Healing the world with ‘active kindness’
I like to believe that most people in the greater Jewish community and the world have good intentions in their hearts and would help others if asked. However, I believe that the mindset that Judaism teaches us and advocates for is a mindset that I’d like to refer to as “active kindness”. One should constantly seek out others in need and attempt to help them rather than wait to be asked. Making a commitment to follow this idea, which I believe is clearly emphasized in Jewish texts, would certainly improve our community and the world at large.
One of the most famous phrases in Judaism is that of “Love your neighbor like yourself” which is found in the book of Leviticus (19:18). Subsequent Talmudic statements about this verse and appearances in other texts cement the teaching as one fundamental to Jewish practice. The two possibly most widely known statements from our sages are said by Rabbi Akiva and Hillel, respectively, about this very idea. It was Rabbi Akiva who famously stated, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, that is a great principle in the Torah. (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim, 9:4).” By choosing to emphasize this commandment, Rabbi Akiva teaches that we should base our interpersonal relationships on love and kindness rather than on the degradation of others.
In another prominent Talmudic story, a prospective convert goes around to various sages and asks them to tell him the entire Torah while the convert stands on one foot. After Shammai does not take him seriously and kicks the convert out of his house, he approaches Hillel, who often opposes Shammai. Hillel answers his question compassionately and concisely, and says: “What is hateful to you do not to your neighbor, that is the whole Torah! Now, go on and study (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)”. Hillel inverses the statement of Rabbi Akiva and focuses on the negative aspect of the commandment. Before anything else in Judaism, it is important to ensure we are not acting in a way that counters how we would want people to act toward us. When read in tandem, the statements convey a need for us to prioritize our treatment of others and an active desire to do good before we can tackle other commandments.
These statements are probably the most revered across denominations and other religions alike, but do we practice what we preach?
The world we are currently living in is like an art masterpiece with a few large blemishes. There is the potential for something beautiful but various issues and defects make it uglier than it should be. Wars, famine, and tyranny rage through many countries across the world, and the divisions and tensions between people who disagree, or who have different identities, are quite high, especially within the United States. But it is the issues within our “treasured people” that we are part of, the Jews, that concern me the most. At a time when Jews are increasingly being targeted and attacked by those who hate us, we are unfortunately seeing examples of division and conflict across the Jewish ecosystem. We pride ourselves in having a religion enriched with ethics and morality, and the sanctity of community, yet it is not clear that those principles are being upheld at this moment. Israel, the only Jewish state, has been enveloped in a historic months-long strife, with Jews – including many Rabbis and governmental leaders – attacking fellow Jews over their beliefs. We also have many instances of Jews going after those who practice differently from themselves. There are simultaneously Jews who find themselves in Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox circles, unfairly attacking Charedim(Ultra-Orthodox), and those in Charedei, and Orthodox communities demeaning those who belong to more liberal and open forms of Judaism. Before we can work on external threats, we must be able to improve how we act internally.
We are about to embark on the week-long journey of Passover where we remember our exodus from slavery in Egypt. The mindset of slavery is that of preventing people from being able to freely help others. Upon being freed, we have now been granted the privilege of lending a helping hand as God did for us. Maggid, arguably the most important section of the Haggadah, commences with a message of great importance. “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who is famished should come and eat, anyone who needs should come and partake of the Pesach sacrifice.” Before we arrive at the retelling of the exodus story, praise G-d, or partake in any of the other traditions of the seder night, we proclaim the welcoming nature of our seder and extend an invitation to those who may be needy. We do not wait until being approached by someone hungry midway through the meal, but rather we wish to go out of our way to make them know they are welcome the entire time.
By the time the second night of Passover comes along, we begin the period of Sefirat Ha-omer, the 49 days of counting leading up to the holiday of Shavuot. These 7 weeks is also a period of mourning for the death of 24,000 students of the great Rabbi Akiva. The common reason given for the plague, which wiped out the students in one day, is that they had a lack of respect or baseless hatred for each other. The consequences of hatred and the mistreatment of others are strikingly clear as are the absolute inverse, baseless love, or kindness. It is that opposite which we should be heeding, not waiting for people to do good for us before we do good for them.
Jews tend to take various “chumrot”, or “stringencies”, upon themselves in various areas of Jewish law such as with regards to Kashrut (dietary restrictions), the laws of the Sabbath, and other topics. Yes, being stringent in those areas of Jewish law may be beneficial to one’s religious observance, but one must first be stringent in their observance of looking out for the other.
I also find great meaning in an idea that Rav Avi Weiss states at the beginning of the video of his melody to the words which are part of the Shacharit (morning prayer), “Behold, I hereby take upon myself, the Instruction of the Creator: You shall love your fellow as yourself”. Rav Avi urges us all to be “extremists”, not on the right or the left, but in our love of others. Being an extremist has a negative connotation, but if we force ourselves to be extremist in terms of kindness, then much good will surely arise, even if we make mistakes along the way.
To rephrase the famous JFK quote, it is incumbent upon us to ask “not what others can do for us but what we can do for others”. It is necessary to constantly ask ourselves what we can do for others.
I do not believe that the world consists predominantly of evil people. I am a firm believer that people are born with good intentions. However, evil, like many things in life, is a case of a loud minority. The people who seek to do wrong make it quite known and actively try to go about harming others. Only passively helping others and loving our neighbor will give those trying to do harm an easy victory, but if we actively look for an opportunity to help others we can make incremental, but meaningful, improvements to the world.
The Mitzvot of “Hachnasat Orchim” (welcoming guests) and “Bikur Cholim” (visiting the sick) are two more examples of Judaism’s requirement for us to actively seek kindness. These are both prime examples of mitzvot where one is needed to go out of their way for the betterment of others. In the case of Hachnasat Orchim, an individual invites people over and makes them feel welcome. It requires one to exert effort but is very much fulfilling. The story of Abraham in Bereshit (Genesis, 18: 1-8), is probably the most famous story involving this mitzvah in the Torah. Abraham, despite only being days out from his circumcision, “runs” from his tent when he sees 3 men wandering in the desert and graciously welcomes them and immediately brings them food and water. If Abraham can eagerly welcome people under immense pain, then surely, we can too. The mitzvah of visiting the sick requires us to actively check up on others who may not be well and cheer them up and assist them with what they need. We are not supposed to wait for them to call out to us but rather seek out their needs.
As a big believer in practicing what I believe, I constantly try to uphold the principles I assert in this piece. I often find myself feeling like a bobblehead because my head is on a swivel attempting to see if anyone needs help. At the same time, I concede that I often fall short. It is no easy task to consistently be doing good, but the more we try the more good will be done.
Contrary to the age-old antisemitic trope, we Jews do not control the world. However, we do have the ability, even the responsibility, to impact the Jewish world and make a positive effect on the greater world at large. As we embark on the journey of the Passover seder(s) and subsequent mourning period during the counting of the “omer”, it is crucial to take to heart the lessons of being active in the welcoming and inviting of others, baseless love, and looking out for your fellow neighbor. By committing to be more stringent in the area of seeking to help others and lift those around us, we can maybe, just maybe, dent the cloud of hate and evil which is currently hovering above us.
Have a chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover!