“We can be kind “We can take care of each other “We can remember that deep down inside “We all need the same things “And maybe we’ll find “If we are there for each other “That together we’ll weather “Whatever tomorrow may bring.”
— “We Can Be Kind” by Nancy LaMott
Sometimes I wish that I had the ability to quote the classic texts of our Jewish Tradition as easily as song lyrics. We all have these “ear worms.” A word comes to mind, and suddenly, the song starts to play.
In Jewish tradition, “gemilut hasadim” is translated as “acts of loving kindness.” It is used to describe everything from the work done by synagogue bikur holim committees (that visit the sick) to service projects designed for high school students to lessons on how to treat a homeless person you pass on the street. The words “gemilut” and “hasadim” actually communicate some very specific ideas as well. Gemilut signals that these are 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 our tradition from those that emphasize the selflessness of service. The Talmud supports this, stating that the reward for service is in this world, not in the world to come. Service can and should be valuable in some way to the person engaged in it.
“Chesed” appears in the Torah to communicate God’s kindness and love toward humanity as well as human kindness and love toward each other. Chesed emerges as one of the essential ways humans engage with God to sustain creation.
The Talmud further establishes chesed as one of the core pillars of human behavior. “The world rests upon three things, Torah, serving God, and gemilut hasadim.” (Pirkei Avot 1:2) Chesed is laid out as the broader value because it can be done not only with money, but also with one’s person. It can be given to the rich and the poor, the living and the dead. The medieval commentator, Rashi, states that: “The reward for charity depends entirely upon the extent of the kindness in it.” He continues with the phrase upheld by many faiths: “Chesed occurs when there is understanding between two people and when the command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ is fulfilled.”
The modern philosopher, Emanuel Levinas teaches that the meaning of suffering is in the opportunity for the other to respond to that suffering, to embrace the sufferer and, through doing so, bring God into the world. When we respond to the other at a time of need, we fulfill our humanity and can find existential meaning in life.
If that sounds a bit complicated, let’s go back to the song: “We can be kind; we can take care of each other.” Acts of gemilut hasadim, kindness towards another, can change the world. In this time of deep divisions in humanity, what a difference we can make!
Samuel Radwine is the cantor for Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville and cantor emeritus of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Email him at email@example.com .