I am finding that this world has become a judgmental and harsh place. Online and off, there are too many examples of people ranting, raving, judging, hurting, excluding others. In this context, I can’t help but wonder why more people don’t adopt the Golden Rule as a guiding way to live. With so many versions of it shared by so many religions and its wisdom so clear, picturing yourself in another’s shoes before speaking or acting is a good way to live. It promotes kindness. Last week for the first time I led a session during tikkun leil Shavuot, and with Google’s help, was able to cast the net a little wider within Judaism to find other examples of what we are told about kindness and then, to translate these instances into ways to think about giving of ourselves. Appropriately, I started with the Book of Ruth (which is read on Shavuot) and then went to the Torah for mitzvot and middot. (values).
In the Book of Ruth, the quality of chesed (lovingkindness) is demonstrated by Ruth herself in her devotion to her mother-in-law, as well as by Boaz who lets Ruth take the gleanings from his field back to Naomi. Commentators have spoken about the Book of Ruth as a story all about the quality of kindness, especially as it pertains to Ruth, a Moab, who ties her future so closely to Naomi. When she declares that Naomi’s people are her people, Naomi’s G-D, her G-D, and wherever Naomi goes, so will she, Ruth is giving of her heart and her future. It might also be worth noting how exceptional her conversion to Judaism was, since Moabites were specifically not allowed to convert (due to how they didn’t behave kindly to Jews fleeing Egypt, not offering food and drink to the refugees); it was later clarified that while Moabite men could not convert to Judaism, women could.
The Torah, too, has a number of mitzvot which are about how we should treat others. These acts of kindness include Deuteronomy; Devarim 26:12 mentions the tithe of crops which must be given to the poor in the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle, while in Leviticus, Vayikra 23:22 states that the remnants of the harvest must be left for the “poor and the stranger.” This was what Boaz did and what Ruth was careful not to overstep. People’s natural inclination is to put themselves first, themselves and their family. To open one’s heart and one’s pocketbook, especially to strangers, means putting someone else first and that requires a conscious decision to give of one’s self. Here, in choosing to observe this mitzvah, in setting aside the corners of one’s fields, the farmer gives of himself.
In another instance, Devarim 15:7 mentions the obligation to give loans to the poor according to their needs. Rashi notes that while sometimes people suffer while they deliberate whether to help or not, the parsha instructs not to harden your heart or your hand. Its directive is to ensure that one gives of one’s self without second thoughts. The positive aspect of lending money isn’t mentioned only there though.
“If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you, you shall support him [whether] a convert or a resident, so that he can live with you.” For this one in Vayikra 25:35, Rashi comments that before one completely falls, one should give a person the ability to stand on his own two feet. Lending money is actually considered a greater act of kindness than giving someone charity, because with a loan, a person can retain his dignity and repay the loan. The next verse says that loans must be given without interest; and in Devarim 15:1, it says that the loan must be forgiven in the Sabbatical year.
What I consider a particularly important instruction in the Torah regarding kindness comes in Vayikra 19:18. “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” We know that tit-for-tat, keeping a tally in your head, holding grudges all consume energy and achieve nothing. If you’ve ever been guilty of those kinds of thoughts, think about how your anger consumed you but did not affect the person it was directed at. Think about it; this also means that in treating others as we would like to be treated, we are actually also being kinder to ourselves.
Also pertinent to the world we live in now, we learn from Vayikra 19:34, is that “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” This can inform how we as a society treat both transplants from other states and immigrants from other countries, regardless of legal status. Similarly, in Devarim 16:14, we are obligated to celebrate our holidays together with strangers, orphans and widows. I know I always love inviting more to my holiday tables.
I can also see both of these connecting this to hachnasat orchim – the mitzvah of hospitality. Making guests feel welcome in your home. This is a wonderful thing to take on as a directive, because it forces you to think of their comfort, to put others’ first. When I teach this to second graders, we talk about letting friends pick the games to play during play dates. For a child to put what he or she wants aside to let someone else choose, is allowing them to experience the positivity of giving of one’s self. The gains from ceding choice range from enjoying new and unexpected games or foods or anything to feeling gratitude directed towards you to simply experiencing the pleasure that comes from giving. One family in Brooklyn famously goes beyond typical Shabbat dinner hospitality, opening their home weekly to about 30 beyond their own ten family members, and has done this for decades. It has influenced how their children see the world and their place in it.
At the same time, the truth is that one can be kind without giving of one’s self. Holding open a door for someone doesn’t cost you anything. I could argue that one can observe a mitzvah and its byproduct is de facto kindness, but that doesn’t mean that one has given of him- or herself. In both of these cases, something is missing.
In one of my recent blogs, I wrote about community and the need we have to be a part of something bigger than us. It gives us more satisfaction and allows us to incorporate more kindness into our lives. Community-driven behavior is more than a one-off act. “Giving charity or volunteering for a day…maintains [a] separateness. It’s easy to sit from above and look down on those less well-off and carry out an act of kindness and feel good about oneself,” I wrote. So, the trick is to incorporate kindness into all our actions. And the best way to do that is to reframe how we think. And now we’re back to the Golden Rule.
Derech eretz is a middah I’ve taught second graders about as well. “The way of the land” means doing the right thing, and this, like the Golden Rule, can be synonymous with being kind. I gave the children a checklist with questions. What if we created our own as grown-ups? Let’s come up with ways we can incorporate behaviors which embody kindness and giving of ourselves as a personal commitment. Let’s think before we speak, put ourselves in other shoes, live the Golden Rule and embody derech eretz.
The resulting happiness our lives will bring will be a gift to us all. Try it, you’ll see.
The above, tweaked for today’s blog, served as the basis for the tikkun leil Shavuot lesson I delivered.