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bar/bat mitzvahs

The Mitzvah of Asking for Help

A fallen tree across the road knocked down by Hurricane Irene. The large tree pulled down power lines and blocked the road. A bent speed limit sign can be seen. There is also "Fire Line" tape across the road. There were many power outages due to damaged power lines.

In October of last year, our family, along with hundreds of thousands of others living in coastal South Carolina, was evacuated in preparation for Hurricane Matthew. As we waited in our hotel—two adults, three kids (and a bearded dragon in the closet)—we anxiously kept our TV tuned to the Weather Channel for updates of the storm. For a while, it looked as if the hurricane would pass by without inflicting much damage. However, in his final hours before heading out to sea, Matthew made one last detour—hitting our island squarely with 80+ mph winds.

Four more days passed before we were allowed back to see the damage for ourselves, our eyes glued to the car windows as we navigated the debris-filled roads. Fallen trees covered the streets and yards—massive live oaks, stories-high pines—their trunks destroying everything in their path, their uprooted stumps leaving tomb-like craters in their absence. Whole beaches were abraded clean of their dunes, tons of sand lost to the storm surge. Fortunately, our home suffered only minor damage, but many others weren’t so lucky. By the end of the week, bright blue tarps could be seen covering injured buildings across the island.

It was during that time our son was preparing for his bar mitzvah, and he worked with a tutor in our neighborhood, a lovely retired woman only two blocks away. After the hurricane, we called to find out how she was and if she needed help cleaning up from the storm. She thanked us and said she didn’t think it would be necessary. Several days later, however, she called again. The downed trees and brush were more than she could handle by herself—could we help after all? Of course, we answered, and came over that afternoon. It was no different from the work we had already completed at our own home—hauling downed branches to the curb, sweeping, and raking—but somehow the work didn’t seem quite as onerous at Joan’s house. As we left, our friend thanking us again and again, my daughter smiled and said that she was glad we had come. So was I—and we had Joan to thank for it.

A mitzvah is defined as a commandment, although we more often think of it as meaning a “good deed.” For Jews wishing to live a more spiritually meaningful life, there is no shortage of available mitzvoth—613 to be exact. And while it’s not technically mentioned in the Torah, I thought of one more that might be worth considering: the mitzvah of asking.

Why asking? Many years ago, I learned an important lesson from a friend who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast and uterine cancer. Her recovery was stressful and protracted and our congregation did its best to help her and her family during their struggle. One day, when we were speaking by phone, Allison shared with me a piece of advice that her friend had once given her: When you need help, ask for it.

During difficult times, people are often at a loss as to how they can help—unsure of what they can possibly offer that would make any difference in the face of such pain and loss. For this reason, it is sometimes necessary to help them along by telling them. With Allison’s guidance, I soon learned what she needed most. It was nothing dramatic—a ride to the doctor, a meal for the family, babysitting the kids while she napped—but all immensely helpful to her as she limped through the recovery process.

A few years later, I was able to pass this wisdom along. Laura, a member of our temple, was preparing for the bar mitzvah of her son. Active on the board and a myriad of other committees, she was the consummate “go-to” person whenever someone was in need. Yet, as she scrambled with the infinite details of the ceremony and party, out of town guests, and the day-to-day obligations of life, it was clear that she was overwhelmed. Listening to her to-do list, I noticed there were several things that her friends could help with. Yet, when I suggested this, she flatly refused. “No, no, I can take care of it,” she declared. That’s when I passed on Allison’s hard-learned lesson. These congregants were her friends—people she had selflessly helped throughout the years without a second thought. It was time to give them the gift of giving back. Reluctantly, she accepted, and we happily took on a little of her burden. The day turned out to be everything Laura had hoped for and, because she let us help, we felt grateful for the chance to play a part in it.

Hurricane, illness, celebration—in every case, the greatest gifts for those in need came in answer to a request. The bonus is that these gifts meant just as much to those who gave. It sounds so simple, yet I find I am one of the worst students of this lesson. Throughout life, I have worked, run a home, raised children, and volunteered in the community while only rarely asking for help in return. Why? Asking for help is hard, I have learned. It means admitting that, no, I am not superhuman, no, I don’t have all the answers, and no, I can’t do everything myself. And those are not things I like to admit.

There is almost an arrogance in remaining so determinedly self-sufficient—a kind of “I can handle this, even if others can’t.” However, no one is that strong and the sooner that we (OK, I) admit that fact, the sooner we can give those who love and care for us the chance to show their love by returning the favor occasionally. Our gift—our mitzvah—to them is just ask. A life lesson learned late, perhaps, but one I intend to put to greater use in the future.

So, honey, I could use some help with the dishes. Mom needs a break.


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