January 22, 2019

A Mitzvah Is Its Own Reward

"Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward. And let the awe of Heaven be upon you." — Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers)

The rabbi and the cantor are strumming their guitars and jumping up and down in unison on the bimah like rock stars. The cantor is wearing a

Hawaiian shirt and a cap; the rabbi a T-shirt. The pews are full — more than 300 people, standing-room only.

The seats are packed with squirming, giggly children. Adults mouth the words or shyly sing, but the kids know the choreography, flexing their muscles, wiggling their bottoms and clutching at their hearts at the right moments.

They clutch something else close to their hearts, too: the true meaning of mitzvot.

This is the morning introduction to Mitzvah Day at Temple Beth Sholom, and these kids have it right.

One girl with pigtails will beautify the Santa Ana Zoo, pressing gritty dirt down to nestle new flowers within shouting distance of exotic animals. A teenage boy finds a place amid lonely kids younger than he; they want to chat and play basketball and shoot pool, and he obliges. Another boy wants to paint; he know he’s a good painter, his mom says so.

There are a lot of projects from which to choose for the Sunday morning crowd, and each one is a mitzvah.

Many people give charity and do good deeds. These are things that people feel go above and beyond the call of life’s duty: extra credit in the karma bucket, merits on the teacher’s chalkboard. These are things that are not required, but they’re awfully nice of you to do.

Jews do mitzvot. A mitzvah is not only a charitable deed (or even most importantly a charitable deed). A mitzvah is a commandment, a commandment to create holy time and places in the world through ritual and compassionate deeds. Their reward is in the doing of them: for God, for humanity, for a better world.

This Mitzvah Day there are pancake breakfasts and sandwiches for the hungry, placemats and baseball hats for the bored and disillusioned and clothes and encouragement for those down on their luck.

The attendants are mostly parents of kids from religious school — the ones who learn about their biblical ancestral mothers and fathers, the trials of Jewish history and the incredible feat that is the Jews’ millennia-long survival.

And how do they fit into this great story?

By doing their part.

Kids sometimes are too young to know how much they can help and we adults — well, we forget.

The hope is that mitzvot on Mitzvah Day create a spark, the same way the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles at the end of the week slows us down and gets us thinking about the important things in life.

Yes, doing mitzvot takes practice and commitment, but one Mitzvah Day project is a good start. Mitzvot can fan that inner spark in all of us into a flame of giving that offers no reward save the reward of a mitzvah done.

What did I do on Mitzvah Day? I painted rooms in a senior center. Well, actually, other people painted. I scrubbed paint spots off the tile with wet rags so the janitors had less to scrape off the floor with razor blades the next morning. Don’t we all deserve nice, clean walls and floors?

Sure, it doesn’t sound like much, but somebody had to do it. When someone needs something and I can help, I am a blessing to others, and I am in turn blessed with the chance to do mitzvot and to change the world a little bit at a time: One paint-splashed boy, one girl with grass stains and dirt under her fingernails — one scrubbed-off paint spot at a time.

"Make your Torah study a fixed practice; say little and do much; and receive everyone with a cheerful face." — Pirkei Avot