By Linda Cohen
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1,000 Mitzvahs shares Cohen’s two-and-a-half-year journey from sorrow to inspiration through simple daily acts of kindness. She presents each mitzvah as a short vignette, and the myriad forms they take—from helping the elderly to donating to good causes to baking and collecting food for others—highlight the many ways in which one person can touch the lives of others. As she pursues her quest, Cohen finds that her life is improved by these small acts—that every time she goes out of her way to do something good for someone else, she enhances her own well-being.
More than a touching story of a daughter’s love for her father, 1,000 Mitzvahs is a testament to the transformational power of kindness, and a call to arms for those who would like to follow in Cohen’s footsteps with their own mitzvahs—no matter how large or how small.
In the dark of morn the light shines through the trees and reminds me of him.
In loving memory of my father, Peter Rabow
(MARCH 23, 1936–DECEMBER 1, 2006)
"May God remember the soul of my beloved father who has gone to his eternal rest. In tribute to his memory I pledge to perform acts of charity and goodness. May the deeds I perform and the prayers I offer help to keep his soul bound up in the bond of life as an enduring blessing. Amen."
YIZKOR, MEMORIAL SERVICE
IN DECEMBER 2006, my father, Peter Rabow, died after an eight-month battle with lung cancer. The experience of losing a parent was deeply significant, and it affected my life on nearly every level. My busy life as a mother, wife, and entrepreneur came to a screeching halt. My body and mind felt numb. I had no choice but to take time to contemplate the matters of life and death during what I would later call my "spiritual sabbatical."
Prior to my father's death, he and I had discussed the idea of the mitzvah of tzedakah, or donating money in his memory to a charity. We'd played it out rather thoroughly, him suggesting that friends and family not send flowers but rather make donations to "venues that aid people to be the best they can be and help them grow." I'd suggested an organization I knew of, and he told me about ones he'd had in mind. In his obituary, my family requested that friends donate to these charities.
Perhaps the seeds of that conversation sparked the simple thought that awoke me in the middle of the night about a month after my father's death. As I contemplated how meaningful it was that people had donated in the name of my father, in essence allowing his generous spirit to live on, I was inspired to begin a mitzvah project of my own to honor my father's memory. The idea was to perform 1,000 mitzvahs. Mitzvahs are statements and principles of Jewish law and ethics contained in the Torah, or Five Books of Moses. The word mitzvah is translated as commandments. There are 613 mitzvahs. Judaism teaches that Jews are commanded to observe these mitzvahs. There are two types: Positive commandments are commandments to do something, such as, "honor your mother and father"; and negative commandments are commandments not to do something, such as, "thou shalt not murder."
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.
Many of the 613 mitzvahs can't be observed today for a variety of reasons. Some relate only to the ancient holy Temple in Israel, and they include sacrifices and service. Since the Temple doesn't exist anymore, they can't be observed. Others relate to civil procedures in Israel, and because Israel is a democracy today and is no longer governed directly by religious laws, they are also no longer valid.
An important mitzvah category is doing acts of loving kindness, also called gemilut chasadim. The Talmud, a central Jewish text, says that gemilut chasadim is greater than tzedakah (charity), because unlike tzedakah, gemilut chasadim can be done for both the rich and poor, both the living and the dead, and can be done with our actions or with money. "The world is built with kindness" (Psalm 89:3).
People in recent times have begun to use the word mitzvah interchangeably with doing an act of kindness because so many of the mitzvahs call upon our deep capacity for true kindness in the world. For my project and this book, that is the way I chose to interpret it, as well.
My intention from the beginning was to use this concept of doing good deeds as a way to honor my father's memory. It felt like a proactive way to work through the pain and loss that I felt in my father's absence. I figured the project would allow me to help others in small ways and create good feelings to compensate for the pangs of grief and sadness.
