I sat once in a classroom with my teacher and mentor—Rabbi Larry Hoffman, a well respected scholar and one of the greatest intellectual minds of modern Jewish thought. On this day, Rabbi Hoffman had asked us a simple question: What is the most important attribute a person can have? The first thing I thought of was “kindness.” I had been bullied some growing up—I know the power of kindness. But I thought it sounded naïve. Childish. Too sentimental and touchy feely to say in front of this scholarly giant. The question went all the way around the table. When it got to me, I said “integrity”… which I don’t think I could have fully defined at the time. It continued around the table until it got to Rabbi Hoffman who said: “kindness.” That was the most important day of my rabbinical studies. I don’t know what I expected him to say: Respect? Honesty? Sitting up straight? All very good things, of course, but none of them exceeded the value of kindness for him. He told us about his daughter who was often sick and in the hospital, regularly scared and depressed by all the tests and increasingly serious diagnoses. And he said that the doctors who walked into her room and were gruff or silent, left her more scared, more alone, and worse off than when they entered her room even if they had done something to make her feel physically better.
But the doctors who walked in and smiled, touched her hand, shared a calming word or some encouragement—gave her the strength she needed to face her life for another hour, another day. “Couldn’t they just be nice to her,” he asked with the pleading of a father who saw the suffering of his child.[i]
I think we tend to mistake kindness for being a sentimental kind of touchy feely naïve little thing because we learn it at such a young age. Share your crayons, don’t tease your brother, be nice to the new kid in school. It often comes out as “be nice”…which sounds like a rule for kindergarteners. But I’m starting to think we learn it so young because it takes us so long to get it right. Far from being sentimental or touchy feely, receiving kindness is serious business and can sometimes be a matter of life or death.
Some years ago, Amanda Todd, a 10th grade student, posted a 9 minute Youtube video in which she described her life through flash cards. One card read: “I have nobody. I need someone.”[ii] She had been bullied, mocked, harassed. One month later she took her own life. Amanda Todd is one of way too many teenagers who feel alone in a harsh world. As a society, it is plain to see that we are still profoundly missing the mark when it comes to how we teach and prioritize kindness.
In his commencement speech to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University, George Saunders, with a chance to deliver a single message, told them: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly…He continues: It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.[iii]
I want to invite you to think now, for a moment, of a time in your life, when you felt pretty low. Maybe you were in the midst of a breakup or divorce. Maybe a loved one or your own body or mind was sick. Or maybe you lost someone or something that meant a great deal to you. What did it feel like when someone offered you kindness. What did that do for your heart?
I’m thinking way back to Hurricane Sandy. My mom was in the hospital in Manhattan, one day post-hip replacement, and the storm came and knocked out all the power and the phones. I was in Portland and my flight to see her was the first cancelled flight to the east coast and I could not get to her. All night, there were reports of hospitals being evacuated and medical equipment failing. And I couldn’t find her. I felt totally helpless and terrified.
So I called some obscure number at the hospital and finally a nurse answered, her voice somewhat aggravated that I was calling when everything was in emergency mode. And I burst into tears, finally forcing the words out—have you seen my mother? Is she okay? And immediately her voice shifted. And she said—honey don’t cry. Everyone here is just fine. Everyone here is safe. I will tell her you called to say you love her. She was like an angel.
So for just a moment, think: When was the last time you needed someone to choose to be kind to you? Did they? What was that like?
I think we can agree there is nothing facile about George Saunders’ message and that it is time to rescue the idea of kindness from the playground. Kindness can change a life. And unlike many other things in this world, it IS in our power to do it or not.
Rabbi Hoffman, George Saunders, kids who are choosing to exit this world, lead us to our cheshbon hanefesh. During this High Holy Day season, we are called to examine our souls and our actions in the year behind us and for the year ahead. We ask ourselves, how have we done? And who do we want to be to one another?
In Hebrew, the word we generally use for kindness is “Chesed.” We learn that it is so fundamental to our existence that Pirkei Avot tells us it is one of the three things upon which the world stands —Torah (study), Avodah (prayer), and “g’milut chasadim” from the word chesed—acts of kindness.[v] This tripod of values stabilizes an otherwise wobbly world. And yet—for centuries, people have argued over how to even translate the word chesed into English since there seems to be no one word that captures its essence completely.
