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May 23, 2014

Taking on good deeds


Imagine channeling your grief at the loss of a loved one into something exceptionally positive and using that something to honor their memory.

That’s what Linda Cohen, 45, set out to do two years ago when she undertook the lofty goal of doing 1,000 mitzvot in honor of her late father. “My goal was to heal from the grief I was feeling,” said the Portland, Ore., mother of two. “The idea of doing 1,000 mitzvahs came to me in the night, during a dream. When I woke up and told my husband about it, he wondered how I might keep track of my mitzvahs, which is why I started a blog. But I never expected people would actually read the blog!” she admitted. “It was just a place to track what I was doing.”

The blog evolved into a book, 1,000 Mitzvahs, published in 2011 by Seal Press. The book contains stories about those mitzvot, why they matter and what readers might glean from each one. Each mitzvah is described in a page or two with another paragraph on why it is important and what readers might do to implement something similar in their own lives. Last week, Cohen flew into Vancouver as the guest speaker at King David High School’s Teaching for Tomorrow annual lecture program and fundraiser, to discuss her mitzvah project. The Teaching for Tomorrow event supports the school’s chesed programming.

The word mitzvah literally means commandment, but Cohen defined her mitzvahs as good deeds and acts of loving kindness. The mitzvot she documents in her book range from fundraising for important causes to giving someone else’s kid a ride home, from volunteering on a committee to giving someone a cake. She said none of the mitzvot she took on was life-changing or particularly huge but they did change her life. “It made me more aware of opportunities to do good things, more attuned to what other people were doing,” she reflected. “Though my mitzvah project ended two-and-a-half years ago, I think I’m still as aware today of the importance of doing mitzvahs.”

The mitzvah that stands out most in her mind was a visit to her rabbi, Rabbi Yonah Geller, when he was on his deathbed. She had been conflicted about visiting during his short illness but, in the end, felt she had to be there. “My five minutes with him made me so happy,” she recalled. “For me, that was the most significant mitzvah.”

On a personal level, focusing her energies on mitzvot helped Cohen heal from the loss of her father in December 2006, a man with whom she admittedly had a troubled relationship for many years. “My dad was an amazing man and though our personal relationship was challenging, I feel gifted by the fact that we knew he was dying and had a year to put our affairs in order,” she said. “But I do feel sad that we wasted some of our years together struggling.” In her book, she writes of her grief and describes feeling very connected to her father. “Whenever I need him and am unsure of anything, he’s right near me, holding my hand and helping me get through the experience,” she said. “I feel like he visits me as a black crow.”

Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.