Kindness is something that is usually given out of generosity. We don’t usually think of kindness as a debt. Yet, sometimes it is a debt. For example, if someone treats you kindly, they deserve to be treated kindly in return; you owe them a debt of kindness. If you owe kindness to someone who treats you kindly, what do you owe someone who treats you horribly? The shocking answer is that you owe that person a debt of kindness too. How does that work?
In chapter 12 of the Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidim, wrote that we should always strive for and work towards complete mastery of our thoughts, speech, and actions. This means that every time we become aware of a negative thought such as resentment, anger, jealousy, etc. against another, we must resolutely drive it away. Moreover, once we become aware of having a negative feeling, we must push ourselves to treat the offender with disproportionate love. To tolerate any suffering they might have caused us without anger and certainly without revenge.
This is a tall order but Rabbi Shneur Zalman insisted that if we put our minds to it, we can achieve it. It is not impossible. It is merely a question of how far we are willing to go. Are we prepared to turn the other cheek, or will that person get our goat and provoke a reaction?
Now the expression turning the other cheek doesn’t come from the Jewish bible, it is a very Christian idea. The Torah teaches that we are permitted to defend ourselves. When others take aim at our lives, we are permitted to strike them first. Why does Rabbi Shneur Zalman preach turning the other cheek?
The answer can be found in the final line of the chapter. Rabbi Shneur Zalman concludes by writing that we must learn from Joseph’s response to his brothers and treat those who offend us with kindness; pay back those who hurt us by doing them favors.
Is this even possible? Let’s see how Joseph did it.
Joseph and His Brothers
When Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, they shrank back in fear expecting him to punish them for selling him into slavery. Yet, Joseph explained that he was actually grateful to them and felt he owed them a debt of kindness. Had his brothers not sold him into slavery, he would not have become viceroy of Egypt. He owed his power and position to them and was, therefore, committed to paying them back with kindness. He saved their lives and gave them new and prosperous homes in Egypt.
The brothers were flabbergasted. They couldn’t believe it. Something good might have come from their terrible act, but they never intended it. They meant to hurt him. Yet, Joseph’s response was succinct. I know that you meant me harm, he said, but your thoughts are irrelevant. Only G-d’s thoughts are pertinent, and G-d intended for the sale to lead me to where I am today. If I consider your actions and dismiss your intentions, there is only one possible conclusion. I owe you, not the other way around.
The brothers thought it was a trap. Years later, after their father’s passing, they still expected Joseph to avenge the wrong they had done him. But he never did. He was serious. He did not see it as wrong. He saw it as a kindness that ought to be repaid in kindness.
When you consider it from this perspective you realize that Joseph did not sit there thinking that his brothers were wicked, but he was bigger than them. He really believed that he owed them a kindness.
In Our Lives
When someone hurts us, we become agitated and want revenge. We might be able to curb this desire to one degree or another, but it is hard to erase it completely. It is nigh impossible to turn ourselves around and repay those who harmed us with kindness. Unless we take Joseph’s perspective.
There are two important principles of faith that we must train ourselves to believe. The first is that nothing happens unless G-d wills it. The second is that everything that G-d does, is for the good.
The first principle holds that even when others exercise their freedom of choice to hurt me, they can only succeed if G-d decrees that I be hurt on that day. If G-d decrees it, it will happen whether they choose to do it or someone else chooses to do it. If G-d doesn’t decree it, then try as they might, they will fail to hurt me. This means that if they succeed, it is because G-d decreed that I be hurt on this day.
Now they will have their personal account to settle with G-d. The fact that G-d decreed that I be hurt, doesn’t justify their behavior. However, that is not my score to settle with them. That is their score to settle with G-d. As far as I’m concerned, I cannot blame them for hurting me. I was going to be hurt on this day whether they chose to do it or not.
Whom can I blame for getting hurt? Only G-d. So, should I be upset with G-d? No. Because the second principle tells me that G-d meant it for the good. The perpetrator meant to hurt me, but G-d meant to help me. I can’t be mad at someone who does me a favor, and G-d was doing me a favor.
The typical example is the person who trips me and breaks my leg, G-d forbid, but when I go to the hospital the doctors discover an early-stage cancer that could otherwise have killed me, G-d forbid. That person meant to hurt me, but G-d meant to save my life. If I divorce the perpetrator’s intentions, which have no bearing on my life, from the perpetrator’s action, which has a direct bearing on my life, I will be grateful to the perpetrator for saving my life. Had I not been tripped, I could have died, G-d forbid, within months. By tripping me, the perpetrator saved my life. That deserves a kindness.
How about the person who gives me a concussion and sends me to the hospital where I meet the nurse who becomes my wife? Do I come after him with a baseball bat or invite him to the wedding as an honored guest? No matter that he attacked me in a rage, he is still invited to my fortieth anniversary dinner. He brought me to my wife. His intentions are irrelevant. His actions made all the difference.
The key is to train ourselves to believe that everything that seems negative is really positive. If we are fortunate, we get to see exactly how this is so, but not seeing how this is so, doesn’t mean it isn’t so. The inescapable conclusion makes perfect sense if we train ourselves to see things this way. If someone did something with the intention of hurting me, that person really helped me. If that person helped me, I should repay him or her with kindness.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman wasn’t asking us to be as tolerant as the angels. He was asking us to train ourselves to think and to believe with perfect faith that (a) all things happen only because G-d decrees them and (b) all that G-d does is for the best. Even if I can’t see how losing a million dollars helps me, I can train myself to be grateful to the person who caused me to lose it. Joseph was fortunate because he got to see how being sold led to his becoming viceroy. But if we don’t see it with our eyes, we can train ourselves to believe it in our minds, in our hearts, and deep in our very souls.