Yom Kippur Morning 5780
If you have heard my sermons this High Holy Day season, and you heard my sermons the last High Holy Day season, you may have noticed a pattern: my sermons have all been on kindness. Last year, I spoke on kindness to the earth, to strangers, to intimates, and to oneself. This year, rather than focus on the relationship, I have spoken on our internal and external modes of communication – kindness in thought, in word, and in action.
I sermonize four times each High Holy Day season. Why have I sermonized only on kindness for two High Holy Days in a row?
I am deeply concerned by the lack of kindness in our world. Civility appears to be a thing of the past. Nasty thoughts have taken over our minds. We ignore each other, or worse, taunt or bully or harass. Can we talk to one another – or do we mostly scream or shut each other out?
What would it take to really see or listen to each other? To not only notice another person, but to hear what the other is saying without judging or accusing? To open our hearts? To try to understand? To not presume? To admit there may be another perspective? To acknowledge that our information may be incomplete? To be mindful, thoughtful, even reflective? We don’t have to agree, but can’t we be kind?
In my three other sermons these High Holy Days, I spoke about dan l’kaf zechut, the obligation to give someone the benefit of the doubt – or kindness in thought; likvod habriyot, to recognize the dignity of every person – or kindness in word; and gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. Our Jewish tradition is filled with stories and teaching about kindness. It’s not new, nor is it alien to us.
One of our morning prayers, Eilu D’varim, comes directly from the Talmud. It reminds us that ten different actions we undertake “are the things the fruit of which a person enjoys in this world, while the principle remains for the world to come:” They are:
1. honoring one’s parent(s),
2. engaging in deeds of loving kindness,
3. arriving early for study, both morning and evening,
4. providing hospitality to guests,
5. visiting the sick,
6. rejoicing with a wedding couple,
7. accompanying the dead (for burial),
8. being devoted in prayer,
9. making peace between two people, and
10. studying Torah, which is equal to them all.
Most of the ten reflect kind deeds, as we relate to parents, guests, the ill, marital partners, the recently deceased, and two quarreling people. Let’s focus on that last one – two quarreling people. Even back 1500 years ago, the approximate time from which the Talmud dates, our rabbis were concerned with bringing peace to a situation in which two people are disagreeing. That they said little more about this leads me to believe that they understood the toxicity that can result from ongoing unkindness.
I recently put the word “kindness” into a Google search bar. The top five results were:
I first noticed how many organizations exist today that try to make our world a kinder place. I second noticed that they were all .org; none are looking to make money in spreading their message of kindness. And I third noticed how similar their goals are.
• kindness.org maintains a platform designed to inspire real life acts of kindness.
• randomactsofkindness.org offers daily ideas of ways we can be kind. It also provides a group-based activity that can be used to celebrate kindness each month as a team, a small collective, or an entire workplace.
• kindness-matters.org is a global campaign designed to improve the way all people interact with each other. “Do a kind act today,” is its motto. It honors the memory of Peyton James, a 13- year old who took his life after years of being bullied.
• kindspring.org is a place to practice small acts of kindness. For over a decade, the kindspring community has focused on inner transformation, while collectively changing the world with generosity, gratitude, and trust.
• spreadkindness.org is dedicated to encouraging and empowering people to practice kindness in their everyday lives by providing individuals and groups with tools, ideas, projects, and events to help make the world a kinder place.
Let’s delve a bit deeper into the first organization, kindness.org. Its website begins with these words: “Right now, the world is experiencing a kindness deficit. We’re on a mission to change that.” Then they offer four options:
1. Choose kindness today: “Every kind act matters,” they remind us. What impact will you have?
2. Learn kind, an Inquiry-Based Learning framework for bringing kindness and social-emotional education to classrooms based on each student’s experience, personality, home life, and unique educational needs.
3. Kind lab, which uses research in genetics, neuroscience, psychology, economics, and anthropology to answer questions: What are the costs and benefits of being kind? What kind acts are most impactful? How does kindness contribute to a happy and fulfilling life?
4. Work kind, which asserts that 72% of employees think it’s important for an employer to recognize kind acts in the workplace, and offers proven benefits for businesses.
After these four suggestions, kindness.org provides links to school lesson plans, kindness stories, kindness ideas, kindness videos, kindness posters, a kindness to blog to read or post to, and information on the science of kindness.
