Posts Tagged ‘Kindness’

I love “Peanuts.” No, I do not mean the food (although I do like to eat all things peanuts), but the comic strip. I used to own several books of “Peanuts” cartoon strips run in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but they have long been lost. Around my 13th birthday in 1967 (May 29, 30, and 31), a series of strips ran that has always stuck with me – probably because I first read them at a very impressionable age.

In the first strip Charlie Brown sees Linus patting birds on the head. The birds love this. Charlie Brown goes up to Lucy and says, “Your brother pats birds on the head.” POW! Lucy levels Charlie Brown. In the last frame of that strip he says, “Some people are pretty sensitive about their relatives.”

The next day’s strip opens with Linus patting a bird on the head. The bird is sighing with contentment. Lucy comes up to Linus screaming, “What are you doing!” She tells him people are coming up to her saying “Your brother pats birds on the head.” She yells at him to stop doing it. She walks away from Linus in anger. In the last frame a bird sticks out his foot and trips her.

The last strip in the sequence has Linus talking to Charlie Brown. “What’s wrong with patting birds on the head?” he asks. “It humiliates your sister,” responds Charlie Brown. “I can understand that,” says Linus, “but what’s WRONG with it. It makes the birds happy and it makes ME happy…so what’s really wrong with it?” Charlie Brown stares at Linus for a panel then responds, “No one else does it.”

Think about the roles of each player in this strip. Lucy is the control freak who cannot stand actions that do not conform to her particular standard of behavior. All of us have our Lucy moments and I hate it when I find myself becoming Lucy.   Charlie Brown is the innocent messenger. He is honest to a fault, often paying a price for his honesty by getting slammed. Charlie Brown is a realist. Yes he still has his dreams, like he will actually kick the football Lucy is holding. But his busted dreams just train him to accept the world is not just. That prepares him to be the honest messenger, the objective observer. There are moments when we all have to be Charlie Brown. The danger of being Charlie Brown is not to let it lead to detachment, discouragement, and thus disengagement in our world. Linus, however, well Linus is the person I really want to be.

Linus, you see, is altruistic. He is kind. Yes, his behavior gives him a satisfied feeling, but his behavior is one of trying to make others feel better. Even more, Linus will be kind without concern for social norms. Yes, the more I think about it, the more I want to be Linus.

The prophet Jeremiah said “Thus said the Lord, ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory – in his earnest devotion to Me. For I, the Lord, act with kindness, justice and equity in the world; for in these I delight.’” (Jeremiah 9:22,23) The implication of these verses is that devotion to God is reflected through acting like God.

God delights in kindness, justice and equity. Well, we spend a lot of time talking about equity, or inequity actually. We lament a society that spurns impartiality, one that tilts towards those with the resources to buy favors and influence. “All men are created equal” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the world is filled (as the Charlie Brown in us would observe) with nothing but inequity. We support institutions that fight that inequity. As a result we engage in the fight for justice. We attend rallies, march in demonstrations, and profess our commitment to equal opportunity for everyone. We vote for candidates who echo our desires for a better, more just world. Of course we cannot agree on how this will happen, as our true dividing lines become political parties, with Republicans and Democrats each claiming to be the true providers of a system that will provide equal opportunity for all. For many of us, our political affiliation is our true religion. Each political party promotes its own approach to justice. We often substitute a political perspective for moral perspective – justifying how we vote with our professed morality.

All of this involvement, all of this concerned (albeit opinionated) feeling is great; but in a certain sense it allows us to care for the world from a distance. We tend to forget that Jeremiah is teaching us that before mentioning justice and equity, God begins with kindness. We Jews, who are so proud (justifiably I add) of our intellectual traditions and accomplishments, so proud of our focus on justice need to ask our selves a simple question. How much focus do we put on kindness, on the reaching out to another person out of pure, simple kindness? And, if we truly want to be in the image of God, should we not use the same starting point as God – kindness?

