Kindness: A Jewish Value

November 10, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


I’ll confess. I’m a television watcher. Among my regulars are ER, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. With my schedule, I’m not able to watch every week, though DVR is now helpful. I like the fact that all of these programs begin with a brief recap of what happened last week.

Since I know that some of you may have missed last week’s Torah portion, let me catch you up.

Poor Abraham! His life has been anything but easy. God tells him to leave his homeland. He leaves his homeland, but must deal with the Canaanite nations. God promises him that he will have many children, but he and Sarah have infertility problems and then all sorts of family issues. God assures him that he will be part of a covenant and then adds, “By the way, you will have to circumcise yourself, all the other males in your entourage and all future males on the 8th day.” Perhaps this is not much of a challenge for the babies, but Abraham was 99 years old; they had stone utensils and no anesthesia. Ouch!

Which brings us to this week’s Torah reading. We find Abraham sitting outside his tent recovering from what must be considered “major surgery,” when he sees visitors coming from afar. The rabbis while reading this immediately assume that they are there to perform the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick. They root this precept of Jewish law to this incident in the Torah. Indeed, it is an act of kindness to visit the sick, to bring them food, flowers, reading material, to find ways to alleviate their pain or at least pass the time during recovery.

However, Abraham was not about to sit on his tuchus and let people come visit him. These would be guest after all. He quickly calls out to Sarah to let her know company was coming. Bring out the china. Put up a pot of coffee. Go slaughter a lamb for dinner. Again our rabbis will read this story and explain that this is the basis of the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim, hospitality to strangers. Indeed, it is an act of kindness to be hospitable, to welcome newcomers to the community into your home, to make sure that others have a place for holiday meals, to be gracious and welcoming of others as you cement relationships.

In tomorrow morning’s liturgy, Easton will read that there are a variety of mitzvot, acts that we should perform continually. A few of these mitzvot might be considered acts of kindness- not only the two already mentioned, but also l’vayat hamet-attending funerals, hachnassat kallah– sharing in weddings and then a catch-all category of gemilut chasadim-acts of loving kindness. Our tradition calls upon us to live our lives with a mindset that says we should look for opportunities to be kind to others, not shy away from them.

Some of you may recall a few years ago, it was popular to call for “random acts of kindness.” It seems that in Marin County, CA a billboard was placed on an interstate reading: “Perform Random Acts of Kindness Today”. Not coincidentally, during the next six months in the County reports followed of unusual acts: people paying tolls for others, stopping to help stranded vehicles, even a slight drop in crime.

In one instance a man was stuck in traffic. His cell phone not working, he typed a message on his computer, printed it on his car fax and stuck it up on his window: LATE FOR ANNIVERSARY DINNER. CALL MY WIFE AND TELL HER I LOVE HER with the phone number. He arrived home an hour late: 70 people had called; one sent flowers, and another a voucher to a local restaurant. The man went from the doghouse to the penthouse.

When we hear of tragic stories on the news, it is not usual to learn of kind and generous responses. From the old world we have the following story: “A cartman’s horse suddenly stumbled and fell dead. To the cartman this was a major catastrophe. His livelihood was threatened. A crowd gathered, observed the poor man’s plight, shook their heads sympathetically, mumbling, “too bad, too bad.”

A rabbi among the observers took out a paper bag, placed $10 in it and said, “Friends, I’m sorry for this man, $10 worth. How sorry are you?”

When the crowd followed suit, they moved from observers to doers, from people with feelings to givers of tsedakah, acting upon their instincts for kindness. (Rabbi Geoffrey J. Haber)

From our world, I have the following true story. A woman I know, while living in Houston, temporarily there due to Katrina, found herself in traffic night court. She describes the scene as being similar to what many of you remember from the television sitcom- with a surly bailiff, imposing security, but a judge with no sense of humor. He began by telling all parties not directly involved to leave the courtroom and there was to be no talking or you would be held in contempt of court. Case after case was disposed with a usual plea of guilty and requirement to pay the fine in cash immediately. As the woman was sitting she observed another who was caring for a gaggle of children, clearly not all her own. She could see that the other was becoming more and more anxious until her time to stand before the judge came. The source of her fear was that she did not even have $20 to pay her fine, which she shared with the judge in tears. Very quickly the woman I know reached into her purse and gave the woman not only the $20, but all the rest of the money she had in her wallet. The silent courtroom responded with appreciation.

I’ve read of another woman, by the name of Irene Goldfarb, who describes how one day while grocery shopping, she was embarrassed to discover she was 10 cents short at the cashier’s line. All of her groceries were already bagged. She was trying to decide what item to return, when the woman behind her offered her 10 cents. She now was not only feeling embarrassed, but humiliated.

She responded that she could not accept her money and that she would leave something behind. The second woman explained, “Oh, I’m not giving it to you. Just take it and pass it on.” That seemed reasonable so Irene accepted the 10 cents and left the store with her purchases and inspired by the whole idea.

You know what is coming. Two weeks later Irene was in the same store, but this time second in line at the cashier, when the woman in front of her was 10 cents short. Irene offered her 10 cents, which she politely refused, only accepting it with the understanding that she would take it and pass it on.

Our rabbis teach that the world stands upon Torah, Prayer and Gemilut Chasadim- acts of kindness. Kindness can be contagious. Many of us certainly experienced random acts of kindness in the past year or two.

Unfortunately, our world does not consist of all goodness and kindness.  Neither was this true for our friend Abraham’s world. His visitors had another purpose as well. They were there to tell him of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was a place of corruption and cruelty. Hospitality and kindness were not on the communal agenda, prompting Elie Wiesel to share the story of the one righteous man of Sodom. He was ridiculed and abused: “Why do you continue your protest against evil and perform acts of kindness? Can’t you see that no one pays attention to you or cares?” The man responded, “at first I thought I would change the people and the city. Today I know I cannot. By continuing my protest and performing acts of kindness though, I’ll keep them from changing me!”

My friends, our world is not Sodom, but there is much apathy and violence. We look the other way all too often. We pass on opportunities to make a difference, even a little one, in the lives of others. Kindness is a fundamental Jewish value and we can act in quiet and significant ways.

And like my television shows, this story will be continued next week.




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