The following words were delivered over Shabbat, 11/4 Parashat VaYera. They have been lightly edited for the written word. I write these words as I prepare to embark to Israel to support our brothers and sisters, to do what little I can.
In recent years, I have felt dread opening the newspaper. One horrifying story after the next. Stories of hatred, falsity, corruption, oppression and violence. Endless litanies.
I call this cascading cycles of wickedness.
Our soul can become battered and reduced. It is literally draining to read the paper. It is as if the world is devoid of truth, or kindness, and justice. Even those parading in the streets in the name of ‘justice’, can barely conceal their hateful intentions.
The recent events in Israel wound all of us, in at least three ways. First, it impacts the thousands of people whose lives have been overturned. Secondly, it has struck at the body of Israel, as we face the idea that there are those who would rather not see us in the world at all. We all know what Free Palestine from the river to the sea really means. I am not telling you something you don’t already know.
However, I want to share with you a more hidden and subtle change which is happening, a change on the spiritual level of the soul. We are encountering an insidious attempt to destroy not simply individual Jews, or the collective Jewish body, but the Jewish spirit. Our Neshama (soul), which we say every day in the prayers are tehora (pure), are battered and bruised. Our hearts still beat but are bleeding.
So, what is the Jewish soul that is pure? What do we stand for? Why are Jews even in this world in the first place?
Let us as Jews be absolutely clear.
- Jews are not about power as an end. Although exercise power we must, we are not defined by power- no matter who says otherwise- Jew and gentile alike.
- We are not any more tribal than any other people, although we are a tribe among the tribes of nations.
- We are not about cultural contributions, political contributions, literary contributions, scientific contributions or any other contributions which have changed the world- although our small people make disproportionate contributions to the world.
We are defined by the simple gestures of our first ancestor, Abraham. Abraham is known overall for one thing- which defines him and us. We are rachmanim bnei rachmanim– kind and merciful people. Abraham must do battle, must even free hostages, but he is not remembered for this. He is remembered as the model of the ba’al chesed, the master of kindness. He is remembered even for trying to reduce the suffering of the evil people of Sodom. Why? Abraham cannot bear the suffering of the innocent and like God, his heart is open to the vulnerable. At the same time, Abraham does not argue that God relent, but rather be wise as to how to execute justice; kindness without accountability is a recipe for evil to prevail. This Abraham represents a person with a moral complexity so lacking in some so-called contemporary intellectual circles, parading (and marching) under pseudo-idealistic banners, concealing their shocking moral bankruptcy.
We need to really remember who we are as Jews. This is who we really are: we celebrate an old man sitting outside his tent, welcoming people inside. This is who we have always been. People seeking to be kind! We do not celebrate suffering, or violence, or death.
So, what is kindness about, is it just about being a nice guy? Our society seems to spend a lot of time investigating evil and corruption, but little time considering what it means to be a society rooted in kindness. Abraham did. Abraham was not just a person engaged in disconnected nice acts, but trying to build a society that at its core placed kindness in the center
Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) teaches the world stands on three principles:
- On Torah– our relationship with our heritage and our people.
- On Avodah– our relationship with God.
- And on Gemilut Chasadim– translated as ‘acts of kindness’.
The rabbis give paradigmatic examples: welcoming the stranger, burying the dead, rejoicing in a bride and groom, comforting the bereaved, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick. All of these things are small gestures but are of infinite significance. The world stands on the millions of daily acts of kindness, and we can tend to forget this in a time defined by division and self-interest.
However, here is my question. We all know the riddle if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound. How about this question? If one does a kind act, and there is no one who recognizes the act as a kind act, is that a kind act?
The world does not simply stand on kindness. The Mishnah should have said chesed (kindness). What is gemilut chasadim? L’gmol means to reward, to provide benefit or a good to another. What is the difference between kindness, and ‘rewarding with kindness’? It is a kindness that is seen and experienced as kindness! When one receives kindness and recognizes it, they are more likely to act kindly in return, and not simply to the one acting kindly. In other words, gemilut chasadim has to do with as much the recipient as the giver. Gemilut Chasadim is the foundation of reciprocal kindness; one act begets another, which in turn begets another.
A simple story illustrates this. Recently, my father was in a fender bender with a fellow Jew. A car near him backed out and scratched his car. The driver was remorseful for the offense, and they exchanged numbers. My father went to his dealership, showing them the scratch. To fix this was going to be a substantial amount of money. He weighed the small amount of damage to his car versus the substantial fee the offender would need to pay.
At that moment, he remembered how mortified the woman was, and how worried she was of what the repair might cost. He called her and said, “It was an honest accident. Do not worry about it.”
For the next two months, this woman would call my father incessantly, saying she wanted to bring a gift. No gift was needed, was his reply. But she insisted. Insisted. She felt he had been so kind. Indeed, perhaps no one in her life extended kindness, so even this small act was experienced in a way my father did not realize.
My father finally relented and agreed to accept the gift. She brought a beautiful kiddush cup, attached to a card thanking him for his kindness.
I think we can all agree that such a story could happen to any of us. Nonetheless, I have noticed that my father has been using that kiddush cup on Friday nights. He has nicer cups, and cups that have nostalgic meaning to him. Why this cup? Perhaps because the story reminded him of the importance of small gestures, gestures of kindness which define our world. I would also argue that unconsciously, by using that cup, he honors her. No. He did not need the cup, but she needed to express kindness, and my father allowed her to express that. One act of kindness begets another.
Social psychologists call this the notion of reciprocity. If you do something good for me, it is a social norm to do something good back. From a religious standpoint, this is the idea that societies need to be built on the free exchange of kindness. This creates the stability of society. This is what Abraham models at the beginning of the parashah.
וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם
וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רׇץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה
And God appeared to him [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three figures standing near him. Perceiving this, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and bowed to the ground (Gen. 18:1-2)
Our rabbis see the statement is strange. When God appears it generally follows that God has a role to play. Here God does not say or do anything. Why is God there at all?! Rashi, quoting a midrash, provides an answer. In the section immediately preceding this event, God had commanded Abraham to circumcise himself. Abraham was ailing, in pain, it was the third day. God came to visit Abraham. God becomes the model of bikkur cholim, visiting those who are ill.
Yes. The ruler of the universe came from on high to this old man just to sit with him, to make sure Abraham feels seen in his suffering. Curiously, the three people that follow. who we later realize are angels, come after God does. God does not stand on honor; God does not command the angels to announce the presence of the King. Rather, God comes down to Abraham’s level, providing him an accompanying presence.
In Jewish tradition, God visits the sick. For this reason, you do not stand when visiting a person who is sick but sit next to them. Why? Because if you stand, you are standing above the Divine presence that is dwelling with the sick person.
However, where is Abraham during this unexpected visit? V’hoo yashav petach ha’ohel. He is sitting at the opening of the tent in the heat of the day. Why? A person who is ill should be sitting inside the tent, not outside. Again, our tradition provides a remarkable answer. He is looking for those on the road, without a place to stay, so he can invite them in. Hachasat Orchim. Another paradigmatic act of chesed, or kindness.
Here is a person suffering and in pain. Many people might feel sorry for themselves, and retreat into their own world. Not Abraham. Perhaps the very fact he suffers and is vulnerable allows him to see the suffering of others. In other words, his kindness comes directly from his affliction. In his illness, he is displaced from normal life, uprooted as it were, and therefore relates to the feelings of others.
We often think that God is the initiator of the act of kindness here. Indeed, God visits the patient. However, one may also see this encounter the other way around. Abraham, the faithful servant, follows God’s command. In his suffering, he awakens to the vulnerability of others and opens his home to God’s creatures. Abraham opens his heart to others who are uprooted! He is sitting out there in the heat of day, waiting to welcome strangers.
Our rabbis teach to honor another human being is like honoring the face of God. Hachasat orchim kadmah l’pnei hashechina. Each of us are in the image of God. Thus, by extension, Abraham waiting for the stranger is really honoring God as well. Seen this way, God personally reciprocates Abraham’s kindness. It is gemilut chasadim. God is spurred to reciprocate when Abraham initiates an act of kindness.