Instead, we are often cynical about those who offer kindness. How often do we look at the kind, giving person and wonder, “what is your motive for this?” How often do we think the person who extends herself, who seems too nice to be for real – is, well, a bit of a chump? We do not take seriously people who seem too kind to be true. Even if we are not the control freak, Lucy, but the objective observer, Charlie Brown, do we not wrinkle up our nose and say, “nobody else acts that way?” We cannot and do not think they are for real.

My favorite Broadway musical is perhaps the most Jewish Broadway show ever made – Man of La Mancha. This is a retelling of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” Quixote is an old man who decides that chivalry and good deeds are lacking in the world, so he decides to become a knight errant – in an age in which there are no more knights. Through his journeys, most of them the products of delusions, he sees things differently than we would say they really are. The keeper of a seedy inn is the lord of a castle. The shaving bowel of an itinerant barber is a magical golden helmet. An abused strumpet, Aldonza, is the fair maiden Dulcinea. The people he meets think he is insane. Aldonza thinks he only wants from her what all men want from her. That he could think of her as a high lady seems a cruel joke. Whatever the expectations of the people he meets, all Quixote really wants is “to make the world a little better.”

And he does. Despite his delusions, despite his naiveté, despite his ultimate defeat and death, he does succeed in giving Aldonza the ability to see herself differently, as he treated her differently. His kindness, his dedication to simple goodness, shows her that it does exist. How interesting that most of the other characters sees this as insanity.

What an amazingly Jewish show. To express kindness is to express a central Jewish concept – tikvah – hope. The person who expresses kindness believes that their actions count. They believe it will improve the life of the person they are connecting with, even in just a small way. In our concern for the large scale problems of the world, we find it hard to accept kindness for what it really might be – a simple expression of hope, connection, and change.

Judaism is a very intellectual religion. We are a religion of reason. The Talmud is an ingenious compendium of legal positions and arguments. Maimonides articulates a very rationalistic view of the human/God relationship. Even the mystics understand the power of the intellect and their concepts are often difficult for the uneducated to grasp. From our commitment to reason, we are a religion that urges the fight for justice. We stress education. We value achievement. But – and here is a big but – the simple act of kindness, the good and caring heart, is truly exalted and valued in our tradition. That is the component we often forget. I would like to share some stories that illustrate kindness in varying ways, to show just how prominent it is in our tradition.

Once Rabbi Eleazar fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him. Rabbi Eleazar was poor and lay in a dark room with no windows. Rabbi Yochanan bared his arm and light radiated from him, filling the room with light as he entered to be with Rabbi Eleazar. Thereupon he noticed that Rabbi Eleazar was weeping. “Why do you weep?” he asked. “Is it because you have not studied enough Torah? Surely we have learned that the one who studies much and the one who studies little have the same merit as long as their heart is directed towards heaven. Is it because of your lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy both learning and wealth. Is it because you lack children?” Rabbi Eleazar replied, “I am weeping because of your beauty, which will one day rot in the earth.” Rabbi Yochanan replied, “On that account you surely have reason to weep.” And they both wept. After a while Rabbi Yochanan asked Rabbi Eleazar, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” He replied, “Neither they nor their reward are welcome to me.” Whereupon Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Eleazar gave Rabbi Yochanan his hand and that is how he raised him. (Berachot 5b)

The theme of kindness flows through this story. The kindness of Rabbi Yochanan’s visit, the kindness of his empathy. The light, which is on one level his physical beauty is also a metaphor for his kindness which fills the room with light. But the end of the story is profound. The Talmud does not specify names in its last sentence “that is how he raised him.” It leaves open the probability that the grasping of hands, motivated by kindness, elevates both of them.

