Some testimonials from my Facebook friends:
“I walked out of Publix, very pregnant with a full grocery cart and a hungry toddler in tow. A torrential downpour had just started. A lovely woman coming into the store with an umbrella insisted on walking us to our car. She gave me her umbrella so I could load the baby into the car while she put the groceries in the trunk (getting soaked). I was in tears!!! She said that she remembered having little ones. I will never forget that.”
“When I was in Opelousas, Louisiana I pulled over to take a picture of an interesting sign on the highway. . . within the ten minutes I was there a total of three people pulled over to check on me.”
“When I was in isolation (because of receiving radiation for cancer treatment) a local dance company allowed my daughter to attend, free-of-charge, even though she was too young and not potty trained. Everyone there, from the smallest girls to the teenaged counselors to the person at the front desk took fabulous care of her. They even included her in the end of summer dance recital! At the very end, they had her surprise me by running out to me with flowers they had helped her make and they all came to hug me afterwards. My cheeks hurt from smiling and tears were flowing down my face. It was a wonderful welcome home.”
Kindness: It can be as big as donating an organ, or as small as a reassuring smile. Either way, kindness is incredibly powerful. It leaves a mark. It has the power to comfort, to inspire, to move us. No, kindness should not be underestimated. As Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
If the Torah has taught me anything (and it has) it is that we are to practice kindness: The philosopher, physician, commentator, and scholar Moses Maimonides taught that those human qualities that are attributed to God, such as that he is abundant in kindness, slow to anger, loving of mercy, doing justly – are in the Torah, to teach us how we are to behave in order to feel transcendence. So, it should be noted that God is described as having chesed (kindness) or asks us to act with chesed 246 times in the Hebrew Bible. It should also be noted that Rabbi Simlai in the Talmud claims that “The Torah begins with chesed and ends with chesed.”
When a piece of writing begins and ends with the same word or phrase, it’s called an inclusio; this inclusio gives it a sense of order and completeness. The story of our people is a continuous one, but what we hold sacred, and record in our Torah, ends and begins with chesed, with acts of kindness as modeled by our Creator. In the beginning, it is not just creation itself that is the act of kindness, but in that, even after we ate from the forbidden tree , God clothes us and provides for us. We all know how hard it is to be kind when someone has let you down. The Torah ends with God burying Moses. Burying the dead may be the kindest, most unselfish act as the dead cannot repay the debt. By beginning and ending our most sacred teaching with chesed – we learn that kindness is of chief importance. I am reminded of the proselyte who asked both Shammai and Hillel to sum up the Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai, disgusted, told the man to leave. Hillel said, “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Shammai justifiably sent this man whose demand was rude and dismissive away, while Hillel acted with kindness. And within his answer, he teaches that to act with kindness is the soul of Torah. As we repeat every time we pray Sim Shalom, God gave us a: תּוֹרַת חַיִּים וְאַֽהֲבַת חֶֽסֶד
You gave us a Torah of life – To Love Kindness.
And the beauty of practicing kindness is that it is something we can all do, at every age, at every income bracket, at every stage in our lives.
Showing kindness to others is what attaches others to you. I have officiated at funerals where the mailman attended, the Publix manager, and many neighbors, because the deceased had an ability to show kindness to those he met at the grocery store, or looked at the person who brought the mail every day as a person instead of a delivery system. Our money and our power may be great gifts to the next generation, but our legacy, what people miss when we go, is expressed more through our acts of kindness than our income tax. As Barbara Bush, wife of the 41st president, once said, “Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people – your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way.”
There are obvious benefits to kindness when we are the recipients, but Something similar happens on the other side of the equation: Giving kindness does us as much good as receiving it. . . . Perhaps more than any other factor, kindness gives meaning and value to our life, raises us above our troubles and our battles, and makes us feel good about ourselves.”
Our culture teaches scarcity, that we only have so much of things – conserve, be frugal, preserve. But there are certain things that are not scarce, certain things, that if we put them out into the world, we end up with more. Those things include love, reverence, respect, honor, awe, and kindness. As children, if we have siblings, there is always a level of competition for our parents love and affection. When I became a parent I learned that love is in infinite supply. Having James did not take away from my love for Michael and Joy did not take away from my love for James and Alexandra did not take away from my love for Joy – it just grew. At times I am overwhelmed by feelings of love –and for that I am grateful.
We can be kind to the person walking by on the street, to the cashier, to the homeless man on the corner and still have kindness to give to our loved ones as long as we remain kind to ourselves. In fact, when we are kind to all people, we live lives of wholeness and integrity. Kindness is only depleting when it is false, when it is calculated or self-interested; true kindness is patient, respectful, gracious and the more we practice true chesed, the more it will become a genuine aspect of who we are. The goal is not to perform random acts of kindness – the goal is to engaging in life through kindness.
So here are some tips on how to start being kinder:
1) Pirkei Avot 1:15 – “Receive everyone with a cheerful face.” Just a smile can transform someone’s day, including the person who is wearing it. So try it on.
2) Spark up a conversation. At the checkout, in a taxi, on a plane, or in the doctor’s office. Try exchanging a few words, making eye contact, and just talking to those around you. For some of us this comes naturally, for others it will have to be deliberate. But when we open ourselves up to these encounters we open ourselves up to the encounter of two souls.
3) Turn off. That is turn off the TV, your cell phone, your mobile devise. I just said to look into the eyes of strangers – but how often do we interact with our friends and colleagues while having one eye on our phones or computers? Turn it off, look at each other; show the other person that you respect them and their time.
4) Really listen. Shema Yisrael – listen up!. I know it’s hard, we all think we are so busy that we must always be multi-tasking and our sense of business helps us to feel important and needed, but this can lead to unkindness, cutting people off, terse exchanges, leaving the other feeling hurt and presuming that you feel your time is more precious than theirs. So, really listen.
5) Count your blessings. The Talmud teaches (Menachot 43b) that we are to say 100 blessings a day. If we live lives of gratitude, noticing all we have to be grateful for, we will be happier people, which makes it easier to be kind.
6) Reflect on the kindness of others. Who are the people who make you feel loved for who you are? How have you experienced kindness? Reflecting on this helps us to put more kindness out into the world.
7)Expand your circle of kindness. It can be very easy to be kind when we’re unconsciously doing what Dr. Stephanie Dowrick terms in her book Choosing Happiness as “patronizing kindness”.This refers to kindness given to those people we feel are truly in need (the sick, the poor, the vulnerable, the downtrodden, etc); as well as those who are close to us or similar to us. The trouble with being selectively kind is that we are acting on our biases and judgments. Real kindness encompasses all beings. It starts from within but shows no bounds.
8) Remember Plato’s words, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I was once sitting in a doctor’s office awaiting an MRI. I was cold and getting hungry, and was generally ticked off that I had been waiting so long. Had I not had a book I would have probably lost my cool. Even with the distraction, I was getting impatient. Then, the MRI technician came out, looking white, and apologized to me saying that she had just had a particularly hard case and she was sorry for the wait. I knew instantly that she had just had to tell someone they had cancer, or that it had spread, and my anger abated and was replaced by heartbreak. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This reminds us to get out of our own heads and our own struggles; we all deserve some chesed.
Our world is full of daunting, seemingly unsolvable problems. When faced with these problems, it feels like there is little any one of us can do. But if we can be kind to one another so much can change. We can start by being kind to the planet, kind to ourselves, kind to others. “We influence others far more than we think and they know. . . Right in the midst of everyday life we are given the chance to touch the lives of others and thus to change the world.”
So, let’s start changing the world together, through chesed.