12kindsofkindness.com has a completely different approach. Its founders write:
Kindness is one thing we all have the ability to share. It’s free, it feels great, and it’s within our control. So, why is it so difficult to be kind at times? How can we become less judgmental of others and ourselves? We tend to only see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and surround ourselves with people who share our own experiences and tastes. Countless [resources] have tried to help us become kinder people, but how often do we really put that advice into practice?
They continue: Two self-centered New Yorkers, often focused on what’s ahead instead of what’s around them, created a series of 12 steps as a way to become kinder, more empathetic people. As a resolution, they practiced this for 12 months.
Their 12 steps are:
1. Can I help you? Direct that question especially to strangers.
2. Open you eyes. No longer be a bystander.
3. Switch it up. Imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who annoys you.
4. Don’t beat yourself up. Forgive yourself for past errors.
5. Forgive and forget. Let go of pain and misunderstanding.
6. Face yourself. Confront your fears and insecurities head on.
7. Kill them with kindness. Do something nice for those with whom you don’t get along.
8. Walk a mile in their shoes. Participate in the lifestyle of some¬one you don’t understand.
9. Go big or go home. Do something nice for someone important in your life who you often neglect.
10. Pay it forward. Leave money in public places with note asking the finder to do something kind with it.
11. Wear a smile. Spend a day smiling at every person you meet.
12. Dive deep. Start a dialogue about what you have experienced and learned through steps one through eleven.
What kind of a world do we live in where we need website after website to remind us of our need to be kind and then to teach us how? Where did we lose our way? I know that many of you are conjuring up an answer in your head that is of a political nature, perhaps blaming the current occupant of the White House. But I would suggest that the absence of kindness and civility dates from much earlier than 2015 or 2016. Rather, I would offer that it stems from several realities:
• Keeping to ourselves
• The rapid rise of social media
• Online anonymity
• Fearing those who are different
• The failure to remember from where we came
• Economic uncertainty
• Economic prosperity
• Sensationalism of news
Zachor is the Hebrew word for remembering. Later this afternoon, we will hold a Yizkor service, which shares the root of zachor, in order to remember our loved ones who have died. But zachor is more than just about remembering people. It’s about remembering words and deeds, too.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom writes, that: “Acts of kindness … linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.”
My colleague Rabbi Mark Kaiserman asked his Facebook friends to share with him acts of kindness from the past, that is, as Rabbi Sacks states, that “linger in the memory.”
I share a few with you.
Four years ago, my car was stolen. It was my only way to get my daughter to school, groceries, anything. It felt like my legs had been cut off. Within a week, one person lent me her car, another started a gofundme, and after three weeks, I was gifted a car. I’ve never felt so much love! As a bonus, my stolen car was found, beaten up but drivable. I gave it to someone else who had no car, and kept the kindness going!
After a terrifying night in children’s hospital with one of my kids, I was exhausted and needed coffee, but dare not leave the room. Suddenly, a volunteer arrived with a coffee trolley. I tried to say “thank-you” when she handed me the coffee, but I had gotten too tearful. She touched my arm and said so kindly, “Let us take care of you so you can take care of your baby.” I will never forget that moment of kindness.
I was at college during my 21st birthday. It’s a really big one and my best friend was very concerned it would be difficult for me because my mother had died two years earlier. She called all my friends to make sure they would call me with best wishes. She also put up signs all over the dorm telling people to be quiet so I could sleep in. I was so touched by her love, concern, and kindness, and think of it often. Twenty-eight years later she’s still my best friend.
About ten years ago, when my husband was in the early stages of dementia, I felt I could leave him at home while I went to work, as long as I checked in by phone a couple of times a day. One day, I came home to find a note on my door from a neighbor who had recently moved in and whom I didn’t know, telling me that my husband was in her apartment. I found him drinking soda and chatting happily with a woman who was showing him her family scrapbooks. She explained that my husband had come to her door apparently confused, looking for our apartment. She invited him in, managed to find out where he lived, and left me the note. I thanked her for being so kind – especially when she could have been afraid or annoyed. She explained that her father, in the last years of his life, had Alzheimer’s, and she knew how difficult it could be.
The author Alissa Altman writes, “Life … [is] hard enough. Be in beauty; be with the people you love, who love you back, and who require little more than kindness.”
I close with the poem Small Kindnesses by Danusha Lemeris:
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of … chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead – you first,” “I like your hat.”
May 5780 be a year of kindness.