Interestingly at that very moment. Abraham then invites these three people into his house. The two verses repeat the root r-a-h, ‘to see’ three times followed by the word varatz, (to run), which phonetically sounds like the word Va-Y’ar, to see. God appears (Va-Yera) to Abraham. Abraham feels seen. God sees he suffers. It is at this moment he ‘lifts his eyes’ and ‘sees’ the strangers. The root is repeated again, as if to say once you see them you cannot take your eyes away, and immediately Abraham runs to tend to their needs. These strangers need to be seen as well. Abraham learns from God. One act of kindness generates another
Abraham feeds these people, not knowing yet they are angels. He offers them drink and a place to rest. He even washes their feet, calling them ‘my master’. Suddenly, these strangers are no longer strangers but masters of the house! Abraham becomes a servant in his own house, signaling to them. Like God, Abraham does not put on airs. The way Abraham acts mimics the very things God did for him!
Reciprocal acts of Kindness. This is the story of God and the first Jew.
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook says we open the seder night with the recitation of Ha Lachma Anya– this is the poor man’s bread we ate in the land of Egypt. Rav Kook states that before we can tell the story of the Exodus we must begin by reminding ourselves why we were redeemed. The sin qua non of the Jewish people is gemilut chasadim, which are embodied in acts of hospitality. On the seder night we emulate Abraham’s act of inviting people to share whatever we have. “Anyone hungry come and eat”
How different the world of Sodom, which God utterly destroys. They kill people who exhibit this form of kindness, despite the wealth they had. (Consider the story of Lot when he tries to invite people to his home!) In the ancient history, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus comments, “About this time the Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God, insomuch that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers.” The Sodomites have gifts but do not recognize them. They therefore do not practice gemilut chasadim. They are the foil to Abraham.
What is our spiritual response to Sodom? One act of kindness begets another which begets another. Cascading cycles of kindness flowing throughout the world.
The Jewish people have been experiencing the darkest of times. We have been forced to pick up the sword, as compassion does not require us to immolate ourselves, despite the fact that that is precisely what some believe we should do. Perhaps we look at the mirror during this bloody war and forget who we really are. We should not.
Jews have always been at the forefront of kindness and speaking out for the vulnerable, even when we need to take up the sword. During these moments- especially at these moments- we need to remember who we really are. In fact, since October 7 the Jewish people are also experiencing a great awakening. With all the doubt and uncertainty, some things have become perfectly clear. Our people have come together in mutual suffering and responded with mutual care and kindness. After years of strife, we are saying to one another, “We see you” and we are “running” to do everything we can. After a time of division, we are carrying each other’s emotional burdens, providing acts of support and caring.
Just one story of thousand. Last week I saw a video which gave me hope. A group of Vishnitz Chasidim traveled to an IDF base. I do not believe these people ever said the blessing for the State of Israel, much less enter a base. They wore streimels, had long payyes, and knickers with white socks and black shoes. They brought Jewish music and danced with the soldiers, hugging them and telling them they are loved.
Does this act solve the deep divisions of our people. No. But why did they go? These chasadim realized that their brethren were putting their lives on the line. They recognized the sacrifices they were making for them! They gave back in the way they knew how, by providing spiritual strength and encouragement. In their dancing they said to the soldiers we see you; we are with you, we give you joy and strength. In that moment, perhaps hearts moved and changed. Multiply these acts by the thousands and the millions, society changes.
We say that evil can spread like a disease, but kindness is also infectious. Reciprocal kindness points to our deeper understanding that we depend upon one another. This is the teaching of Abraham- gemilut chasadim.
Societies rooted in kindness are societies that have the capacity to prevail during the darkest of times. We will prevail, and not simply because the IDF will prevail.
We will prevail because of our values, of who we are. Our bonds to one another, forged over thousands of years of mutual concern, have created the conditions necessary for our survival throughout the ages. No matter how scattered we have been, or what we have faced, our sense of love for one another has created the bonds which have been the key to our survival.
We prevailed then, and we will prevail now.
Abraham started the revolution of kindness. We continue the tradition. I ask each of you to increase light, and kindness to all those around you. Whatever you do, do more. Listen less to the press and more to our neshamot.
Our collective Neshama– our Jewish soul defined in chesed will strengthen us during these dark times, hopefully moving us to a better future for us and the world.