Create a better world – make acts of kindness contagious

On the penultimate Sunday of 2017, CBS Sunday Morning carried a report by the network’s national correspondent, Lee Cowan, about the beneficial aspects of kindness.

That piece of reporting should be played, discussed, and acted upon in every classroom, in every house of worship regardless of faith, at every organizational convention or annual meeting of any type, including religious and secular groups of every stripe. The essential element of these discussions must be that they lead to action.

Action is what a young man named Brian Williams took (not that Brian Williams, for whom Cowan reported years ago while working for NBC). This Brian Williams founded a school-based program called Think Kindness, designed “to teach kids that no kind act is too small,” according to Cowan.

Williams explained that his “job” is to “make kindness cool” to schoolchildren. “It’s super important,” he said, “that we start kids early, to train them to say, ‘look, every single day you have an opportunity to make a difference in the world, but it’s up to you as to whether you’ll take action.’”

We “can all band together and make a difference,” he said.

Through an act of kindness, we can “make a difference in the world, but it’s up to [us] as to whether [we’ll] take action.”

Last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Sh’mot, underscored this point with two very deliberate acts of kindness — deliberate because they were made despite the dangers involved — and conjecturally one seemingly inconsequential act that continues to have transformative consequences for the world.

Because the story that unfolds in the parashah could have been told in a different way, the Torah wants us to understand the power of kindness.

The first act of deliberate kindness occurred when the king of Egypt spoke to the midwives Shifrah and Puah. Said Pharaoh, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool; if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.’” (See Exodus 1:15-19.)

The midwives, however, would not carry out such an evil order. They let the boys live, even though it could have meant their own deaths. When the king demanded to know why they disobeyed him, they said it was “because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.’”

That led to the second act of at-great-risk kindness. His original plan thwarted, the king ordered his soldiers into Goshen, with an even more horrifying set of orders. Now, not only were the Hebrew male newborns to die, but they were to suffer mightily as they did. “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile,” ordered Pharaoh. (See Exodus 1:22.)

How extensively that order was carried out is unclear. The Torah provides no statistics on the number of deaths (a statistic it rarely shies away from elsewhere). The lack of such data suggests that either the Israelites hid their newborns well, or the soldiers were no more inclined than the midwives to follow such an order.

In any case, we know of at least one mother who hid her child for three months, suggesting that some newborns were drowned. “When [this mother] could hide [her newborn] no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile….The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile….She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (See Exodus 2:3-6.)

Instead of turning the child over to be killed, the princess, at great risk, decided to raise the child as her son, presumably selling her father on the premise that the baby was a gift to her from Hapi, the Nile god.

If not for Shifrah and Puah, on the one hand, and the princess on the other — all three of whom put their lives at high risk — that would have been the end of this particular story. Instead, their kindness and bravery helped change the world — because that baby was Moses.

As for that conjectural and seemingly inconsequential act of kindness, that came when Moses was way into adulthood and was shepherding his father-in-law’s flock. One day, when Moses was grazing the flock in a remote desert area, a little lamb broke away and, it seems, ran up a mountainside.

That Moses had a strong sense of justice and a violent aversion to injustice was clear from almost his introduction to us. He killed an Egyptian overseer because the man was abusing an Israelite slave, then hid the man’s body. Moses next intervened in a fight between two Israelites, who turned on Moses and told him they knew what he had done. This caused him to flee Egypt. Arriving in Midian, he saw a group of male shepherds harassing seven young women. Moses attacked the men and drove them off.

Israel’s leaders need a strong sense of justice, but they also need a keen sense of compassion, of kindness. This is probably why Israel’s greatest leaders began as shepherds. In this case, speculates a midrash (Exodus Rabbah 2:2), “God tested Moses through sheep.”

Says this midrash, “when Moses…was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a little kid escaped from him. He ran after it until it reached a shady place. When it reached the shady place, there appeared in view a pool of water, and the kid stopped to drink. When Moses approached it, he said: ‘I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be tired.’ So he placed the kid on his shoulder and walked away.”

Carrying an exhausted little lamb on his shoulders demonstrated that Moses had the quality of kindness needed to temper his sometimes violent sense of justice. At that moment, a bush began to burn, catching his attention, and “God called to him out of the bush.”

These three acts of kindness set the world on a better path. The world envisioned by “the Torah of Moses” — a world where all people are equal and free, and who care for each other and work in apposition, not opposition — has not yet been fully realized. (If you doubt this is the world the Torah seeks, consider this one fact: The Torah expresses concern for the equal treatment of aliens 52 times. Its various commands regarding Sabbath observance total a mere 10.)

Kindness counts. Acts of kindness can make the world a better place.

Put that on bumper stickers and billboards. Put that on school bulletin boards and hallway banners. Make that the slogan for Kindness Clubs in our schools and houses of worship.

We can change the world. It just takes each of us to do one act of kindness a day, and to teach our children to do the same.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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