, and less than a year from the shooting at Chabad of Poway. Jews are being randomly attacked on the streets of Brooklyn, and anti-semitism feels like it is in our societal air. Due to these truths, full assimilation might seem attractive and safe to many.
Our Shabbat Siddur says that “We are a people in whom the past endures.” Jews of the past have overcome horrors that might collapse a people, but we have always emerged from the darkness with an unshakeable spirit. Anne Frank, of blessed memory, famously told us that “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Anne’s words must endure. We must not be afraid, but stand tall and proud. I too believe that people are basically good at heart. Hate is born out of ignorance, and ignorance can often be quashed by quality human connection and communication. Anne seemed to believe this, and we would be honoring her amazing spirit to live in such a way. This notion is not one of naivete, but of faith in the fact that light will ultimately pierce through darkness.
“A mitzvah is a commandment, and sometimes Jewish people use the word to talk about good deeds in general. It is a Hebrew word.” It would not take much time to say these words. I want to teach my son to explain rather than to expect. I want him to be proud of his Judaism, and also proud to share. At the end of the day, aren’t we all really just neighbors here on this planet? I remember something in the Torah about treating our neighbors in some sort of way…
Isn’t that a mitzvah?