By Linda Cohen
When my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness just before his seventieth birthday, it was a wakeup call. Our relationship had its share of struggles and difficulties for years, and though I knew that he loved me, we’d not been able to find a place where we were both happy. When he got sick, we both knew there was never going to be another chance to say what had to be said and move forward. I remember him asking me, “Why did we wait until I was dying to do this?” Neither of us knew why. Nonetheless that last year of his life was a complete gift for both of us.
After his death, I set out to find some solace in my life while dealing with the sudden grief I felt. I decided to take on a project. It was a simple concept and quite astonishingly has literally shifted the course of my life. The idea was to take on a project, to perform 1,000 mitzvahs—or acts of kindness—in my father’s memory. Though a mitzvah is actually a commandment in Judaism, it has also become synonymous for doing acts of kindness.
In 2007 I started a blog, 1000 Mitzvahs, to track the journey and set out each day to perform a simple deed. Holding the door open for a stranger, putting coins in a charity collection can, thanking someone for a job well done, volunteering my time, donating my stuff—simple everyday actions that each of us might already do. I never professed from the beginning that the actions would be life-changing, but by getting more conscious about the actions I took and by looking for these opportunities, they began to show up more often (or at least I was noticing them more often). As I gave, I also received—heartfelt thank-you notes, and stories of friends and family who were inspired to do their own daily kindnesses. It began to snowball, and after a year working toward my goal, completing 500 mitzvahs, I was completely hooked. I knew it might take me another year to complete my project, and I was delighted to continue.
Doing good—consciously, every day—began shifting how I interacted with the world, and how the world interacted with me. It was unbelievable. Not only did the grief that had been the catalyst to start the project subside, it had been replaced with joy, laughter, wonderful stories, and opportunities that I could never have imagined. Almost two years after the project began, my first book 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts Of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life has been published and shares the lessons I learned on this life-changing journey.
The story continues to inspire others. Synagogues have added classes based on the idea of 1,000 Mitzvahs, allowing teens to discuss and engage in simple daily actions. Elementary schools are creating their own mitzvah programs, and individuals are joining me in taking on their own 1,000 mitzvah projects. And I’m currently exploring ways of implementing the idea as part of Corporate Social Responsibility programs.
From the beginning, I saw the actions that I was taking as duplicable, simple, daily opportunities. It is my greatest wish that others will continue to copy this idea and evolve it. The journey continues to unfold.
Linda Cohen is the author of 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness, Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life (Seal Press/November 2011). In addition to writing, Cohen speaks around the country on the subjects of volunteerism, parenting, philanthropy, and, of course, mitzvahs! For more information please visit her website.