Tikvat Israel Congregation

A Conservative Synagogue in Rockville, MD

Shull to Shul: Mitzvah Heroes – By Rabbi Ben Shull

“Be a Mitzvah Hero.”  This was my message to the students and parents at our end of year assembly for our Atid Learning Center (our religious school) on Sunday, June 2.  I was referencing a term that Danny Siegel, the great Jewish educator/poet and inspiration to generations of USYers, coined several decades ago.

A Mitzvah Hero is a person who does good deeds for others in an extraordinary way. Siegel was the acknowledged expert in bringing stories of people of this nature to our attention.  Who can forget Myriam Mendilow, founder of Yad L’Kashish (the Lifeline to the Old in Jerusalem); Clara Hammer, known as the “Chicken Lady of Jerusalem,” who fed hundreds every Friday night; and Trevor Ferrell, who at 11 years old began a campaign to help the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia?  

Siegel made sure that those of us in USY at the time looked up to these people.  They became our role models. Mitzvahs were waiting to be done. Our small corner of the world was waiting to be repaired. (This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we met another Mitzvah Hero, Rob Scheer, founder of Comfort Cases, an organization that provides needed supplies and loving support to foster children throughout the country).

I still am inspired by these stories and by the notion that each one of us can be a Mitzvah Hero or at least a Mitzvah Specialist, making one particular mitzvah our pre-occupation. (We live in an age of specialization, after all.) Now this sense of mitzvah, as in good deed, certainly can and should be broadened to include what our tradition calls “Mitzvot ben Adam l’Makom,” mitzvahs that we do just to enhance our direct relationship with God — as in Shabbat and kashrut and shaking a lulav. Each one of those mitzvahs is available to embrace more fully for the purpose of elevating us and making us into finer human beings, better reflecting God’s image.

Becoming Mitzvah Heroes and Mitzvah Specialists requires mitzvah work.  Mitzvah work is what we are going to do over the next several months at Tikvat Israel.  Mitzvah work involves recognizing the mitzvahs that need to done (like visiting the sick and lifting up the downtrodden and lighting Shabbat candles with love and joy).  Mitzvah work involves studying the best way to do the mitzvah, beginning with the right intention and ending with the best outcome. Mitzvah work means finding a group of fellow congregants who will support each of us in our quest to deepen our understanding and performance of our chosen mitzvah.

I will speak more about mitzvah work during the holidays, and our Kallah retreat in October will focus on getting moving with our mitzvah work with the participants in the Kallah acting as shlichim (emissaries) to motivate our entire congregation in the months following.  But let’s not wait until the fall to begin our mitzvah work. Let’s start this summer.

So here is a summer homework assignment.  As you travel about this summer, use that smart phone to take a picture of someone engaging in mitzvah work.  It could be someone helping to clean up a park or someone helping someone learn to swim. Please send those pictures to office@tikvatisrael.org and make the subject heading “mitzvah work.” We will display these pictures on the monitor in our lobby during the High Holy Day period.

So there’s Ironman and Spiderman and Wonder Woman.  How about “Mitzvahman” or “Mitzvahwoman”? OK, perhaps it won’t sell in Hollywood, but we have our own Mitzvah Heroes right here at Tikvat Israel. It’s a Tikvat Israel blockbuster waiting to happen.  Let’s get to work!