The next morning, I shared my idea with my husband, a software engineer, who suggested we create a blog to track my mitzvah project. On January 17, 2007, I posted my first blog entry to www.1000mitzvahs.org. I made a conscious decision to use the more Americanized word mitzvah, rather than the grammatically correct Hebrew plural mitzvot. Although this project is firmly rooted in my religious beliefs, it soon became apparent that it could and would be equally relevant and inspiring to all people. Throughout the project and book, I have continued to use the Americanized word mitzvahs, which I originally chose for my blog name.
The night after creating my blog and writing my first entry, I emailed several close friends to tell them about my project. I was nervous about what they would think. I wasn't accustomed to sharing the details of my personal endeavors online. I worried that someone would call me a braggart. I almost didn't send that email because of fear. The next month, I stood up at my networking group when we introduced ourselves and announced that I was taking a spiritual sabbatical from my business as a direct sales consultant and would be starting a new project: to complete and blog about 1,000 mitzvahs I would be performing in memory of my father. The immediate feedback was encouraging. People applauded my efforts and I began to relax into the new adventure I was on.
Prior to starting my blog, I never considered myself a writer. I had kept journals before but never anything that would be read and shared with others. About a month into the project, I received an email from a gentleman in Israel. His one simple comment made a light bulb go off in my head. I recognized that strangers could find my blog and were starting to follow what I was writing. That realization clarified for me that I was not the only one being inspired by this project. I was part of a greater world where one's actions affect others. In fact, each of us is part of this world where our actions of loving kindness effect others. As the months went by, I befriended men and women across the country who found my project and wrote to me. This recognition helped me gain confidence and belief that this project was something that transcended myself, my family, and my religion, and was something I must continue to share and explore further.
THE BLOG WAS an incredible tool for me. It allowed me an opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings as I moved through my grief in a very concrete way. Between the mitzvahs themselves and blogging about the actions, I stumbled onto a powerful combination for processing grief. The mitzvah project did help me remain connected to my father. I felt a deep knowing that my dad and I were on this journey together somehow. The project allowed me to think about him a great deal and to share stories about him, as well.
I began to think of the journey of loss and grief as a trip across a raging river. When you begin the journey of processing grief, you suddenly realize there is no getting around it. It has to be embraced, digested and pondered, and ultimately passed through. When I began trying to cross the river of grief, I felt as if the cold water of the river was rushing over me. I felt alive and aware but also exposed, raw, and numb. Others reached out to me to extend a hand and help me cross the river. I heard stories of others and their own losses. It was comforting when I wondered how long I would feel this way and if I would ever feel "back to normal." While crossing the river, I met others who were crossing their own river of grief. We shared an experience of loss, but each one of us was ultimately on our own to cross that river. I embraced as many hands as I could and took that support while I was in the water. There were moments of normalcy, when I stopped on a rock protruding out of the water, and other times when I slipped back into the cold wetness. Slowly, I made progress crossing the river. Eventually, I offered my hand to someone who was still in the river and encouraged them to keep crossing. There were always people on both sides of the river, everyone helping each other get across.
At some point I reached the other side of the river. I don't remember exactly when it was, but I felt that my feet were fully grounded again on the land and I was no longer actually struggling in the water. Everyone experiences grief in their own way. While I thought at the time that I would always know what to do to help another in their time of grief, the truth is that you really only know about your own experience with grief, and your experience will be uniquely yours. Everyone will take the journey through grief at their own pace and with their own ups and downs. No matter what it looks like, grief can also teach us something about ourselves and our resilience.
After the loss of my dad, it became apparent to me how hard it is to know what action to take to help another person who is going through the grieving process. Each life and death is unique, and not everyone wants the same thing after a death. I have had acquaintances who have lost husbands, brothers, mothers, and fathers, and it is not always clear what to do. Sometimes, religion dictates. If they observe traditional Jewish rituals, perhaps it is easier for me to know what to do, but if they aren't there may not be the same clarity of actions. At the very least, send a sympathy card. Making a meal can also be beneficial. Help organize friends and family to cook for a friend in need.
Whatever you choose to do, acknowledge that someone has had a loss and reach out to your friend or acquaintance even if you aren't sure what to say or do. No one really is.
