“People seem to want to help” said a friend with family in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina some years ago, “but they aren’t asking what desperate families from the region really need. In some ways, many of those collecting and sending checks just want to feel good about themselves.”
Social psychologist Dolly Chugh talks in her new book The Person You Mean to Be about self-threat, times when others don’t affirm the identity we claim for ourselves. When another person doesn’t grant me my desired identity as a good person then I get defensive. The absence of validation distracts me from trying to be the empathic person I want to be.
What identity do we seek in this season? Most of us want to claim and be granted the identity of being generous and kind. Yet how often do we find ourselves struggling to be affirmed as such in ways that draw us back into thinking more about ourselves and self-threats to our perceived identity?
We conclude one of our season’s most poignant prayers, Avinu Malkeinu, by asking God to grace us with generosity and kindness (tzedaka v’chesed) in ways that gently nudge us forward. Not because we deserve it – after all, the prayer says we do not (ein banu maa’asim) echoing Moses’ warning in this week’s portion of Torah: “God is familiar with the instability of human frailty (yadati et yitzro)”(Deut. 31:21). Rather because magnanimity grants us a fresh future.
Our sages tell a story about a wealthy landowner whose worker had accidentally dropped some crates, damaging their content. The landowner took his worker to court. The Judge ruled that the law was on his side and that his employee owed him a lot of money. Then the Judge added: “Although the law dictates that your worker repay you for your loss, it is a large sum for him and meeting his obligation will put him through much hardship. I recommend on the basis of Hesed (pure kindness) that you release him from his obligation. Someday, someone may extend to you the same Hesed if you’re in a similarly difficult position. But even if that never happens, the verdict is clear so you know are justified in collecting damages. Yet you can be magnanimous in a way that feels intrinsically kind.” The landowner took the Judge’s advice and forgave his worker.
As we respond to the needs of those in the wake of Hurricane Florence, may we emulate what we seek in Avinu Malkeinu. Grateful to God for undeserved kindness, perhaps we can merit it more by wading into its waters by how we place the needs of others ahead of our own.