I learned about mitzvot at a very young age. A mitzvah (plural: mitzvot) is Hebrew for “good deed,” or “commandment,” as in, God commands His people to perform good deeds throughout their lives. When I was a child, I did mitzvot by bringing tzedakah (charity) to Sunday school. When I got older and had my bat mitzvah, I was required to do a mitzvah project to commemorate my formal transition into Jewish adulthood. I chose to raise money for a local homeless shelter by selling handmade bracelets. My parents did their best to instill charity and kindness in me, so that I would grow up to be a good person–a mensch, like my grandpa.
I can evaluate my mental health by many factors, some simple some not. Am I self-harming? Am I eating? How are my relationships? How am I doing in work and school? Most importantly, how is my relationship with God? For a few years when my depression was at its worst, I gave up on God. I thought I had outsmarted religion and prided myself on being an intelligent atheist.
As I progressed through the ups and downs of recovery, my faith waxed and waned. On some Shabbats, I was on the bema as the guest cantorial soloist; other nights, I swore there was no God, and even if there was, He surely hated me. Just before I left for treatment, my faith took a huge blow.
After I was sexually assaulted, I turned to the synagogue for support. I met the rabbi in his office and told him what had happened. I could never have anticipated his response. He told me that I’d made a mistake, that my assailant behaved “caringly” towards me, and joked about it inevitably happening again. Too shocked to stand up for myself, I listened quietly as my faith in God disappeared. At the Creek, spirituality was a big part of treatment, whether it was finding Good Orderly Direction at a 12-Step meeting, one of Cori’s spirituality groups, or the weekly outings to church (or shul in my case). I grappled with my ideas of God, and still do.
A common theme I noticed in the 12-Step meetings I attended while at the Creek was service–helping yourself by helping others. At first, it seemed like a backwards notion. How could I possibly be useful to anyone else when I was falling apart? However, as I listened to recovering addicts and alcoholics, formerly broken people like myself, talk about how helping others had helped them, I started to understand. God wants me to do mitzvot. I am not here simply to take up space and write sad poems. God gifted me with a beautiful life–no, perhaps this life is not a gift, but merely a loan. Perhaps it is my duty to repay God for the time He has given me with service, with mitzvot.
Today, I was driving home from my last day of photography class, feeling rather glum about my sudden surplus of free time when I saw a man standing on the street corner with a sign that read, “Three kids, one newborn. Need diapers and formula.” I pulled into a parking lot and approached him. He explained to me that he was struggling to feed his family and any help would be appreciated. I offered to drive him to the nearby Publix where I work and buy him whatever he needed. He got in my car, and I turned up the AC and gave him a bottle of water; he’d been outside in the heat for too long.
When we got to Publix, we filled his cart with baby essentials and some groceries. He thanked me over and over as I paid for his groceries, earing me some strange looks from my coworkers, but I didn’t care. I drove him a few blocks back to where he was meeting his wife and kids and we said goodbye. I will probably never see him again, and that’s okay. I’m happy that I was able to help someone. As we were saying goodbye, I said something rather out of character for me. Without thinking, I blurted, “God bless you.” The man grinned and said, “I know He loves me.” He said it with such conviction, that I’m starting to believe again.