WHEN I BEGAN my blog and mitzvah project in early 2007, my son was in kindergarten and my daughter was in third grade. At the completion of the project, they were in the second and fifth grades, respectively. In January 2008, one year after beginning the blog, I had officially recorded 550 mitzvahs. By the time I'd been doing mitzvahs for a year, there was no denying that what had started out as a small idea had become something incredibly important in my day-to-day life. After the first year, I had no intention of stopping and was more committed than ever to reach my goal of 1,000 mitzvahs.
I completed the mitzvah project in May 2009, nearly two and a half years after I began. On a friend's suggestion, I organized a final 1,000th mitzvah celebration at a food bank and asked others to help me collect one thousand bags of food. A local columnist wrote an article about me and my project that ran in the Sunday edition of the Oregonian. It was a wonderful celebration that brought in more than two thousand pounds of food for the food bank.
During my two and a half years of performing mitzvahs, I discovered that, aside from the moral virtue of doing kind acts, being kind is good for your health and happiness. The giver of kindness receives as much benefit or more than the recipient. I learned firsthand that it truly is better to give than to receive. From the beginning, most of my mitzvahs were simple and duplicable. I didn't set out to save the world. I don't even profess that any of my 1,000 small actions stand out as particularly important or life-changing. But I will assert that each of them made a small impact, and that cumulatively they have changed my life. As a busy wife and mother of two, I found ways to juggle my responsibilities to my family and perform these simple mitzvahs. I also learned that many mitzvahs don't take much time or money.
My hope is that others will copy my idea. Ideas are meant to be shared, and it would give me no greater pleasure than to know that someone else has benefited from my story. This mitzvah project taught me the key to living well: Be in service and give of yourself. I believe that there is no better way to learn, grow, and perhaps to move through a dark time of loss, than to give of yourself with time and effort, and sometimes money. I also hope that classes, groups, and organizations might consider using my ideas or share them with their members. A project like this can certainly benefit the collective, too.
When this idea was nothing more than a what-if, just six weeks after my father died, I had no idea the immense benefits and life-changing experiences that would come about as a result of it. It has, indeed, changed the course of my life, and for that and all the other incredible lessons I have learned along the way, I am especially grateful.
FOOD FOR THE BODY, NOURISHMENT FOR THE SOUL
"If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one."
• food •
IN JUDAISM, THERE is a customary meal held on funeral days for the family of the deceased. Mourners gather at the synagogue after they return from the cemetery and share a meal of recovery or condolence. This meal is usually provided by friends, extended family, or community members. In addition to bagels and bread, hard-boiled eggs are often served because their roundness symbolizes the cycle of life. Many communities still observe this tradition, and my father's community was one of them. At a time of deep sorrow and vulnerability, my family was cared for. The meal—the entire experience—reflected the empathy and generosity that thrives in my father's community, and it reminded me of just how much we all depend on others to nurture us through difficult transitions.
While many of the Jewish laws of mourning are followed less and less frequently by nonobservant Jews, they provide a supportive structure that helps mourners move through grief. After losing my father, these mourning rituals were vital to my physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery.
IN MY HOME growing up, food was something more than mere sustenance: It was love. It united our family. In addition to our quiet, intimate family dinners, we often hosted large outdoor parties. For months beforehand, I would eagerly anticipate our annual Labor Day party, which usually drew nearly one hundred guests. My parents would cook for weeks in advance, creating dish after delectable dish. On the day of the party, huge tents would be hoisted outside, shading beautifully arranged picnic tables overflowing with food. Everyone would spend hours eating, laughing, and sharing stories. It is one of my fondest childhood memories. Our family home was also the central location for festive annual Thanksgiving dinners, which often included two dozen or more family guests. Everyone would arrive the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, kicking off a nonstop smorgasbord of food and fun. We'd spend hours playing charades, laughing good-naturedly as older relatives helped younger ones act out their turns. In the evenings, we would warm ourselves by the woodstove and talk for hours. After the Thanksgiving dinner was over, we'd immediately begin making turkey soup for the next night's main course.
