Over the weekend I happened to find a lost car key on the sidewalk during one of my walks. Luckily the owner had a strip of laminated paper with a phone number attached to the top so I was able to call and return the key. The man on the phone seemed surprised, either that the key was lost or that someone had found it. I too was a bit surprised, not that I came across a piece of lost property but that finding it and being able to return it to the rightful owner reminded me of what Judaism teaches about good deeds as mitzvot. I learned (or re-learned) two things from this experience. First, that we are sometimes dependent on someone else’s misfortune in order to do a good deed (or fulfill a divine commandment in Jewish thinking), and second, that doing mitzvot is one way of connecting with Judaism and a Jewish way of life when you are not able to engage in the usual kinds of communal activities.
The traditional list of 613 commandments, positive and negative, was compiled by the medieval rabbi, Maimonides and are listed in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot (The Book of the Commandments). This list also forms the basis for the arrangement of mitzvot in the classic, Mishneh Torah (not to be confused with the 2nd to 3rd century CE Mishnah). Now, thanks to the internet you can easily find the list on line if you aren’t able to find a copy of the book and you want to learn from the master. Maimonides lists my return-the-lost-key opportunity for a good deed under “The Laws of Robbery and [the Return of] Lost Property” (הלכות גזילה ואבידה), and to my surprise!! returning the key actually entails the performance of two separate commandments, one positive and one negative: “6. Not to ignore a lost object” and 7. “To return a lost object” (Rambam, Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1989, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, trans., p. 125).
Since I live too far from a modern synagogue to become an active member—and I am not an halakhically “orthodox” convert so the local Chabad is not a feasible option—I am limited in what I can experience, or contribute, to the Jewish community in my area. For me mitzvah opportunities then, can be a way of bridging the chasm between my distance from institutional Judaism and my need to live like a Jew.
However, what I re-learned through this recent incident that just having a desire to perform a mitzvah is not always enough—the occasion to do so has to appear on your path, as happened to me when I came across the lost key. And like this lost key, some opportunities to do good are dependent on another’s loss, or grief, or need, or other misfortune. When this is the case, I can hardly feel too good about doing good; patting myself on the back and saying “good Jewish girl” demeans the other’s distress and gives credit to the doer where no credit is really due. I couldn’t produce the opportunity, I wasn’t the one who suffered a loss, and therefore “doing good” is not an option but an obligation (or moral imperative for those who are not comfortable being commanded to do anything). Certainly it’s not an occasion for self-congratulations. It is a sobering reality, and a lesson I will try to keep in mind as the distressing newscasts from across the globe, offering seemingly endless opportunities to “do good” keep appearing on my path … and yours.