I lost my dad over two years ago, so I was really curious to read Linda Cohen’s book, 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, And Change Your Life, about honoring her father’s memory by performing small acts of kindness. Yes, 1,000 of them—which she did in over two years.
Mitzvahs are commandments in the Torah that Jews must observe (everything from the positive commandment of honoring your parents to the negative commandment of not committing murder). There are many types of mitzvahs. One important category is performing acts of loving kindness.
Cohen first explains the significance of mitzvahs…
According to Chassidic teachings, the word mitzvah is derived from the Hebrew root tzavta, meaning “attachment.” When we act on a mitzvah, we are creating a bond or a further attachment in our relationship with God. Another rabbi I know teaches his bar and bat mitzvah students that these commandments are “spiritual opportunities” for connection. We create or tap into a connection with God, each other, ourselves and our history when we engage in a mitzvah.
But, of course, anyone, whether you’re religious or not, can perform a mitzvah, or a small act of kindness. The problem is that many of us are already overwhelmed. We feel like we’re under a heavy time crunch with our current responsibilities. We fret about this lack of time, obsess about our to-do lists and fret some more.
Of course, I might be exaggerating a bit, but the reality is that we are pressed for time, and we often get super focused on our small worlds.
Plus, we might assume that acts of kindness are restricted to volunteering, giving money or performing big gestures — all resources we might not have at the moment.
That’s why I wanted to feature several examples from Cohen’s book — in hopes of inspiring all of us to perform a few mitzvahs. Because all that’s really necessary to perform a small act of kindness is to open our eyes to the opportunities all around us. And because, like Cohen’s book title says, it can be helpful and healing for us, too.
“Listen with an open heart.” People tend to underestimate how comforting and important listening is, even if it involves a stranger. Cohen tells the story of going to Disney World with her family on Christmas Day. As they were waiting in a long line for a ride, Cohen started talking to a woman who was there with her two kids.
After some time, the woman revealed that she’d lost her son in an accident that summer, and this was their first Christmas without him. They came to Disney to try to make the holiday a bit easier. Cohen listened intently and even gave the woman a hug. Cohen says that the woman seemed to really appreciate their talk, and Cohen was moved to say a silent prayer for her.
“Slow down.” According to Cohen, “…because we’re a driving country, driving mitzvahs abound. Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice that there are opportunities to practice them nearly every day. They can happen when you choose to be a polite driver, when you use your vehicle to help another person out, or when you help a nonprofit provide their services or goods by using your car.”
For example, Cohen drove her elderly rabbi (who didn’t drive anymore) to his doctor’s appointment. Not only did she help him out, but this gave them an opportunity to connect. The appointment took longer so they were able to have a lengthy, meaningful conversation. As she writes, “It isn’t every day that you have a rabbi’s undivided attention.”
Taking someone who otherwise wouldn’t have a ride to run an errand may seem like a small gesture but it’s probably a huge help to them. Cohen says that you can perform other small gestures like letting another driver cut in, carpooling, or picking someone up in the airport.
“Expressions of Gratitude.” When Cohen’s father passed away, she realized the power of handwritten notes. People she didn’t know very well went out of their way to send their condolences.
Today, handwritten notes and cards are especially meaningful because most of our correspondence is done by email, Twitter, Facebook, texting or talking on the phone. Recently, I mailed a bunch of thank-you cards to experts I work with regularly. Writing these cards felt great, and it was nice to receive emails telling me how much they were appreciated.
As Cohen writes, “The act of writing thank-you notes allows the gratitude you feel to trickle from your head, into your pen, and out into the world. That’s why we must preserve the art of sending thank-you notes.” Cohen also started occasionally writing a thank-you card on Monday mornings to beat the Monday blues and cultivate gratitude.
She suggests several other ways to give thanks: call or visit elderly neighbors or friends; reach out to an old teacher or mentor to thank them for the positive impact they’ve had on your life; have your child write a thank-you note to their teacher or thank a company for their services.
Again, what I really appreciate about Cohen’s book is the reminder that there are many opportunities every day for us to extend some kindness to both loved ones and strangers.
These opportunities don’t need to be grand gestures. They can be small acts, which often do have a big impact. Think about how you feel when someone has made your day a little easier or brighter. Especially if you’ve had a rough day or week, their small gesture can feel powerful.
You can learn more about Linda Cohen and the Mitzvah Project here.