I suppose eating and cooking is in my genes. My father adored food and loved to cook; my paternal grandmother, Rosa Rabow, was a kosher caterer in New York City in the 1950s and '60s. I learned early in my life that there's more to serving a meal than simply providing food; it's also about presentation. So much so, that during my father's funeral, a neighbor and I laughed that my dad would likely have commented that doilies were missing from beneath some of the food arrangements. Cooking was an art, but also something that tied us together. The memories of my father are indelibly linked to memories of food—the smells, the tastes, the rituals of preparing and eating meals together, the intimacy it engendered, and the stories surrounding it.
For example, I'll never forget the time I decided to keep kosher. I was fifteen. In its simplest terms, keeping kosher means eating only certain meats slaughtered in a specific manner, not mixing any meat and dairy products, and refraining from pork and shellfish altogether. Importing kosher meat into our rural community in Vermont was a challenge, to say the least. My father and stepmother didn't greet the decision with enthusiasm. Our home was not kosher; in fact, we'd actually raised and slaughtered pigs for food. I had enjoyed bacon and ham from pigs that we'd raised lovingly, fed from our kitchen scraps. My decision to keep kosher drastically shifted what I deemed "acceptable food options." My father was bothered by the inconvenience and promptly told me that my teenage "kosher phase" probably wouldn't last. Alas, it lasted into my forties.
I shudder when I think about the fact that an estimated thirty-seven million Americans don't have enough food to eat. For so many of us, it is something that nourishes us beyond mere physical needs, but at its most basic, food is necessary for our survival, and too many people just don't have enough. Despite these seemingly insurmountable numbers, there are thousands of food programs working to help eradicate hunger across the country. During my two years of doing mitzvahs, I learned about food pantries, projects to help feed homeless people in the parks, and many other volunteer programs that ensure food gets delivered to those in need. There are so many different kinds of organizations out there battling hunger in America, but they share one thing in common: They need our help. They need our dollars as well as our time. This chapter showcases some of the small things I did during the mitzvah project, but they only scratch the surface of the many ways that each of us can help. Food-related mitzvahs help feed people, and they also nourish souls.
Give a Lunch and Get Inspired
A MONTH AFTER my father died, I learned that the celebrated children's book author and storyteller Eric Kimmel was invited to my daughter's school as an author-in-residence. I frequently volunteer at the school for field trips, assemblies, and other special events, so when the coordinator learned how excited I was by his visit, she asked if I wouldn't mind picking up lunch for him. I was more than happy to help.
Eric Kimmel turned out to be an amazing speaker. Even my preschool-age son, whom I'd brought along for the adventure, was delighted. Kimmel's insight, experience, and giving nature provided an example to the children that they could share their ideas, thoughts, and imagination with the world if they so desired. After his reading, Kimmel signed two books we already owned for my son. But I was so taken by the spirit of his work and his generosity that I purchased a copy of The Magic Dreidels and had him sign it for my daughter, plus I bought an additional copy for my son's school. At the end of the day we left with four signed books and a wealth of inspiration.
THIS MITZVAH STARTED out as an opportunity to provide lunch to someone who was doing a service for my daughter's school, but I walked away with so much more than I had given. In this case, I'd provided a store-bought sandwich for our speaker, and in return I received a day's worth of inspiration. Looking back, perhaps listening to him that day inspired me to become an author, as well.
♥ Volunteer in the school cafeteria, bring in food for the teachers, organize other parents to bring in food for a class activity, or pick up food for an upcoming PTO meeting.
