Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not failed in Her kindness to the living or to the dead! For,” Naomi explained to her daughter-in-law, “the man is related to us; he is one of our redeeming kinsmen”” (Megillat Ruth 2:20).
A famous midrash on Megillat Ruth shares the interpretation of Rabbi Zeira, who argues that while the story of Ruth does not teach us any mitzvot, positive or negative, the story must be read because it teaches us “how great is the reward of those who do deeds of loving-kindness” (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2:14). Kindness, otherwise known in our tradition as hesed, is a well-known word in Judaism. However, the same root of hesed can be found in the word Hasid, which in Jewish tradition is a term of the highest respect for a person’s Jewish and moral character. Thus, the literal translation of hesed as “kindness” does not do justice to the spiritual power of this value.
This question was not lost upon our rabbinic commentators. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Rabbi Moses Maimonides argues that hesed includes moments when we show kindness to people who, under most circumstances, have no reason to demand kindness from us. He writes:
“…we have explained the expression ḥesed as denoting an excess [in some moral quality]. It is especially used of extraordinary kindness. Loving-kindness is practiced in two ways: first, we show kindness to those who have no claim whatever upon us; secondly, we are kind to those to whom it is due, in a greater measure than is due to them. In the inspired writings the term ḥesed occurs mostly in the sense of showing kindness to those who have no claim to it” (Guide, Part 3, 53:2).
In this passage, Maimonides argues that we are not exemplifying hesed when we do good things for people who have already done good for us. On the contrary, hesed is exemplified when we have no reason to show a person kindness, yet choose to show kindness, anyway.
No one better models hesed better than God in Megillat Ruth, as Naomi acknowledges that God is showing her kindness expecting nothing in return, especially after Naomi bemoans the affliction she experienced. In their modern commentary on Megillat Ruth, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky write that the biblical God constantly shows people hesed when they do not earn it:
“Benevolence towards others and toward the world generates good acts even when they are not earned, and it certainly demands good acts when they are. But sometimes this force weakens and even fades away. Then, both we and God need to forget about the idea of measure for measure and simply perform good deeds–acts of random lovingkindness” (The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth, xlix).
This Shavuot, I find myself asking whether or not synagogues truly model what it means to give, rather than take. On one level, synagogues are giving institutions, whether that includes visiting people in terms of grief and crisis, doing social action in the community, or providing education to learners of all ages. All of that work is holy and necessary, yet I increasingly wonder whether or not it is sufficient.
Furthermore, in a time when fewer people belong to synagogues, leaders need to look at institutions from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in, and whether or not he/she/they see the synagogue approaching them from trying to give them something they need, or the synagogue approaching them to give the synagogue something it needs. The distinction is subtle, yet essential, and if under-engaged and under-affiliated Jews feel that our efforts for outreach are solely motivated by a desire to replenish membership rolls and operating budgets, then our efforts will result in well-deserved failure.
Instead, Megillat Ruth and Shavuot encourage us to remember that great things happen when we start from the premise of giving for the sake of giving. Adam Grant provides scientific evidence for this stance in his masterful book Give and Take. He writes:
“…givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people. If you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs. If you’re a giver, you might use a different cost-benefit analysis: you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs” (Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, 5).
Synagogues will thrive by the extent to which Jews feel that the community offers them something for no other reason than a Jew deserves it. The more we take the stance that giving is something to be done for its own sake, the more we create communities that exist for everybody’s sake. May it happen soon, and speedily, in our days.