My son has been getting free Jewish books from PJ Library for years—a gift I’m extremely grateful for. And while some of those books focus on specific holidays or traditions, there are others that touch upon the general tenets of Judaism—principles that can be difficult to instill in an often-rambunctious 4.5-year-old. That’s why I’m particularly thankful for one book we received not so long ago.
The name of the book is “One Good Deed,” and it tells the story of a young boy who randomly decides to perform a mitzvah (good deed) and, in doing so, sparks a chain reaction that inspires his neighbors to follow suit. What I love about this book is that the message of doing mitzvot and paying it forward is so simple and so intrinsically Jewish without going over the top. In fact, to me, that’s the beauty of most PJ stories—they don’t have to smack you in the face with Jewishness to be effective. And clearly, this one got through to my son, because once we finished reading it, he instantly became obsessed with doing good deeds.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s not like my son never understood the concept of doing nice things before. But like all toddlers, his behavior tends to jump from sweet and helpful to obstinate and uncooperative at the drop of a hat. But after discussing how the little boy in the book did such a nice mitzvah, and how all the other neighbors followed his lead, my son grew to understand the importance of doing mitzvot consistently, and not just when he’s in the mood to be good.
In the weeks that followed, my son really went out of his way to do nice things for me, his sisters, and others around him. Case in point: One morning, I asked him to stop playing for a few minutes to help me clean up his sisters’ toys, even though he hadn’t contributed to the mess in any way. I could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he struggled to overcome the urge to say no and instead do as I asked. But in the end, he did his mitzvah, and my floor got cleaned up.
When my husband went overseas on a week-long business trip, he told our son to make sure to be extra-helpful while he was away. My son, in turn, pledged to do 100 mitzvot in his absence. And while he didn’t quite meet that target, we did make a point of writing down the good deeds he performed to show his father once he returned. Throughout that week, I saw the pride on my son’s face as we documented each mitzvah together. This wasn’t like potty training, where in return for successfully using the toilet he was granted a modest reward. My son had nothing to gain from doing these mitzvot other than the personal satisfaction of knowing he’d engaged in unselfish acts of kindness—and he did them nonetheless.
I recently made the (very difficult) decision not to send my son to Jewish day school. The reasons behind that decision were financial, logistical, and emotional, and while I’m at peace with my choice, there’s a lingering sense of fear and disappointment that still picks at me. I worry that I’ll fall short in teaching him certain Jewish concepts and values that, because of my Jewish education, were second nature to me when I was a kid. But reading this book, and observing my son’s behavior in the weeks that followed, actually gave me hope.
Watching my son instantly connect with the concept of performing mitzvot has made me realize that if I work hard enough, and if I have a strong enough support system, I can raise an engaged Jewish child who sees Judaism not just as a religion, but as a way of life. Jewish traditions like Shabbat are lovely and fulfilling in their own right. But when it comes down to it, to me, being Jewish has always been about being a good person—the kind of person who strives to make the world a better place for other people. And if that’s the message my son managed to take away from reading a single book, I can sleep at night knowing that his brand of Judaism is one I’ll be proud to encourage and be a part of.