The irony wasn’t lost on me as I schlepped in the heavy bags of supermarket supplies left at my door by my neighbours, across the hall. Sitting on top of the soup, bread and juice was The AJN (28/10) with its front-page notice alerting the reader in bold capitals to MITZVAH DAY – 20th November.
I had just finished reading an inspirational article I’d saved, about an Australian woman of Ukrainian heritage who organises from her home in regional NSW, an eclectic throng of volunteers from across the globe, to deliver urgently needed medical supplies to war-torn Ukrainian hospitals (The Age, Good Weekend, 17/9). Such stories leave me awestruck. Stories of ordinary people going about the daily business of living who suddenly drop everything, including the safety of home, to travel to places of war, famine, disease and disaster. Their willingness to take on such risk is usually explained as simply wanting to do what they can to help others in need.
Having unpacked my goody bag I crawled back to bed where I’ve remained for days on doctor’s orders, being struck low with one of the array of viral infections circulating out there. Lying in bed, sick, but not too sick provides the perfect scenario for contemplation, a luxury not often afforded with the manic pace of life today.
My thoughts have taken me back and forth, round and about. I’ve always loved the word ‘mitzvah’, so I’ve been reflecting on the Talmud teaching about which I’ve written frequently in discussing organ donation: the greatest mitzvah is to save a life. The volunteers rushing to Ukraine with medical supplies must know this only too well. But lying here as one day rolls into the next, I think of the countless mitzvahs that don’t compare in magnitude, but in some way, make the world a better place.
Each time my phone pings from the other side of the world or from my friends dotted around our country to see how I’m doing, I feel buoyed by the connection and caring. When my brother Jeff, my cousin Bev, my neighbours or friends check if I need supplies dropped off, I feel less alone. In my feverish, roundabout thoughts I’ve been wondering how much our desire to help others is innate and how much is learned. I still hold indelible memories of lessons learned from my parents. On the searing 90-degree (32°C) days of my childhood when my mother would decide it was too hot for my siblings and I to take the bus to school, she’d load us into the back of the family car, to drive us instead. The front seat was left vacant until she would pull over at a bus stop to offer a lift to someone we never knew – just someone who looked like they needed a lift. Our world was a different place back then and it still brings tears to my eyes when I recall how grateful the anonymous stranger was as he or she climbed into the passenger seat.
It’s my father’s advice that I have reason to recall on frequent occasions. Simple, but important words of wisdom: Don’t complain to anyone’s boss about poor service or a job not done to your satisfaction, because it might result in them being fired. And we can never know the impact of that on their lives. His sage words come to me every time a message appears on my screen, “How did we do?” If I wasn’t happy, I’ll just delete. If I was happy, I’ll shower praise.
And so, as my thoughts meander from the days of my youth to my pinging phone beside my bed, I’ve decided the foundation of mitzvah is empathy. Whether it’s people’s lives being torn apart in war zones, the heat-stressed elderly lady at the bus stop or anything in between, it’s being able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and to truly understand what that must be like. And then, to care enough to help.
Although engrained in our psyche, we don’t need to be Jewish to perform mitzvahs – and good deeds, often invisible to others, are performed constantly across ethnic and religious divides. In these times of cyber hacks and scams when we need to be constantly on guard against faceless criminals, devoid of human emotion, wanting to take us down – caring and kindness for our fellow man, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, could never be more crucial.
On the Mitzvah Day homepage we learn, “Mitzvah Day was born out of the belief that we can all make a positive difference to our world by taking action – together.” We all have the capacity to make that difference and, I believe, we too have an obligation to mankind and our planet to do so.
Janine Joseph is a Melbourne-based writer.