Kol Nidrei 5780 – Kindness in Action
In 1917, America had finally entered World War I. Troops poured into Europe to put an end to the war, which was in its final stages. Americans were dispatched through out Germany.
A lone Jewish soldier from Duluth, Minnesota, Alex Lurye, found himself in a small German town. It was Friday night. Being far away from home, he was lonely. The young Jewish soldier had some time on his hands. He decided to see what the local Jewish population was like. Entering the local village synagogue must have created a stir. An American soldier in uniform! The Americans fought the Germans in bitter combat. The lone soldier felt awkward. But a kind man named Herr Rosenau greeted him and made him feel welcome.
After services, Herr Rosenau invited the serviceman to his house for kiddush and a Friday night meal.
The warmth and kindness of this German-Jewish family made a deep impression on this young soldier. He was a stranger, a foreigner, even an enemy. Yet, he was invited to another Jew’s home and given a delicious home cooked meal. Herr Rosenau’s family gave the soldier the feeling that he was not alone, and certainly not an enemy, even in such a far and distant land.
The soldier was never able to come back again to see this kind family again. But the warmth and care he felt did not leave him. When he returned home to Duluth, he wrote a letter to Herr Rosenau. For some unknown reason, although Herr Rosenau received the letter, he never answered it. Instead, he placed it in a desk drawer where it rested for twenty-one years.
In 1938, Herr Rosenau’s daughter, Ruth, has grown up and is now married to a fellow German Jew named Eugene Wienberg.
They have three children, the oldest a boy of 11 named Sigbert. Herr Rosenau is worried about the dark and dismal future for the Jews in Germany. Sigbert, rummaging through his grandfather’s desk, sees something of interest. A foreign postage stamp catches his eye. He pulls out the envelope with the postage stamp from America and asks, “Grandfather, may I have this?”
“Yes, take it,” the grandfather replies. He takes it home to his mother. “Look, look what grandfather has given me!” His parents eye the envelope with curiosity. The letter is still inside. They remove the letter and read it. It is the thank you note from the American soldier, from twenty-one years earlier.
Ruth remembers the young man. “Let’s write to him,” she suggests. “Maybe he will remember us and sponsor us, letting us immigrate to America.” Looking on the envelope, they saw no return address, only the name, Alex Lurye, and the city and state, Duluth, Minnesota.
So they wrote a letter, addressed to Alex Lurye, Duluth, MN. They knew that they had only a remote chance of the former serviceman, Alex Lurye, receiving their letter. But what they did not know was that Alex Luyre had become a wealthy businessman who was well-known in Duluth, a city of close to hundred thousand people. The post office delivered the letter.
After Alex read the letter, he wrote back, promising to help bring the Wienberg family to Duluth. They arrived in May of 1938. Shortly there after, Alex brought the Rosenau family over.
The kindness that Herr Rosenau and his family had given to a stranger twenty-one years earlier had come full circle. His entire family was saved.
In Hebrew, acts of kindness are referred to as g’milut chasadim, or acts of chesed. Many examples of acts of kindness are found in the Torah. For one, our patriarch Abraham is visited by three strangers while recovering from his own circumcision at the age of 99. Abraham warmly greets them, welcomes them into his tent, and cooks for them; he becomes the model of hachnasat orchim, hospitality. Later, Abraham sends out his most trusted servant, Eliezar, to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Eliezar meets Rebecca at a well. She offers to provide water for Eliezar and for the many camels he has brought along on his journey. Rebecca becomes the model of general kindness.
When I was a child, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and decided that I was going to become a lawyer, just like the kind Atticus Finch, the hero of the story. I would defend the rights of minorities, the poor, those wrongly accused, and all others who struggled in our society. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – “justice, justice you shall pursue” – a passage in Torah provided my guidepost.
Tzedek provides the root for the word tzedakah, which we refer to as charity. It really means providing monetary support for a just reason or to result in a just outcome. My colleague, Rabbi Tracy Klirs, offers this comparison of g’milut chasadim and tzedakah.
“What unites the different actions which are classified as g’milut chasadim is that, taken together, they create the warp and woof of a living, self-sufficient community which is organized to provide the benefits of community to all its inhabitants, especially during their times of greatest need. While, frequently, the kinds of actions encompassed by g’milut chasadim, may overlap acts of tzedakah – the Rabbis considered g’milut chasadim to be greater than tzedakah. The reason for this is that tzedakah benefits only the poor and the living, while gemilut chasadim benefits both rich and poor, living and dead.
“Our tradition has placed such an enormous emphasis on g’milut chasadim because of our profound understanding of the importance of community and the essential elements required to create community. At some time in every single person’s life, regardless of whether we are rich or poor, powerful or lowly, we will find ourselves in need of receiving g’milut chasadim from others. And the only way that a system dependent on g’milut chasadim can work is if everyone in the community performs kind acts whenever they are able, so that when the time comes – and it will definitely come for each of us – that we need to make a withdrawal from the communal bank, there will be the goodwill in our account from which to draw.”
