Inspired by Dr. Allen Rosenthal
Today’s Haftorah ends with some of the most beautiful words in the entire Bible. The prophet Micah (6:8) describes the 3 things that Gd wants of us: “He has told you, O man what is good, and what Hashem seeks from you: only the performance of justice, the love of chesed, and walking humbly with your Gd.”
What is this chesed that Gd expects from us and what does chesed really mean? Sometimes the word chesed means love; sometimes it means favor; sometimes it means generosity, and sometimes it means compassion. Sometimes it’s used to describe the nature of Gd, and sometimes it’s used to describe the goodness of people.
In order to illustrate the chesed that Gd expects of us, I’d like to introduce you to Devorah Steinmetz—a teacher of Bible and Talmud and the founder of Beit Rabban—an innovative Jewish day school in New York.
This past year, Dr. Steinmetz was on sabbatical in Israel and she wrote a column for the Jewish Week (5:22/12) titled: “The Torah of Chesed.” When I read it I was so deeply moved that I knew I had to share it with you:
Last Sunday afternoon, I was wheeled into an operating room at Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikvah. An anesthesiologist said “laila tov” to me, and then a surgeon removed my left kidney, which was then taken into an adjoining operating room and put into the body of a 23-year-old Israeli dental student, who came from Georgia in the FSU…
I told very few people what I was going to do before I donated my kidney, only my family, my close friends, and a few people with whom I had to repeatedly cancel appointments…I want to explain why I became a kidney donor. The reason I do so is because I am aware that there is, among many people, a suspicion that a person who does such a thing is either a little bit crazy or else extremely righteous—in either case, someone most unlike myself. Indeed, just last year, while I was in the process of testing, a person in my Talmud class used the example of “people who donate their kidney to a stranger” to illustrate the kind of person who is insufferably righteous—the kind of person of whom it is good to have a few in the world, but whom you really don’t want to be around.
The testing and the interview process exacerbated this sense that I must be either crazy or a saint: “Please explain again why you want to this”, they asked me over and over again…Clearly I was planning to do something that most people don’t do, but the alternatives of seeing myself as a little bit crazy or as super-righteous both felt unacceptable. If there is one thing worse than going through life thinking you are weird, it is going through life thinking that you are more righteous than everyone else…
How do I explain what I did, when it seems so simple to me, and yet it was something that most people would never think of doing? I think that it goes back to a Shabbat at the Carlbach Shul, some 10 years or so ago, when someone told me the following Torah that they had just learned from a friend: “When someone does a chesed for you, you want to find a way to pay them back, but in most cases you can’t ever do that. But there is a way that you can pay them back, and that is by doing chesed for someone else.”
This teaching has stayed with me during some very difficult times. I have been the recipient of remarkable chesed. Just around the time that I heard this Torah, my family was dealing with a serious illness, and so many people helped us in ways that I could never have imagined, and in ways that I knew I might never have done myself. I knew that there was no way that I could ever reciprocate. But what I could do was try to take opportunities that presented themselves to me to do chesed for others…
There are many other ways in which people do chesed that I am not good at—such as noticing the pain of the person sitting next to you, and reaching out to help them. I am not saying that I decided to donate my kidney in order to pay back those who helped me, but I do believe that their example enabled me to imagine extending myself in the way I did to the young man who needed my help. This, I think, is the meaning of the Torah that I heard that day in the Carlbach Shul.
As I was preparing to leave Beilinson, my husband and I went to say goodbye to my kidney recipient and his parents. The young man and his father are shy, but his mother is effusive. She wanted to buy me things, to send me presents, to send my family on a vacation, to do anything she could in gratitude. I told her over and over again that I didn’t want anything, and that I couldn’t take anything, but she persisted. Finally, I told her the Torah that I had learned at the Carlbach shul, and I blessed her son, and her, and her husband with many years of good health, full of many opportunities to do chesed for others.
And then something incredible happened. This woman who had been trying to shower me with boxes of chocolate and perfume told me that she and her son had discussed a plan for when he finishes school and becomes a dentist: that he would set aside one day each month to treat people who cannot afford to pay in my name…
Who can say what acts of chesed one of those poor people whom this dentist will treat for me will someday do for someone else in response?
I now believe that each and every one of us has the capacity to do tremendous acts of chesed. And each of us has different ways in which we can do chesed. Donating a kidney is the way that happens to make sense to me...If this is not your path of chesed, then know that there are many other ways to help someone that may be just as powerful and just as life-saving. Whatever way you choose, may we all be privileged to find our own path in the Torah of chesed.
What an amazing woman Devorah Steinmetz is! Could you or I donate a kidney to someone we never met?
When we hear the words, “random acts of kindness,” we immediately think of people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and Allen Rosenthal. But acts of chesed, are of supreme importance in Judaism. 3,000 years ago King David wrote (Psalm 89:3): Olam chesed yibaneh, “The world is built on kindness.” 2,000 years ago the Talmudic sage Simon the Righteous considered it one of the 3 things that sustain the world (Avot 1:2). In our time, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”l, once told reporters that, “to bring the Mashiach, people should increase their acts of goodness and kindness.”
Anyone can perform acts of kindness. You don’t have to donate a kidney like Devorah Steinmetz or give away billions of dollars like Bill Gates. It can be small, seemingly insignificant gestures like holding the door for someone, passing along a resume, chauffeuring someone to doctor visits or preparing a meal for a new mother or a shiva house. Tell Rose Anne Schulman, the head of our Chesed Society, that you want to help. And no matter how simple the act may seem, to the recipient, that kindness is priceless.
Society encourages us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” The Torah teaches us to emulate Gd, Who is constantly giving. Each act of kindness makes us a kinder, more thoughtful person. When we do acts of chesed, we literally stretch our souls, allowing them to become more holy, more Gdly.
So this week, keep your eyes open for chesed opportunities and go for it! Try to do an act of kindness that you’ve never done before—for a friend, a neighbor or just some random person you encounter. Stretch those chesed muscles in your soul. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson that said, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis