A Siyum on Masechet Kiddushin and Seder Nashim.
In memory of Batsheva bat Pinchas HaChohen, a”h and Rut bat Yosef Eliezer HaCohen, hk”m
We are all familiar with the statement that a little flame can bring light into a dark space. We all know how a gesture or a smile can impact another person. And we all recognize what Yahadus expects of us (Devarim 12:28):
שְׁמֹ֣ר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֗ אֵ֚ת כׇּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֑ךָּ לְמַעַן֩ יִיטַ֨ב לְךָ֜ וּלְבָנֶ֤יךָ אַחֲרֶ֨יךָ֙ עַד־עֹולָ֔ם כִּ֤י תַעֲשֶׂה֙ הַטֹּ֣וב וְהַיָּשָׁ֔ר בְּעֵינֵ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃
“Take care and listen to all these matters that I have commanded you in order that goodness will happen to you and to your children after you until the end of Time, when you do what is good and right in the eyes of HaShem, your God.”
The Sifrei, quoting Rabbi Akiva, comments on the end of this Pasuk – HaTov: BAynay Shamayim – in the eyes of Heaven, and HaYashar: BeAyney Adom – in the eyes of those around you. This focus on doing good informs the Jewish personality. From a young age, we are taught, particularly by example, that good deeds matter. Whether it is placing a coin in a Tzedakah box, helping an elderly person with finding the place in their Siddur, or visiting the sick or the grieving, and in so many other ways, we are a people of giving and doing good.
Enormous communal enterprises of chessed activities, of taking care of those less fortunate than us, of truly caring for those around us, fill us with hope that we, each in our own way, can really make a difference. One of the key messages of Judaism is that we each chart a path for goodness and that that goodness is infectious to those around us. Our acts matter, both to ourselves and to others.
The Gemara in Kiddushin, Daf 40a-b, points out, in as direct a fashion on one might imagine, the beauty of our acts of kindness, in fact, even a single act of kindness. How so?
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: לְעוֹלָם יִרְאֶה אָדָם עַצְמוֹ כְּאִילּוּ חֶצְיוֹ חַיָּיב וְחֶצְיוֹ זַכַּאי. עָשָׂה מִצְוָה אַחַת – אַשְׁרָיו, שֶׁהִכְרִיעַ עַצְמוֹ לְכַף זְכוּת, עָבַר עֲבֵירָה אַחַת – אוֹי לוֹ, שֶׁהִכְרִיעַ אֶת עַצְמוֹ לְכַף חוֹבָה
The Rabbis taught: A person should always look at themselves as if they are equally guilty and equally innocent (of wrongdoing). [What difference does it make seeing yourself in this way?] When one performs a Mitzvah, they are fortunate, for that person is now firmly in the category of a meritorious individual. They have moved the “needle” to the positive. On the other hand, if one acts in a way that is not positive, woe to that person for they have now placed themselves in the category of one who is guilty.
The Gemara continues with a gripping and inspiring expansion of the prior teaching:
רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בְּרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר: לְפִי שֶׁהָעוֹלָם נִידּוֹן אַחַר רוּבּוֹ, וְהַיָּחִיד נִידּוֹן אַחַר רוּבּוֹ, עָשָׂה מִצְוָה אַחַת – אַשְׁרָיו, שֶׁהִכְרִיעַ אֶת עַצְמוֹ וְאֶת כָּל הָעוֹלָם לְכַף זְכוּת, עָבַר עֲבֵירָה אַחַת – אוֹי לוֹ, שֶׁהִכְרִיעַ אֶת עַצְמוֹ וְאֶת כָּל הָעוֹלָם לְכַף חוֹבָה
Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon adds that the entire world is judged according to the majority of good or bad in the same way that the individual is judged. In this more expanded perspective, the performance of a single good deed can not only move our needle to the overall good but that single act moves the needle of the world to the positive as well.
What Rabbi Elazar is telling us is that we have an obligation to see our actions as affecting not only our nearest neighbors but those in ever widening circles around us. One act of goodness continues to shape and mold us as human beings – that act reverberates and spreads much like the ripples in a pond of water when a pebble is dropped in.
Within the context of this Masechet, where Kiddushin defines the nature of the sacred and special bond of a marriage, we can also appreciate the Kedushah that is brought into this world with every good deed and with every good word. The actions that we perform to build community and, in these terrible times, to defend and protect ourselves, bind us together much as the act of Kiddushin merges one human being with another.
What is Kedusha if not a recognition of our desire to connect to that which is the ultimate good, to separate ourselves from Chullin, the mundane and the ordinary, and elevate our everyday existence to an Am Kadosh – to a people who, firmly planted in Olam HaZeh, recognize the challenges and opportunities to repair and perfect the world around us through incessant acts of goodness and love.
Within the corpus of American Country Music, there is a song written by David Frasier, Ed Hill, and Josh Kear called “Most People Are Good”. The song was an attempt by Kear who was desperate to emphasize, in the wake of the polarizing 2016 US election (i.e., Trump vs. Clinton) that, in the grand scheme, there is way more good happening than bad. The song was recorded by country superstar Luke Bryan in 2017. The song then rose to Billboard’s #1 ranking in 2018. Part of the chorus from the lyrics that has continuously resonated with me every time I hear the song is:
I believe this world ain’t half as bad as it looks
I believe most people are good.
How do we react as Jews when times are dark? We find ways to demonstrate small acts of kindness. In the wake of the horrific massacre this October 7, 2023, people have opened their homes to those displaced, have assisted those afflicted with the stress of this terrible trauma, have supported those grieving for those lost and others not yet home, have contributed millions of Dollars and Francs and Shkalim and Euros to support our soldiers, have written letters to soldiers, have lobbied their governments, and the list goes on and on and on.
We are not the people of “Ki Ayn Banu Maasim (a people bereft of good deeds)” – we are a people of goodness, caring, sympathy, and peace. May our study of Kiddushin continue to inform us in our relationships with others and may it resonate with us as we weave through the thicket of our complicated world.
Finally, as the study of Talmud can help us all become better students of Torah (and vice versa), may the final lines of this Masechet ring true for us:
רַבִּי נְהוֹרַאי אוֹמֵר: מַנִּיחַ אֲנִי כׇּל אוּמָּנוּת וְכוּ׳. תַּנְיָא: רַבִּי נְהוֹרַאי אוֹמֵר: מַנִּיחַ אֲנִי כׇּל אוּמָּנוּת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם וְאֵינִי מְלַמֵּד אֶת בְּנִי אֶלָּא תּוֹרָה, שֶׁכׇּל אוּמָּנוּת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם אֵין עוֹמֶדֶת לוֹ אֶלָּא בִּימֵי יַלְדוּתוֹ, אֲבָל בִּימֵי זִקְנוּתוֹ הֲרֵי הוּא מוּטָּל בָּרָעָב. אֲבָל תּוֹרָה אֵינָהּ כֵּן – עוֹמֶדֶת לוֹ לָאָדָם בְּעֵת יַלְדוּתוֹ, וְנוֹתֶנֶת לוֹ אַחֲרִית וְתִקְוָה בְּעֵת זִקְנוּתוֹ. בְּעֵת יַלְדוּתוֹ מַהוּ אוֹמֵר? ״וְקוֹיֵ ה׳ יַחֲלִיפוּ כֹחַ יַעֲלוּ אֵבֶר כַּנְּשָׁרִים״ בְּזִקְנוּתוֹ מַהוּ אוֹמֵר? ״עוֹד יְנוּבוּן בְּשֵׂיבָה דְּשֵׁנִים וְרַעֲנַנִּים יִהְיוּ״.
The Mishna taught that Rabbi Nehorai says: I set aside all the trades and I teach my child only Torah. It is taught in the Tosefta (5:14): Rabbi Nehorai says: I set aside all the trades in the world, and I teach my child only Torah, as all other trades serve one only in the days of one’s youth, when one has enough strength to work, but in the days of one’s old age, behold, one is left to lie in hunger. But Torah is not like this: It serves a person in the time of his youth and provides one with a future and hope in the time of one’s old age. Regarding the time of one’s youth, what does it say about a student of Torah? “But they that wait for HaShem shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). Regarding the time of one’s old age, what does it say? “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age, they shall be full of sap and richness” (Psalms 92:15).