When Chessed Isn’t your Mitzvah

By Alexandra Fleksher

As youths in NCSY, we were always told to find “your mitzvah.” That meant finding the mitzvah that really spoke to you, the one that reflected who you were and your natural inclinations. “Your mitzvah” was the special mitzvah that you were most good at and comfortable with. A beautiful idea, really. Your mitzvah is your most natural love language in your relationship with Hashem.

But for a black-and-white-thinking teenager like myself, such a concept could also have its drawbacks. You see, davening was my mitzvah which felt good and right for me. Once I was even given an award at an NCSY event, and davening was noted in the speech as “my mitzvah.” It came easily. And in my youthful and naive ways, I took the concept to its logical conclusion and believed that there were mitzvos that were not mine. Those were the ones that were hard for me, that I didn’t connect to. And I erroneously excused myself from trying too hard to connect with them.

The mitzvah that I always told myself “wasn’t my mitzvah” was chesed, performing acts of kindness. It’s not that I wasn’t a kind person, but doing kind things sometimes felt awkward. You know, visiting the old age home on Shabbos afternoons. “Doing chesed” in seminary meant watching somebody’s six children for three hours in the middle of the day and going to your teacher’s house Thursday night to help her cook for Shabbos. All those nice “chesed-y” types of things to do that just didn’t feel like me, or how I connected to Hashem best.

So I hid behind the pretense of “my mitzvah” for as long as I could – until people did some very big acts of kindness for me, and then I realized the power of chesed. 

It began with my bridal shower. My friends coordinated everything: they secretly planned the party and reached out to my friends and relatives to coordinate their gift purchases. As a kallah, you roam the aisles of Bed Bath and Beyond with the scanner gun, clicking to your hearts’ delight, but wonder in the back of your mind how you’re going to get the sheets and towels and measuring cups you so desperately need. I was humbled when I saw how many necessities my friends had arranged to be purchased for my shower. This was the first of several experiences that taught me what kindness is: when a person gets out of the busyness of their own life to step into your life when you need it the most.

When you need something the most, you are vulnerable and needy. As a new kallah, there were a lot of things that I needed, and I was unsure of how I was going to acquire all of those necessary possessions. When someone steps in and does an act of kindness for you when you are vulnerable, that is the ultimate chesed. And once you experience it, your world opens up. You’ve experienced the power of kindness, and you want to pass it on to other people.

At the birth of my first child, I was truly moved by the acts of kindness people performed in making meals for us. I was so touched when people would “randomly” drop off a cake or plate of cookies (store-bought was equally amazing) for our Shalom Zachor. Especially when the food came from someone I wasn’t particularly close with. How incredible that these people were thinking of me during my time of need! Because the birth of a child is probably one of the most vulnerable times for a family. And when someone takes a break from their hectic lives and makes room for you by doing an act of kindness, they are literally sharing in your simcha. The giver and the receiver feel joyous as a result.

I think I didn’t understand how meaningful, significant and life-altering chesed was because I didn’t have many opportunities as a teenager to be the recipient of chesed. Once I entered adulthood and experienced those moments of vulnerability, with people stepping in to be a helping hand, my perspective changed entirely.

Yes, we should all take pride in the mitzvos that we most deeply connect to, as they likely reflect how our neshama gravitates most easily to its Creator. However, Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, Hashem has many other mitzvos available to us to help us give and grow. The ones most challenging for us likely contain the most opportunity for growth, as they push us beyond our comfort zone and into more selfless, altruistic territory. As Pirkei Avos teaches, according to the effort is the reward.

The thing is, once you’re the recipient of the act of kindness, you feel compelled to pay it forward because it feels so good and kind, and you just want to bottle that feeling and spread it around even more. And, of course, it feels even better once you start thinking about others and doing acts of kindness for them. (So much for the altruism.)

So yes, go ahead and find that mitzvah that is “your mitzvah” and strengthen it. If that mitzvah is chesed, I say you’re a very special person. But maybe your secret power lies in your most challenging mitzvah. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, and you might find the greatest source of satisfaction in the performance of the mitzvah that’s “not yours.”

P.S. It’s a funny thing that all these years later, my 12th-grade daughter is “Chesed Head” in her Bais Yaakov high school! Some things just skip a generation. 

Mrs. Alex Fleksher is an educator, speaker, op-ed columnist for Mishpacha Magazine, co-host of Deep Meaningful Conversations, and creative director of the Faces of Orthodoxy social media account. She holds a Masters degree in secondary Jewish education from Azrieli Graduate School and an undergraduate degree in English/Communications from Stern College for Women. Alex is an active member of her local Cleveland community and a dynamic teacher with a passion for community activism. She’s a former chair of the Shabbos Project Cleveland, a founding board member of Chaviva High School for Girls and a co-founder of The Chizuk Retreat Cleveland.

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