I've recently been studying the Pirke Avot (Sayings of our Ancestors) with some 5th graders. The main thrust of our learning has been how one person's actions have the power to influence another – for better or for worse.
Then I came across this article in the newspaper on Sunday, called The Science of 'Paying it Forward.' It reports that in December of 2012, a customer at a drive-through window of a Tim Hortons coffee shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, picked up her order and then paid not only for herself but also for the stranger in the car behind her. This spontaneous gesture of good will was repeated again and again, setting off a near miraculous streak of 226 times in a row, lasting for 3 whole hours.
Apparently, these "pay it forward" chains of generosity are not as uncommon as one might think. A Chick-fil-A in Houston had a 67 car streak last year and a Heav'nly Donuts in Massachusetts a 55 car chain.
It turns out that generosity might be socially contagious, or as the rabbis of the Pirke Avot stated: "Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah – one mitzvah (good deed) leads to another". The ripple effect that a single act of kindness might, indeed, be immeasurable.
Recently our synagogue hosted a "Mitzvah Day" in which hundreds of people gathered to perform dozens of different acts of kindness throughout the community. Before we started our activities, we met in small groups to set our intentions for the day and learn together. When I asked my group of participants why they had chosen to get up early on a Sunday morning to serve others, one older woman, Monique, shared this story. She told us that when she was a child in Europe, she was at a boarding school. One vacation day, all the children were out with their families. Only she was left alone. Then, like magic, a volunteer from the community appeared to take her out for the day so she wouldn't be by herself. Monique told us that even now, decades later, not a month goes by that she doesn't think of that woman who rescued her from loneliness that day and how much that single act of kindness meant to her. Over fifty years have gone by, but remembering that act of kindness is what compelled her to get up early on a Sunday morning to decorate piggy banks filled with a group of disadvantaged children and fill them with lucky coins.
It's awesome to think how a single gesture of compassion or generosity might set off a chain reaction of goodness. Is there an act of kindness someone has done for you that has inspired you to pay it forward?