Living & Learning
Our impulses to acts of kindness are powerful, but they are often overwhelmed when we face fears, competition, or conflict, and hostile impulses tend to take over. Particularly in situations with people we are normally cooperative with, such as family and work, fears can block our ability to seek and execute solutions that involved acts of kindness. While these are not always called for, they are often the better course of action. When did you last feel threatened in an personal relationship or work situation? Did you consider an act of kindness as a solution? What would have been best?
1. Justice, in Micah’s injunction, applies always, but kindness is a higher priority for those you live and work with, as it promotes trust and cooperation.
2. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, says that ‘givers,’ need to guard against habitual ‘takers’ who will exploit the generous.
3. Have an awareness that this is a fundamental spiritual demand (mitzvah) and ask: How can an act of kindness help in this situation?
Would you classify yourself as one of Grant’s ‘givers’? (The other categories are ‘takers’ and—the most common—‘matchers’.) How do you think it being a giver—or taker or matcher—has helped you? When has it hurt you?
Acts of Kindness.
In the Bible, hesed, “loving-kindness,” (also translated as “mercy” or “charity”) is one of the basic attributes of God that humanity is to imitate. The prophet Micah tells us that loving kindness is one of the only three things that God demands of us. The rabbinic phrase gemilut hasadim, literally “the bestowal of kindnesses,” refers to a broader category than tzedakah, which is the rabbinic term for “charity” in the sense of giving money or goods to the needy. x includes any helpful action done without expectation of reward or recompense.
A portrait of the ideal Jew in the Talmud includes acts of kindness as a key virtue:
Three signs indicate membership in the Jewish nation: compassion, modesty, and acts of kindness. (YEV 79a)
Here “modesty,” baishan in Hebrew, is the quality of being sensitive and averse to anything that might be seen as shameful; it relates to Micah’s emphasis on the importance of walking modestly with our God. The prooftext given for the importance of this quality of modesty is “that the fear of Him may be ever with you” (EX 20:17). In other words, we should be aware of God’s presence, and God’s call for ethical action, and judgment.
Why did Shimon the Righteous single out acts of hesed, loving-kindness? I suspect it is because when suspicious or ungenerous feelings arise, these are the first things to go. Couples in love, fond parents, and doting grandparents all find it a joy to help their loved ones, without any thought of recompense. But in many circumstances, people feel uncomfortable taking the initiative to help, or have no inclination to do so. If we keep in mind this most fragile of good impulses, we are more likely to act on them.
The Sages’ ideals of compassion, modesty, and generosity are high-minded and inspiring, but there is much in our modern, highly competitive society that militates against them. Our society rewards winners, whether it is with grades in school, with money at work, or with renown. And winning a mate is often influenced by winning competitively in other areas.
Some in our society, noticing that some winners are callous and unscrupulous, reject these high-minded Rabbinic values as useless or harmful. And some have gone even further, arguing that no-holds-barred competitiveness, including callousness and selfishness when they help to win, is good for society—a view directly challenging that of the Sages. The philosophy of Ayn Rand, as articulated in The Virtue of Selfishness, is an example. While Rand’s philosophy is not usually taken seriously in the academy, its enduring popularity speaks to its wide appeal. For Rand, the chief value is being “productive,” and relationships are simply trades, like a commercial transaction: I give you something of value and you give me something of value in return. In this view, it is foolish and ultimately destructive to give without receiving, because we will be losers. The implication is that any relationship lacking immediate fair trade should be dissolved.
The folly of this commercial model of relationships is that our society presents us with a mixture of situations that call for cooperation, competition, and conflict-. And of these, cooperation, particularly in civil life (in contrast to war), is usually most fundamental. Even in competitive situations, our ability to cooperate with others in school or work is key to producing something that succeeds competitively. In one’s personal life, cooperation with loved ones and friends is paramount.
Cooperation requires trust and commitment. This is because enduring cooperative relationships involve risk and uncertainty: we never can be sure whether another person’s efforts will complement our own, or even if the relationship with that person will endure. And psychological research has found that nothing is so devastating to cooperation as suspicion and mistrust. And fair treatment of others and, especially, repeated acts of kindness foster trust, and so effective cooperation. And so hesed helps sustain productivity at work, and sustain love between husband and wife, parent and child.
Acts of Piety
ON ACTS OF PIETY. (Gemilut Hasadim): Once as Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was coming forth from Jerusalem Rabbi Joshua followed after him and beheld the Temple in ruins. “Woe unto us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste!”
“My son,” Rabban Johanan said to him, “be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of lovingkindness (gemilut hasadim), as it is said, For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) (ARN)
Acts of lovingkindness are greater than charity. As the Sages have said (Sukkah 49b): Charity applies only to the living, acts of lovingkindness apply to the living and the dead. Charity is something a man does with his wealth, acts of lovingkindness he carries out with his wealth and by means of his own person. In acts of lovingkindness the poor man’s feelings are spared: for example when one lends a poor man funds to help him in his hour of need; whereas when one gives the poor man charity, the poor man inevitably feels some shame. Charity affects the poor only; acts of lovingkindness affect the rich also (Vitry).
Of the Book of Ruth, Rabbi Zeira said (Ruth Rabba 2:14): In this book there is no discussion of laws of uncleanness and cleanness, the prohibited and permitted. Why therefore was it written? To teach us how great is the reward for those who practice acts of lovingkindness (Duran).