“Mizvah: Literally a commandment. A good deed done from religious duty.”
I began playing piano during visits to my Mom when she entered the Jewish Home for the Aged in 2008. Once or twice a week, for an hour or so. It was simply a good way to be with her when the words had run out, which they mostly had in her growing dementia. Other people began to gather around and I grew to know their names— Ben, Bernice, Rudy, Patsy, Cyril, Deborah, Edie and Fran, who knew all the old jazz songs and sang them all with me.14 years later, not a single one of them is still with us, but now a new delightful group gathers round as I volunteer there still every Friday. I’ve never been paid a penny for it and never considered I should be.
Today, was another delightful day teaching with and mentoring my friend Yari with 7th and 8th graders. My 10th class or so since September and though I believe our proposal to formally pay for my mentorship was just approved, I came each week with no guarantee that it would be. But today, in a conversation with Yari, I made it clear that this is not altruism. This is not duty. This is my own selfish pleasure in not only keeping in touch with young people and their marvelous minds and quirky spirits and edgy hormones, but the happiness I felt planning today’s lesson and the yet greater happiness I felt in teaching it. I’m simply being selfish, grateful for a chance to offer up that which gives me so much pleasure and feels like worthy and needed work in this world.
As with the Jewish Home, this is not a kindness done from obligation, an obeying of a religious command, a reluctant acquiescence to do my duty, a philanthropic favor. This is me being selfish while being selfless, finding an inner meaning in the mitzvah far beyond any external motivation. Though I’m happy to get paid if people want to pay me, the value is not in the dollar but in the delight.
Of course, there are things I do more out of duty than pleasure. Nagging people to get out to vote. Paying my taxes. Occasionally reading a newspaper. But in general, I refuse the Puritan (or Old Testament) notion of acting out of obedience to someone else’s command, being nice because I have to or else be damned to eternal hellfire, being politically aware out of sheer obligation. Actually, I do believe in the last, but even here, I want some uplift in the needed education about social justice. Hence, my new book (getting closer to publication drop by drop) Jazz, Joy and Justice. The three deserve to be together.
So here’s wishing that your mitzvahs be meaningful and your apparent selfishness be actually selfless. Do good and have fun!