Do good deeds lead to personal strength?

I recently attended the Bat Mitzvah of Yiftach Levy’s oldest daughter Hadarya in San Diego. Yiftach is the man who selflessly donated his bone marrow to save my mother’s life twice from acute myelodysplastic leukemia. She died almost four years ago, but Yiftach’s extraordinary generosity added eleven years to my mother’s life, allowing her to attend the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and celebrations of all five of her grandchildren.

Because my mother couldn’t be there for Hadarya’s big day, I wanted to be there. I also brought my father.

Upon concluding Hadarya’s Torah reading the congregation shouted out a congratulatory phrase “Yasher Koach!” as candy was tossed in her direction as is customary.

A friend of Yiftach’s family sitting next to me in the congregation inquired what Yasher Koach means. The Hebrew words idiomatically translate to “You’re amazing—more power to you!” although the literal translation is closer to “may your strength be enriched.”

This seems like an odd way to congratulate someone doesn’t it?

It does, of course, until you understand the nuance found not only in the Hebrew Bible, but what modern social psychology has discovered relative to emotion’s effect on our bodies.

It is said that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the tablets containing the written Torah from God, he smashed them in anger upon witnessing the Israelites dancing around their golden calf. Ancient rabbinical commentary suggests that Moses did not intentionally destroy the tablets, rather his strength waned causing him to drop them.

That same rabbinical commentary states that each tablet was a block of sapphire 6x6x3 handbreaths in size. A handbreath is thought to be 8 centimeters. Since sapphire is four times as dense as water, and water weighs one gram per cubic centimeter, the two tablets supposedly weighed nearly 1,000 pounds!

How could a mortal man carry such weight down a mountain? Moses’ strength is said to have been derived from his interaction with the Almighty, but that strength vanished when he found that in his absence the people he was charged to lead had gone astray.

Regardless whether you believe in biblical accounts, there’s numerous known instances of supernatural strength occurring amongst normal individuals when finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

As but one example, when Anchorage, Alaska resident Bruce Anderson was underneath his Volkswagen repairing it, the vehicle slipped off its jacks, pinning him to the ground. His 17-year-old son, Riley, hearing his father’s cries while realizing help was miles away, ran to the rescue.

With super-human strength, Riley did the amazing by taking the car by the bumper, raising the 2500-pound vehicle off of his father, enabling him to scramble away.

It doesn’t necessarily take extraordinary events to enable exceptional strength. Sometimes even simple deeds work. According to fascinating experiments in social psychology completed by Kurt Gray and his colleagues at Harvard University, good deeds and thoughts are potent triggers of physical power.

Volunteers were given a dollar and told to keep it or donate it to charity. The decision made, each was asked to hold a weight for as long as they could. Surprisingly, those who had done a good deed were able to bear the load for almost ten seconds longer than the others. In a follow-up experiment, even thinking about doing good increased their physical stamina after the fact.

In this season of Thanksgiving, consider what good deeds you might accomplish. It might be as simple as inviting someone who doesn’t have a place to share the holiday. Perhaps it’s writing a check to your favorite charitable cause or doing yardwork for someone not able to do it for herself.

There are countless ways that you might help someone in the coming days, weeks and months.

And when you do, there might not be anyone there to encourage you to gather the strength to continue. To do more.

So know this — upon completing your charitable task, think of me shouting out to you,  “Yasher Koach!”

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.