Mitzvah: 1a. a commandment of Jewish law. 1b. the fulfillment of such a commandment. 2. a worthy deed. (plural: mitzvot)
My first year teaching was at a private Hebrew school in Tucson. I was hired mainly to teach English to a small group of Russian-speaking immigrants from many different parts of the former Soviet Union. My teaching duties there were varied and demanding. I learned a great deal about my students and myself, about Judaism and Israel, and the many assumptions I had about the Jewish faith and Jews in general. There were times at that school when I felt more like a fish out of water than I did during an entire summer spent in non-English speaking European countries.
How was it that in all my multi-cultural experiences and in all those classes preparing me to teach English to non-English speakers, that I actually knew so little about this culture that thrived right here, just six miles from my home?
Most of my students there were too young to be preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but it was certainly an event looming in their future. As a young gentile teacher, I had only heard the term ‘mitzvah’ as it related to this rite of passage which confers upon young Jews the responsibilities of adulthood. There are actually over 600 mitzvot, or commandments of Jewish law, outlined in the Torah. And while most of them detail religious duties (like preparing lights in advance of Shabbat), the word ‘mitzvah’ came to have a broader meaning for me.
Mitzvah can also mean “any worthy deed” and in modern times has come to express an act of human kindness as well. These are duties as well. What can we do to make someone else’s load a little lighter? What power is there in choosing, deliberately, something worthy of doing?
I do try to incorporate a mitzvah or two into my daily life, even now, seventeen years after that first exposure to the term. For me, it’s kind of a Golden Rule thing – which, I’ve learned, exists in some form in every major religion. But a commitment to actually making mitzvot a daily ritual – well, that is a worthy deed in and of itself.