In its authentic sense the Hebrew word, 'mitzvah' means 'commandment', for many Jews and those of other faiths it has become synonymous with doing a 'good deed' through the growth of Mitzvah Day, the Jewish-led national annual day of social action. For me 'mitzvah' means taking an action that as a Jew I am commanded to by divine decree.
The root of this word is 'tzav' which actually means to connect, implying that by doing these actions we trigger a connection with God. This concept of mitzvah is the spiritual reminder that guarantees good deeds remain central to a Jewish way of life. One of our renowned sages Hillel, is famously quoted, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"
The pure, universal message for Jews and indeed people of other faiths is that through 'mitzvah' we reach beyond ourselves, the 'me' whilst simultaneously engaging to make the world around us a better place. No matter what religion, this belief resonates with most people because ultimately as human beings we're all internally wired with a yen to do good.
I have witnessed the transformative 'mitzvah' experience that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and people of other backgrounds have celebrated when working together on a range of social action initiatives - how choosing to make a difference overcomes prejudice, heals, unites, and nurtures healthy local neighbourhoods and communities.
Interestingly, as a way into religious and cultural affiliation, in more recent times we have seen a groundswell particularly amongst young people choosing to focus on positive community service, rather than through ritual alone.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch (1860-1920) coined the phrase, "a single act is better than a thousand groans." Indeed my life's philosophy - through action I find meaning, purpose. And I suspect the reason Mitzvah Day has magically captured the imagination of so many with approximately 35,000 + volunteers worldwide expected tomorrow.
With just a small amount of encouragement we've watched how year on year and more recently during the year how hands-on social action projects that positively impact the environment, older people, homeless or hungry people, refugees, those with disabilities and the list goes on, repeat themselves for the beautiful, unpretentious reason that all people simply want to do a 'mitzvah'.
The organic growth of Mitzvah Day has deepened my appreciation for our timeless, action-driven values that teach us to do. Tikkun Olam, meaning to heal or perfect the world - instilling a shared responsibility for the welfare of society at large, expressed in infinite, personal, creative and in the case of Mitzvah Day, collective ways; Gemillut Chasadim, translated as acts of loving-kindness, teaching the art of giving selflessly whilst not expecting something in return and thirdly, Tzedek, meaning righteousness and justice that guides us to do because it is the right thing and not because it feels good.
As human beings we hunger for meaningful action that positively influences social issues but also our own physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Through the act of doing first, social action projects have been proven to shape the way people feel, think and live - simply because these are reciprocal experiences where participants or givers receive in countless ways even if that isn't the reason for the doing.
Our values have provided our Jewish community with a platform from which to reach out and engage with those of other backgrounds, faiths and none, to find commonality, working together with a mutual belief in social cohesion and community integration, a belief in love thy neighbour, and ultimately, a belief in the goodness of humanity. We know that Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and indeed all people from faith groups are commanded to perform acts of goodness and to participate in social action. These shared values may be rooted in doctrine and theology but their worth today goes well beyond this start point and for some even supersedes it.
By collectively working to make the world a better place and by rooting it in religious doctrine, we bring our values to the wider world, acknowledging the co-dependence of faith and action. Ultimately the reward for doing the 'mitzvah' is the good deed itself. Join us on Mitzvah Day, 16 November!