Being Happy AND Making a Difference

A cousin of mine recently posted the following on Facebook:

“I realized last night when discussing the contents of our garage that I will never be well off. Why? Because I do not seek opportunities to make more money. When I have a valuable service to offer, I cannot imagine charging for it. I want to help other people and help them to do well. When I come across things that could be sold, I only think about the many places I can donate them remembering how many wonderful things people did for me when I was in great need. When I think of making a higher wage, I don’t think of the things I can buy and do with the money, but instead get excited about all the different ways I can help people I know that are in need. That is what gives me inner pleasure.”

Whether she realizes it or not, her comments directly support the perspective of a Jewish sage. “Ben Zoma says: Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has…” (Talmud—Pirkei Avot 4:1). My dear cousin, you ARE very rich indeed and will be blessed accordingly.

In this day and age, however, although it is difficult for many people to be happy with their portion, we all have something to be grateful for. We learn from movies, churches, teachers, parents, rabbis, and Oprah to “pay it forward”; to do a “random act of kindness” for others.  These ideas illustrate “the right thing to do” if we are going to live together in a world of “haves” and “have nots.”  They represent the concept of “giving back” to show appreciation and humility with regard to how fortunate we may be – often by birth, luck, or the ability to persevere against all odds – especially in comparison to others who may not be as privileged.

Jews have been familiar with these philosophies for millennia. We call them gemulit chasadim. Translated, the words themselves refer to performing acts of lovingkindness or good deeds, but they are more than that. We are obligated to show charity, loyalty, faithfulness, affection, and kindness to others – even when we get nothing in return; even when we don’t feel like doing these things. At the end of the day, it’s about being attuned to and helping take care of the needs of others to ultimately make our world a better place.

The Rambam[1] tried to make these notions easier on us by providing a framework within which to work.  He tells us to:

  • visit the sick – to provide strength, soothe away fears, and show support for someone who may feel vulnerable and alone;
  • arrange a wedding for a bride – to contribute towards and help perpetuate the cycle of life;
  • make a bride and groom happy, and help them with all their needs – to ensure they have the love and support they need to embark on a happy marital life;
  • care for the dead (i.e. escort the deceased to his or her grave, offer an appropriate eulogy, and ensure a proper burial) – to show respect for someone who can no longer help him- or herself; and
  • comfort mourners – to provide strength, soothe away fears, help them carry on, and show support so they know they are not alone.

These mitzvot, while seemingly disconnected, are all about personally doing things for others, with no expectation of repayment or reciprocation. They also reflect engaging with others through the span of a lifetime, including putting ourselves out during happy and sad times. They are a guideline that may be helpful to those of us who need a checklist, but also offer suggestions to those of us who want to be creative along the way.

If these types of mitzvot were not on your New Year’s resolution list, they should be. It’s never too late! Start slowly. Pay the toll for the car behind you as you go through the toll plaza. Give your extra department store discount coupons to a random person in line behind you. Buy someone a cup of coffee in the Starbucks line. Send someone an out-of-the-blue “Thinking of You” card (in the mail; NOT via email). Clean out your closets or garage and donate no-longer-used items to charities. There are dozens of ways we can make a difference in the lives of others, without negatively impacting our own.

Making others feel good will make YOU feel great. I promise. Try it.

[1] Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (also known as the Rambam or Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 14:1; a 12th century philosopher in Spain and Egypt.

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