November 17, 2010

The Mitzvah


My wife and I are driving through downtown Los Angeles in the fast lane of a busy freeway on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon. Only we’re not going fast; we’re stopped. The middle-aged man in the red midsize car two cars ahead of us has gotten out and is looking under his vehicle, and next, under the car between us. He then shrugs his shoulders, gets back into his car, drives a few feet, and stops again. The car between us dutifully follows.
Then I see it: a dirty swatch of fur about four inches square lying flat on the pavement in the middle of the lane. “What is it?” my wife asks. Then it moves! “It’s a kitten!” How did such a tiny, vulnerable creature end up in the fast lane of one of the busiest freeways in Los Angeles?

There’s no time for questions. I immediately hop out of the car, circle around from behind so the kitten doesn’t see me, and grab him. As I carry him to our car the kitten is perfectly still, in spite of my fellow drivers’ honking and glaring with impatience.
2010 1537 page31Once in the car I hand it to my wife—and it goes wild! Throwing a towel over it stops the biting and scratching, and finally as we head home it begins to calm down.
At the vet clinic the next day, Freeway is found to be 5 weeks old, has infection so thick in both eyes that he can hardly see, has filthy fur, and is covered with fleas.
“You’ve done a mitzvah!” exclaimed our neighbor Miriam a few days later when she saw Freeway and heard our story. Miriam teaches Hebrew at one of the local Jewish day schools. She and her husband take care of our other three cats whenever we’re away.
The word “mitzvah” is common in the Hebrew Bible. It and its plural, “mitzvoth,” are usually translated commandment(s). In Judaism “mitzvah” also has come to mean a good deed. Doing mitzvoth strengthens the connection between God, who gives the commandments, and people, who perform the consequent good deeds. Doing mitzvoth is central to modern Judaism. Bantering about biblical beliefs is laudable, and discussing theology or the fine points of religious life are all fine and good. But at the end of the day, what is important is doing. What is important is action. What is important is getting out of the armchair and putting boots to the ground. And the mitzvah is all about putting boots to the ground.
And so it is with us. We are found in the middle of the busy freeway of life, ill with sin, filthy, unable to see, facing certain death. But we allow ourselves to be rescued by God. After we are safe we sometimes rebel, biting and scratching our Rescuer. But He is patient. For it is He, not us, who has performed the mitzvah that allows our rescue. And not just any mitzvah, but an ultimate mitzvah, a final mitzvah; a priceless mitzvah, a mitzvah of great sacrifice; a mitzvah so great that it covers the whole universe and will last into eternity. A mitzvah we will study in this world, and in the world to come.
Erin Stone, M.D., F.A.C.P., a church elder and adult Sabbath school teacher, studies Hebrew at a Jewish University in Los Angeles. This article was published November 18, 2010.