Second story. Rabbi Beroka used to roam the market place where he would often meet and converse with Elijah the prophet (zecher l’tov). One day he asked Elijah if there were any men in the market who merited a place in the world to come. At first Elijah replied “no.” Then he caught sight of a man wearing black shoes and who had no fringes on the corners of his garment. “This one has a share in the world to come,” said Elijah. Rabbi Beroka ran to the man and asked his occupation. “Go away!” said the man. The next day Rabbi Beroka found him and asked him again, “what is your occupation?” “I am a jailer,” the man replied. “I keep the men and women separate and I place my bed between them so that they may not come to sin. When I see a Jewish girl upon whom evil men have cast their eyes, I risk my life to save her.” Rabbi Beroka then asked, “Why do you wear black shoes and have no fringes on the corners of your garment?” The man replied, “I move among hostile gentiles who may not recognize I am a Jew, and if I hear an evil decree against the Jews I go to the rabbis to warn them, they pray to God to get the decree annulled.” Rabbi Beroka then asked him, “When I first asked you your occupation, why did you tell me to go away?” The man answered, “I had just heard such a decree and I needed to get to the rabbis so they might pray to God.” A short time later, while Rabbi Beroka was once again speaking with Elijah, two men passed by. Elijah said, “These two also have a place in the world to come.” Rabbi Beroka approached them and asked their occupations. “We are jesters,” they replied. “When we see men depressed we cheer them up. Further, when we see two people quarreling we strive hard to make peace between them.” (Ta’anit 22a)

What makes this story interesting is the contrast between the dark and the jolly, the cloaked kindness and the open kindness. Both the jailer and the jesters are performing small acts of kindness in difficult circumstances. The difference between them is their appearance, not the content of their hearts.

The final tale is not Talmudic, but a Jewish folk tale. A good man who was approaching the time of death was granted a gift from God, to be able to see both heaven and hell to see what each would be like. First the man went to hell. There he saw a gorgeous banquet table covered in fine linen. Sumptuous food was piled high all over the table. In front of each person was fine china and silver ware with which to eat. There was only one problem. Everyone’s arms were rigid. No one could bend their elbows. So although they could reach the food they could not bring it to their mouths. Thus everyone wailed aloud that they could not partake of the amazing food literally an arm’s length away. The man then went to heaven. There he saw a banquet table exactly like the one in hell. Same food, same china, same table cloth. In addition, everyone’s arms were locked at the elbows, they could not bend them either, yet, no one was crying. Indeed all were happy and enjoying the feast for each was reaching for food and serving it to their neighbor.

What makes this tale so Jewish is the lesson that we actually create our own heaven. And that the difference between heaven and hell is our acts of kindness.

Really, isn’t that the point? Our acts of kindness are what enables us to convert a hellish situation into a spark of heaven. Nice theory rabbi, you might be saying, but give us a practical example. Well, in a world filled with major problems, a world that is becoming more and more partisan, more divided, more polluted, more unjust – your simple act of kindness is the one thing you can do that might just start a landslide that changes everything. Look at the internet. Look at comments posted by angry people who are expressing emotions in what is basically an anonymous forum. They are hiding. No one in this room knows what the person next to him or her might be secretly posting on the internet. You have two courses of positive action. Both have merit. One is to post a very calming comment in response, basically to call out the nastiness through the gentleness, the kindness of your response. But the second I think has greater potential.

Just practice a life of small kindnesses. Hold doors for people, respect them, do not dismiss them based on looks or your preconditioned response to them.   Just be kind. I know this is harder than it sounds. I have a hard time with this as I tend to be a natural cynic. I fight hard to counter my instinctive emotional reactions to people and situations. But I pledge to you tonight I am going to try harder to just sow kindness.

Why? Because in a world in which we control very little, in a world in which all of the problems seem so huge, so overwhelming that we feel we cannot possibly change anything, acting with kindness is something we can control. And, here is the big point; it is contagious. Have you ever had the person in front of you randomly pay a toll or a parking fee for you? It changes your feeling in that moment. If enough of us begin to act with kindness, we can improve our families, our communities and who knows, maybe even the world.

Pirkei Avot teaches us Al sheloshah d’varim ha’olam omeid. Al hatorah, al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim. “The world stands on three things. On Torah, on prayer and on acts of loving kindness.” I do not know how many of you are going to be Torah scholars. I do not know how many of you believe in the efficacy of prayer. But, all of us are capable of acts of loving kindness. All of us are capable of calling upon our inner Linus. The very best that could happen is we ignite the messianic age. The worst is that we will have a lot of very satisfied birds!

Shanah Tovah u’metukah.



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