Give Thanks for the Small Things
EVEN SMALL THINGS can have a big impact. I purchased some fish for dinner one day that turned out to be so delicious that I returned to our local market the next morning to thank the man who prepared it for us. It was halibut coated in bread crumbs, Parmesan, and seasoning—and it was scrumptious. He'd even gone out of his way to explain how to cook it properly. As I waited at the counter for him, I was still thinking how good the meal had turned out and how easy it had been to prepare. I thought about how thanking someone for doing their job well is encouraging. It confirms to them that their time and effort helped someone else. When he arrived at the counter, I told him the food was a big hit and easy to prepare, and I thanked him for it. He was quite pleased. He smiled and told me he was just doing his job, but I couldn't help but notice the gleam in his eye!
THIS IS THE simplest of mitzvahs: going out of your way to thank someone for the role they played in your well-being. And yet, what is easy to do is also easy not to do. The response I got from the man at the fish market taught me that thanking another human being can really make a difference in their day. We often spend so much time complaining and griping about the things that aren't working for us in our day-today lives that we rarely stop to acknowledge those things that are working. Doing so is not only good for the recipient, it's also good for us. This simple exchange filled me with goodwill and a sense of kinship. Giving gratitude can change the world. This is a mitzvah that each of us is capable of doing every single day.
♥ Take time to give thanks to someone, whether a friend or a stranger.
Make a Meal for a Person in Need
WHEN SOMEONE IS going through a difficult time, providing them with a meal can help more than we realize. When a friend of mine had a relatively simple surgery, it offered the opportunity to put a simple action into play, with positive results. Although my friend wasn't confined to a bed, she was overburdened by the daily needs of her home and family when instead she needed to be resting. I made her a pot of vegetable soup, a salad, and bread from my bread machine, yet her gratefulness belied the meal's simplicity. Of course, my kids were irritated because the act of delivering the food had postponed their own snack time. The irony was not lost on me.
HELPING A FRIEND in need is easier than you might think, and it doesn't have to be a big production. Once, a friend of mine whose husband had been in the hospital for an extended period of time asked if I would make some muffins for the nurses who had been so attentive to him. It was easy enough, and she was grateful. But not all people experiencing hardship will reach out in this way, and not simply because of pride. They're worried that by asking for help they will be a burden to you. Sometimes, when you know someone is in need but they resist soliciting help, a little gentle probing may uncover ways you can assist them. The meals I've received from friends during trying times in my life have been a wonderful gift, and they've enhanced our connections. You might consider making meals for someone who's just had a baby, is recovering after a hospital stay, or is grieving after the loss of a person, pet, relationship, or job.
And remember, you certainly don't have to be a gourmet cook. A simple meal is fine! If the person I am cooking for has children, I might make lasagna, homemade mac-n-cheese, or a pot of soup and a loaf of bread from our bread machine. It is a nourishing gesture of kindness.
♥ Who do you know that might need a comforting meal? Keep this idea in mind next time one of your friends or a community member is sick or going through a rough time.
Acknowledge Actions with Kind Words
ONE DAY WHEN my kids and I were at the supermarket, they noticed there was a mess of spilled coffee beans and grounds around the coffee grinder. They brushed the grounds into their hands and threw them into the trash—without me asking them to! An employee noticed their good deed and thanked them for their help. I was quick to affirm my kids' thoughtful gesture and thanked them for taking it upon themselves to offer their assistance.
OKAY, SO THIS was really my kids' mitzvah, but it was important to me because it confirmed that all my own mitzvah-doing was setting a good example and encouraging my kids to be active helpers in the world. When the supermarket employee thanked my children for helping him out, I was also grateful for his acknowledgment. Would I have praised their helpful action if he hadn't noticed it first? I wondered. How often had I reprimanded my kids in those same supermarket aisles for pulling things off the shelf or begging me to buy items we didn't need? Our kids need to be praised for the good they're doing, and being recognized by a stranger can hold a lot of value. Here was my chance to actually give them positive feedback for their actions. Recently, I had the opportunity to do the same for someone else. I told a friend about something positive I witnessed her preteen daughter doing. My friend was thrilled to hear it, and I imagine she, in turn, praised her daughter. The goodness that comes from positive reinforcement can be powerful.
- On Sale
- Oct 18, 2011
- Page Count
- 220 pages
- Seal Press