A story making the round on Facebook goes like this:
I work in a decent sized, local, independent bookstore. It’s a great job with a lot of pretty neat customers. Recently, in the middle of the day, a little old lady came in. She effused how much she loved the store and how she wished she could spend more time in it, but that her husband was waiting in the car. She told me how she loved my bangs. And she put some art supplies on the counter.
Then a college student, who’d been up my counter a few times to gather his school textbooks, came up behind her. She turned to him and, out of nowhere, demanded that he put his textbooks on the counter. He was confused but she explained that she was going to buy his textbooks.He turned sheetrock white. He refused and said that she couldn’t do this, as he was holding like $400 worth of textbooks. So, she boldly took them out of his hands, and threw them on the counter. She told me to put them on her bill. The student was practically in tears. He was confused and shocked and grateful. Then she turned to him and said “you need chocolate.” She grabbed handfuls of chocolates and put them in her pile.
He asked her “Why are you doing this?” She ignored him and instead asked, “Do you like Harry Potter?” Not even waiting for an answer, she threw a copy of the new book on the counter.
She finished and I rang her up for a crazy amount of money. She paid and asked me to please give the student a few bags for his items. The student hugged her. We told her how amazing she was and what an awesome thing she did. She turned to both of us and said one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard:“It’s important to be kind. You can’t know all the times that you’ve hurt people in tiny, significant ways. It’s easy to be cruel without meaning to be. There’s nothing you can do about that. But you can choose to be kind. So be kind.”
The college kid thanked her again and left. I told her again how awesome she was. She was staring out the door after him and said to me: “My son is a homeless meth addict. I don’t know what I did. I see that boy and I see the man my son could have been if someone had chosen to be kind to him at just the right time.
I bagged up her art supplies. I felt awkward and like I should say something but I didn’t know what. Then she turned to me and said: “I wish I could have bangs like yours, but my hair is too darn curly.” And then she left. She is the best customer I’ve ever had. And she taught me – be kind to somebody today.”
Yes. Be kind to someone today.
Another of my colleagues, Rabbi Barbara Block, reminds us about society’s emphasis on “random acts of kindness.” She says, “I am glad that we learn of people who do heroic acts in difficult circumstances. They inspire us to extend ourselves for others. And yet, if we think of kindness only in this way, we miss something very important.
Kindness of the everyday, unheroic variety is often unsung. But ordinary kindness is even more important than heroic acts. The kindness of a parent, patiently answering questions over and over, and taking the time to teach a child how to play with others, rarely makes the news. Nor does the kindness of someone who tries always to shop in stores that treat their workers well, or who invests in companies that have fair labor practices. Yet, this kindness makes more of a difference to the world than a one-time extraordinary act.”
Mussar is a Jewish ethical tradition in which its followers study their habits to change them when change is warranted.
Alan Morinis, a modern-day Mussar teacher, says this about chesed, kindness: I once heard Rabbi Abraham Yachnes clarify the extent of the stretch that is necessary to have an action qualify as chesed. He said that if you are walking down the street and someone is walking beside you carrying a large box, and you offer to help the person carry the box, that’s not chesed. You’d simply be a terrible person not to help someone in that situation. What counts as chesed is when you are walking the opposite way from someone carrying a burden and you turn around to help carry that load in the direction he or she is going, delaying your own arrival at your destination. That’s chesed.
Rabbi Simon the Just taught: “The world rests upon three things: Torah, service to God, and bestowing kindness.” Torah teaches us, serving God is about our relationship with the Divine, and chesed, kindness, is about how we act toward one another. All three are necessary. Without any one of them, the triad collapses.
I remember a conversation I once had with a congregant, who informed me as his son was studying to become a bar mitzvah, that in their family, the emphasis was not on God – but rather, on goodness and kindness. “We add an extra ‘O,’” he said.
This is not unlike what Rabbi Simlai teaches in the Talmud: He asserts that the Torah begins with an act of chesed and ends with an act of chesed. Early in Genesis we read, “God made garments for the humans and clothed them.” Late in Deuteronomy we read, “And there God buried Moses.”
Some suggest that Rabbi Simlai is not merely referring to an opening story and a closing one, but instead, that the entire Torah is characterized by chesed. That is, the Torah sets forth a vision of the ideal world in which peoples’ behavior is mostly characterized by kindness and compassion. And yet a third interpretation of Rabbi Simlai’s words suggests that the giving of the Torah itself is the quintessential act of chesed – that God loved the Jewish people so much, that in kindness, God shared God’s own teachings and lessons on how to live, with us.
Probably one of the most recognized, stirring, and difficult to understand prayers of the High Holy Days is the Un’tanah Tokef, the prayer that speaks of who will live and who will die. Rabbi Joseph Meszler of Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA offers this interpretation of that prayer – reminding us of the role of kindness in our lives:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So, if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.
And as we enter the new year of 5780, may that Book be filled with acts of chesed and g’milut chasadim – acts of kindness.
Pirkei Avot 1:2