A man named Myles Coverdale, a 16th-century Bible translator, offered the made-up word: “loving-kindness”—a word we commonly use today. He described “doing a kind act” as an expression of love because as he understood it, “The word chesed is used only in cases where there is…a tie between the parties concerned. It is not used indiscriminately of haphazard, kindly deeds.” Rather, “chesed… stands…for the attitude which both parties to a covenant ought to maintain towards each other.”[vi]
He teaches that because we are in covenant with one another—in a relationship that we have both agreed to in some way—so we are deeply responsible for how we treat each other and THAT, he explains—is called chesed. For if the world stands or falls on chesed, so do we.
It takes only recalling the last time we felt down…heartbroken, grieving, lonely, scared…in big ways or even little ways…and kindness either came to us or it didn’t and we remember standing or falling.
Ostensibly, we live in a world that really quite values kindness. A quick search on Amazon for “random acts of kindness,” will produce an excessive plethora of results: Random acts of kindness, random acts of kindness then and now, random acts of kindness by animals, kids random acts of kindness, illustrated random acts of kindness, random acts of kindness the coffee table edition. Random acts of kindness are what life insurance commercials are written about. The one where one person sees this other person pick up the baby’s teddy bear, so she holds the door for an elderly person, and the guy who sees her do that gives up his cab to the pregnant woman and then we watch that and we cry and we have no idea that this is a commercial for life insurance, but somehow we get a glimpse of a better world where people help each other out.
It’s good, right? Random acts of kindness make us feel super good. And they should. They put some good juju into the universe.
But…or rather…and. The thing about a random act of kindness is that it is as its name would suggest…random. The recipient of it has to rely on my whim. Either I’m feeling incredibly grateful one day or I’m feeling incredibly guilty one day.
They make the world more accidentally beautiful. But they are haphazard and unexpected, implying that the act of kindness is an “above and beyond” kind of thing – the cherry on top, but not the sundae underneath.
And our challenge is that a human being’s need for kindness is unwavering, unsurprising, and not very random at all. The true act of covenantal “chesed” removes randomness and replaces it with consistency.
So I want to propose something different. And…just to be transparent…it’s much harder to do. Let’s call it: extremely unrandom acts of kindness. It’s catchy!
Extremely unrandom acts of kindness do not depend on my feeling of gratitude or my need to fix my bad karma. Extremely unrandom acts of kindness begin with a steady, consistent decision to act a certain way to those people who are in our lives regularly. Our partners. Our children. Our students. Our patients. Our parents and grandparents. Our teachers and classmates. Our fellow congregants. Our nanny. Our boss.
Removing our own randomness from the equation creates a safety net for our world because left to our own whim, we sometimes whim wrong.
Chesed may be a noun, grammatically, but we know it only really lives and breathe as an enacted verb. And the decision to live and act by this value of chesed, of kindness, means that the people in our lives would never have to wonder or wait and see if we’ll be kind to them today. And it resets the rhythm of the universe. Here’s how I mean:
Our Talmud tells us of a man who hired a bunch of people to carry his wine vats to his cellar. While carrying one of them, they drop it and it shatters. Not only does he refuse to pay them for their labor, but he demands that they pay him for his lost wine. It’s actually quite fair, I suppose. They broke his stuff. So these workers take their case to a judge and explain that they are poor and without their wages, they will go hungry. So the judge instructs this man not only to forgive them their debt for the wine, but to pay them their day’s wages as well. Dina hachi?!, he asks the judge. Is this the LAW? The judge answers: Een. Yes…This is the law.[vii] What’s amazing about this is that that’s NOT the law. Well, it’s not the lower case L law…the law on the books. But it is the capital L law. The one helps us that shape the kind of world we want to live in. The one that says these people are poor and they’re hungry—and maybe it’s on us to determine that in the world we want to live in, kindness trumps the harsh letter of the law.
