(Note: The above saying has been posted on the wall of my office for the past three years. Some days I need a reminder.)
My wife is one of the kindest people I know. Kindness is certainly one of the many sterling attributes that attracted me to her in the first place.
Take today, for instance. On the way to doing one kindness (running to the store to buy snacks for my employees because I texted her that they were out of candy bars), my wife noticed a woman trudging down the sidewalk carrying a bag full of groceries in one hand and a gallon of juice in the other. The temperature? 113 degrees Fahrenheit.
No, we don’t live in the Sahara or on the planet Mercury, but here in the American desert southwest, it’s just your typical August day.
A few minutes later, on her way back from dropping off the goodies, my wife saw the woman still struggling along. She stopped and asked if she needed a ride.
“Which way are you going?” the woman asked.
“I’ll take you wherever you need to go,” replied my wife.
The grateful woman hopped in our air conditioned SUV, dragging her groceries with her and explaining that she lived clear at the other end of town. My wife was incredulous that this poor soul would even attempt to trek that far in the extreme heat, weighed down as she was.
They reached the top of the woman’s street, and she told my wife she could let her off there. “No,” my wife said, “It’s too hot. Let me take you all the way to your house.” Over her objections about what the trip up the road and back would do to our vehicle’s suspension and tires, my wife jounced along the rutted, unpaved path to the woman’s humble abode.
This type of behavior is not at all unusual for my fair bride. Not too long ago, she learned that a homeless dude who was hanging around by the supermarket needed towels and soap. You can guess what she did. That’s just the way she is. Isn’t she wonderful?
Back in college, I remember reading about different levels of altruism, with the highest being the situation in which neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other. Anonymous charity. Something about that seems cold and sterile. The subtext seems to be that there is something wrong with taking pleasure from seeing the needs of another satisfied with your own eyes. Oh, but the recipient of your kindness might be embarrassed. Um, would it be better for the guy not to be embarrassed and go without towels and soap or the woman not to be embarrassed and lug her food miles in the searing heat?
I like to think of three types of kindness: Kindness to loved ones, kindness to fill the need of a stranger, and my favorite of all, random acts of kindness. A few years ago, I read that the phrase “random acts of kindness and senseless beauty” was coined as a foil to the ultimate in ugly, random acts of violence.
Allow me to make a suggestion. If you are feeling down one day, try committing a random act of kindness to pick up your spirits. If you are filling your car with gas, also pay for the gas of the stranger who pulls up at the next pump. If you are getting lunch at a fast food drive-through, pay for the person behind you and then quickly drive off. It really is quite a kick, I must tell you. And if you happen to catch the beneficiary’s look of shock and amazement in your rear view mirror, so much the better.
By the way, if you should happen to be tagged as the recipient of a random act of kindness yourself, don’t forget to pay it forward. If you don’t know what that means, go now, immediately, and download the Kevin Spacey/Helen Hunt (and Haley Joel Osment) movie of that title.
One of my favorite blogs in our WordPress world is The Gratitudenist, on which Julie Richie (wonderful writer that she is) recently waxed poetic about the importance of kindness in a post titled “How to Make the World Better.” As she points out, it’s not about money. It’s about making connections, about really listening and paying attention to people, about making others feel that they are not alone in the world, about being a friend.
Julie’s post led me to the commencement speech that George Saunders recently gave at the Syracuse University commencement, soon to be published as a book. He argues that we tend to be strivers, go-getters and accumulators when we are young, and that we mellow out and become less selfish and more other-centric as we grow older. Saunders suggests that we simply ratchet the timeline backward a bit, beginning our career of kindness earlier in life since we are just going to graduate to it eventually anyway. As Julie points out in her blog, kindness is indeed the way to make the world a better place.
The many varieties of kindness available to us struck me hard when I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Parshah Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 through 25:19. This lengthy section is packed so full of kindness, it could easily be the subject of an entire book. I was amazed to discover that seventy-four of the Torah’s 613 commandments are contained in this one section that is read on the Sabbath this week.
When you really think about it, why shouldn’t God require us to be kind when you consider how kind He is to us every minute of every day? Note that we aren’t asked to be kind. Kindness is not a preference or an option. God commands us to be kind. The following is just a partial list of the kindnesses that God requires of us in this week’s Torah portion. The general theme is kindness to those less fortunate than us: The poor, the employee, even animals.
While some of these “kindness rules” may not seem to be particularly applicable to our busy, modern lives (who keeps slaves or takes prisoners of war anymore?), peeling away the layers of meaning reveals a kernel of pure kindness that is both universal and timeless.
- Kindness to prisoners of war. For millennia, savage tribes would treat women as spoils of war, summarily committing rape and other violent atrocities against them. God recognizes the frailty of human nature and says: Don’t act like this! Instead, be kind. If you really must take a captured woman for your wife, at least give her the decency of 30 days to grieve over the family she has lost, provide her with new clothes, and take her in as a full member of your family, entitled to all the benefits thereof.
- Kindness to the slave. If you come across a slave who has run away from his master, do not return him to the cruelty from which he has escaped. “He shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not wrong him.” Deut. 23:17 If you really must have a slave, be kind! Provide him or her with all the benefits and comforts that you yourself enjoy.
- Kindness to the employee. When you hire employees to harvest your field or your vineyard or orchard, do not refuse them the right to pick a vegetable or fruit and eat it while they are working. This applies even if your “employee” is a draft animal; do not muzzle the ox to prevent it from grazing while it is doing your work in the field. Pay your day laborer at the end of the day. He expects his wages and you have no right to delay them. Oh, and by the way, treat your employees with the same kindness that you would expect. “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates.” Deut. 24:14
- Kindness to the buyer. When you are the seller, you have superior power in that you know how much items really weigh. Do not cheat the buyer who does not know any better by using false weights and measures to unjustly enrich yourself.
- Kindness to the poor. When you reap a field or harvest the fruit of your trees, do not go over the field or the trees twice. Any leftovers are for the poor to come and help themselves. And if you accidentally leave a sheaf in the field, do not go back and retrieve it. It, too, is for the needy. Share the wealth!
- Kindness to the debtor. If you lend money to one in need, do not extract interest. It is bad enough that he in financial straits; do not make it worst by making it difficult or impossible for him to pay back his debt. (This is the sin of usury, without which much of modern business would not be possible. But then again, kindness never does have much of a place in the world of finance, now does it?) If you take a poor man’s coat or blanket as collateral, you must return it to him by sundown so he does not fall ill or freeze to death for lack of a proper covering. If a debtor does not repay his loan and you go to his house to reclaim his security, do not shame him by going into his house and seizing it; instead, wait for him to bring the item out to you.
- Kindness to (the belongings of) others. I love this “lost and found” provision! If you find your neighbor’s garment or any lost thing of his, you must return it if the owner is known or take care of it until the unknown owner comes looking for it.
- Kindness to animals. Do not ignore an animal who has wandered off or who is found sick by the side of the road. “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fallen down by the way, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again.” Deut. 22:4 If an animal has wandered off, you shall return it to its owner. If you do not know who the owner is, you shall take it home and care for it until the owner comes to claim it. Respect parenthood, even among animals. If you must take eggs or baby birds from a nest, chase away the mother bird first.
Although the theme of kindness appears throughout the Old Testament and is continued into the New Testament, I have long been disappointed by Christians (and, alas, many of my fellow Jews) who dismiss the kindness rules of Deuteronomy as no longer being applicable in modern times or as not applying to those who are “under grace” rather than “under the law.” In my humble opinion, they are missing the boat.
Wishing a good and sweet Sabbath to all!
For more information on this week’s Torah portion, click here.