At times we feel critical of people who seek recognition for the kindness they do. But the Torah’s view of the subject is counter-intuitive and surprising.
עולם חסד יבנה (תהילים פ״ט)
A universe can be constructed from acts of kindness (Psalms 89)
© Rabbi David Lapin, 2014
What the Midrash Means Series – 1:9
Yoseif’s brothers decide that his repetitive attempts to alienate them from their father and displace them as spiritual heirs to their father’s legacy, was a capital offense. Just before they execute him, Reuvein, the eldest brother intervenes with the secret intention of saving Yoseif later. He suggests that instead of actively executing Yoseif, they should rather throw him into a deep, infested pit. This would leave his death or survival (by miracle), in the hands of G-d. The brothers acquiesce.
א”ר יצחק בר מריון בא הכתוב ללמדך שאם אדם עושה מצוה יעשנה בלבב שלם שאלו היה ראובן יודע שהקדוש ברוך הוא מכתיב עליו (בראשית ל”ז) וישמע ראובן ויצילהו מידם בכתפו היה מוליכו אצל אביו ואילו היה יודע אהרן שהקב”ה מכתיב עליו (שמות ד’) הנה הוא יוצא לקראתך בתופים ובמחולות היה יוצא לקראתו ואלו היה יודע בעז שהקדוש ברוך הוא מכתיב עליו ויצבט לה קלי ותאכל ותשבע ותותר עגלות מפוטמות היה מאכילה
(רות רבה פ״ה ס״ו)
“Rabbi Yitzchak bar Merion explained that the Torah comes to teach that if a person chooses to do a mitzvah, they should do so with a whole heart. For had Reuvein known that Hashem was to create a permanent record about him stating: “and Reuvein heard and he saved him from their hands…” he would have carried Yoseif all the way to his father on his shoulders. (The midrash continues to show similar instances in the cases of Aharon and Boaz who would both have done much more than they did, had they known that their deeds would later be recorded in the Torah for posterity.) – Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 5:6
He’arrot – Observations
The most surprising observation about this Midrash is that it seems to consider doing a good deed in order to be publicly recognized for it, as doing it with a “whole heart.” Reuvein, Aharon and Boaz are not criticized for the fact that had they known their deeds would be recorded for posterity, they would have done so much more. On the contrary, we are advised always to put all the energy we have into a mitzvah, because (as the midrash later says,) all of our deeds are recorded by Eliyahu and sealed by Hashem and the Mashiach. The midrash appears to be promoting the value of extrinsic motivation. This is especially surprising considering that all the scenarios in the midrash involve doing a kindness to a family member. One would expect that of all cases, the things we do for each other within our families are the most intimate and the most deserving of privacy.
We are accustomed to the view that the purity of an action is impaired if it is motivated by extrinsic factors. Examples of extrinsic motivation are philanthropy for public recognition, studying Torah for the honor it will bestow or helping a fellow human being in order to attract their friendship. The greater mitzvah is the one done from purely intrinsic motivation, lishmah – for its own sake. Is the midrash suggesting that doing something good for the praise it will elicit, does not detract from the lishma quality of the action?
In most cases of mitzvot (good deeds) pure intrinsic motivation, lishma, is the higher order. However, in the case of chessed (interpersonal caring and kindness), part of the mitzvah itself is the reinforcement of the relationships it encourages. Doing a kindness in order to connect and bond with others, is in fact doing it lishma – for its own sake – because human bonding is part of the very mitzvah of chessed. Doing a chessed that fails to create a deeper connection with another person, is not really a chessed in the fullest sense of the idea. Olam chessed yibaneh – Tehillim 89 (a universe can be constructed out of acts of kindness) is a Divine, natural law. Most of what we do in business are acts of kindness (to customers, shareholders and employees) even though we benefit directly from these acts. Moreover, although the prime motivator in business is usually extrinsic (profit) rather than intrinsic (kindness for its own sake), the Torah still regards these acts as chessed. While anonymity is the highest form of charity to individuals (to preserve the dignity of the recipient), when it comes to acts of kindness we are encouraged to avoid anonymity to ensure that the recipient is aware of our kindness. This facilitates the receiver’s ability to reciprocate and build relationship and connection; dimensions that are excluded from anonymous kindness. But the publicity encouraged in acts of kindness goes beyond making it known to the recipient. There is a value in wider publicity as well.
When others see the energy and focus with which an individual does an act of kindness, it inspires them to greatness too. Inspiration is contagious, and the more we are inspired in what we do and say to help another, the more others, affected by this inspiration, also become inspired. We have a share in the inspiration we spread, but we also have to take responsibility for the inspiration we could have spread but did not. When we do chessed half-heartedly we deprive the world of a forceful energy capable of uplifting the hearts, minds and actions of countless others with infinite potential outcome. Reuvein, Aharon and Boaz realized that they could have taught the world so much more about familial love and concern than they actually did. This lost opportunity to make an indelible difference in the lives of millions, was lost forever.
The midrash teaches yet another and even deeper motivation for Reuvein and the other two to have invested more inspiration in their acts of love. What ought to have motivated Reuvein, Aharon and Boaz to excel in their deeds even more than they did, was not the public recognition from their actions having been recorded in the Torah. What would have inspired their zeal was the full realization of the permanent, metaphysical impact that every loving action we perform has on the world. The metaphor of Eliyahu recording everything good that we do and Hashem and the Mashiach sealing the record, is not because of the fame this record will lead to. Our records may never be opened by anyone else at all. The metaphor illustrates the permanence and eternal value of our love, to G-d and the world. This value of our actions to G-d and their permanent impact on making the world a better place, is what should inspire us to do more and to invest more attention and energy in the good things we already do. A universe can be built out of our acts of love and kindness, Olam chessed yibaneh.
It has been scientifically established that even our feelings and emotional states have a chain-reaction impact that extends far beyond ourselves. Even more so, the energy generated by the things we say and do impact people outside our immediate spheres of influence and even in eras beyond our own. It is the nature and extent of our impact that should inform us intrinsically of the importance of our actions. It was the realization of the extent and eternity of the impact of human activity, that these three great ancestors were not fully aware of. They did not appreciate fully how the actions they were performing could build a universe, Olam chessed yibaneh.
The application of this midrasnhic teaching in our lives goes beyond the importance of caring for our loved ones and our families with all our hearts and with all our might. It goes beyond appreciating the permanence and extent of influence that inspired acts of love can have on others. This midrash also addresses the question of how appropriate is it to publicly praise people for the good things they have done. Should we publicize a philanthropist’s charity or the anonymous kindness of an individual who steps in to help? Do the removal of anonymity and the introduction of publicity detract from the quality, purity and beauty of the action?
מכאן שראוי לכתוב ולפרסם את העושה מצוה… – We learn from the way that the Torah publicized Reuvein’s good deed, that it is appropriate to write about and publicize one who does a mitzvah.
Clearly the Rashbah carries forward the idea that good deeds are and should be contagious. Goodness cannot become viral if it is kept secret. We owe it to one another to learn about the inspired, heroic, generous, and kind things people are doing for one another every day, and make these actions known. Pay people’s love forward and become the inspiration the world so desperately needs. Let’s build a universe out of kindness, Olam chessed yibaneh.
 See Toras Avrohom by Rabbi A. Grodginski (1883-1944), Kovno, Lithuania, P.378
 Fowler JH, Christakis NA (2008) Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. Br Med J 337: 1–9. doi: 10.1136/bmj.a2338
 Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (1235–1310), banker, Rabbi, Talmudist and Halachist in Barcelona, Spain.
 Teshuvos Horashbo, 981.