To be honest, it’s really hard to maintain this constancy of kindness—I imagine this goes for all of us. Our fast-paced world isn’t necessarily built for this. Responding to a person or situation with overt kindness can feel awkward, or vulnerable, or if expressed in a workplace or school, we can worry that it will make us look uncool, or weak. I find it’s especially hard after I’ve had a bad day or when I’m stressed out. And it is really hard with those we love most. We see them ALL THE TIME. Is it possible to be kind to them ALL THE TIME? (pause) What if it were? What if that was what we practiced and tried to get good at? And oh, it does take practice—but that is the work of these ten days.
The Psalmist tells us that while the heavens are built on faithfulness, olam chesed yibaneh[viii]—this world is built on kindness. Consider what this means…the foundation of the world, where we firmly plant our feet, is made of acts of kindness—laid down, woven together, steadying our steps. That the scaffolding all around us is solid because your hand reaches to me and mine to you.
Now picture a world devoid of this kindness. Seriously, consider what it would be like to try to take even one unfaltering step…knowing that no matter how low we felt, no one would reach out to steady us when we began to fall. We would surely cut ourselves constantly on a world this sharp. And some days, these days, it feels like our whole world is on the verge of that reality.
So let’s start working on it right now! I mean—where else do we have to be? Take the people in our lives who are most affected by our decision to be kind:
In our families: Is our language harsh when our loved one walks in the door? Are we snippy or short with our parents? Are we impatient with, or judgmental of our children? With relatives who might live alone, do we let their loneliness make us uncomfortable or do we reach out for a little conversation? Do we ignore a partner or sibling when they say something to us? Do we ever let them forget that one time when they (fill in the blank)? Do we remind them of their weaknesses instead of celebrating their strengths?
With fellow congregants: Do we let our frustrations become a mean spirit, condescend, or unleash hurtful words? Do we cast blame or talk smack about others, forgetting that they are only human and have feelings and can get hurt? Do we rush out the door at oneg or do we linger and ask someone how they are?
With our co-workers or classmates or friends or neighbors: Do we stand up for them when others are bullying them? Do we make space for them in our circle? All of them? Do we notice when their eyes are red from crying and ask how they are? Do we laugh with or at? Are we sure about that?
In our High Holy Day liturgy, God is called “el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed.”[ix] The Eternal, Merciful, Gracious God, Who is Endlessly Kind.”
When we are our most vulnerable as we confess a year of words said in anger, short tempers, and shortfalls—God responds by raining down on us the healing waters of an endless chesed. And so it is that when we are kind, we are acting in God’s image, doing God’s work. And when we pray Avinu Malkeinu…when we lay bare our deeds and say to God: ayn banu ma’asim—we’ve got nothing God. We’ve got nothing. We beg of God—aseh eemanu tzedakah v’chesed …deal with us with generosity and with kindness. V’hoshiyeinu…for Your kindness will save us.
And so can our chesed do for others if we, too, are determined to save one another with kindness. Imagine the world we could begin to create. Right here. Right now. Look over at the person next to you…and maybe give them a gentle smile (okay, that was little awkward, that’s okay.) Let’s try it in the other direction. It’s not hard.
We feel our hearts open to them a little. Perhaps that is the world we want to live in.
George Saunders’ greatest regrets are that when another human being was there, in front of him, suffering, that he responded…sensibly. This year, maybe we shake that up. When there is another human being before us, suffering or not, may we instead respond unsensibly, radically, outlandishly kind.
It is worth working hard at this—until we become unbearably predictable and terribly boring in our unrandom kindness so that not one more kid think she’s got to face the world alone. Not one more senior goes to bed feeling lonely. Not one more fellow congregant feels invisible or expendable. So that the people we love know we love them because our chesed is unquestionable, abundant, and at the ready.
Shanah Tovah Umetukah u’malei chesed, may this be a sweet new year in which we build our world with acts of profound and unrandom kindness. Amen.
[i] Retold with permission from Rabbi Larry Hoffman
[v] Pirkei Avot 1:2
[vii] BT Bava Metzi’a 83a
[viii] Psalm 89:3
[ix] Originally found in Exodus 34:6-7 as part of the 13 attributes of God’s mercy, traditionally recited three times in the High Holy Day liturgy