Building the World Through Kindness

Building the World Through Kindness

A reflection from Federation’s Jewish Life & Learning Department


“If you only want to make one New Year’s Resolution, make this one…”

Living in two cultures can be a gift, especially when we can enjoy the best of both worlds. During the fall season of the Jewish New Year, we are introspective and take a very personal view of “returning” to our better selves. During the secular New Year’s season, perhaps we can take a more global view and see how we can “return” to a better society.

I would like to suggest that we focus on the advice that one sage of daytime TV uses to close her program. Ellen DeGeneres signs off daily with, “Be kind to one another!” This phrase resembles a longer quote in Ephesians 4:32 (“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other…”), and is certainly reminiscent of Judaism’s value-set for interpersonal relationships.

The modern Hebrew term for kindness is adivut, but this is mostly used to describe politeness and well-mannered behavior. The biblical term hessed is difficult to translate into English, because it really has no precise equivalent in our language. English versions usually try to represent it with such words as “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “steadfast love,” and sometimes “loyalty,” but the full meaning of the word cannot be conveyed without an explanation. The word is used only in cases where there is some recognized tie between the parties concerned. It is not used indiscriminately in the bible for kindness in general, and would not be used to describe the popular notion of “random acts of kindness.” The word hessed, more than any other word, reflects the attitude which both parties in a relationship ought to maintain towards each other.  So why is this an important distinction? If you find yourself with a “random” opportunity to bring kindness into someone’s life?  Find ways to create a relationship with that person! We are all made in the “image of God,” so we should take the time to recognize this common bond and use it as inspiration for getting to know and honor others through kindness.

The Talmud further establishes this nuanced definition of hessed as one of the core pillars of human behavior (“The world rests upon three things, Torah, avodah (work), and gemilut hasadim (acts of hessed).” Pirkei Avot 1:2). Gemilut signals that these are hessed acts done in the context of a relationship with a built-in notion of benefit or compensation in return for the act. This immediately differentiates Jewish tradition from those that emphasize the selflessness of service.

Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow writes,

“Acts of hessed are the active representation of a covenant among people, a social contract. This is not about simply getting a request in the mail for funds and writing a check, or bringing a can of soup to a box at your JCC or synagogue. It is not even about showing up once a year at the homeless shelter or soup kitchen or writing letters to Congress to effect social policies. Those are truly important, relevant acts, but they fail to engage people in relationships of understanding. It is when we become engaged with real people and communities on the other end of our giving—whether of time or resources— that we realize the covenantal aspect of hessed.”

Here is a practical hint from “Be kind even when you’re cranky. It’s easy to be kind when we’re in a good mood. When we’re struggling, not so much. So next time you feel frustrated, angry or hurt, refrain from speaking or acting immediately. Take a moment. Remember this practice by using an acronym… S-T-O-P.  S for “stop,” T for “take a breath,” O for “observe what’s happening in and around you,” and P for “practice responding rather than reacting.”

Here are a few more ways to act upon your resolution of kindness to others:

  • Sincerely compliment someone each day.
  • Be compassionate for a person’s situation and give them a pass if they seem rude.
  • Hide notes of encouragement in your spouse’s or children’s lunch boxes.
  • At dinner, talk about kindness with your family and friends. Ask, “What kind act did you do today? What kind act did someone do for you?”
  • Forgive someone who has wronged you; ask for forgiveness from someone you may have hurt.
  • Volunteer to be of service but get to know the challenges faced by those you help and help them in a way that preserves their dignity.

Songwriter and social activist Rabbi Menachem Creditor took the phrase “Olam hessed yibaneh” from Psalm 89:3 – usually understood as “Your steadfast love is confirmed forever” –  in a different manner: Olam is not only the word for “eternal,” but also the word for “world,” and so, olam hessed yibaneh can be understood as “We will build the world from loving-kindness.”

As we begin 2019, consider using this lovely meditative chant as a soundtrack for your resolution to do just that.