trait is rendered in Hebrew as gemilut chasadim. In its broadest sense,
this means extending one’s self on behalf of the welfare of others. It is wide ranging
in both scope and activity. The concept includes, but certainly is not limited to,
extending hospitality to guests in one’s home, whether the guests are relatives
(maybe especially if they are relatives!) or complete strangers; visiting the sick
and providing for their needs and the needs of their families; burying the dead
in an honorable and proper fashion; being charitable with one’s time, attention
and funds; consoling the bereaved; and exhibiting a kindly, friendly, cheerful disposition
to all those with whom we come in contact. In its broadest sense, gemilut chasadim
represents an attitude of service to others and an emulation of the ways of God.
It is one of the basic pillars upon which all of Jewish society -- in fact, all
human society -- rests.
The trait of kindness towards others, all kinds of others,
is an inheritance from the founders of the Jewish People, Abraham and Sarah. God’s
ways are too inscrutable and difficult for us to truly know and imitate, so Abraham
and Sarah are regarded as our human role models of the ways of kindness. It is known
that their tent was open on all sides so that all wayfarers could enter easily and
without delay. Hospitality extended to strangers and the unfortunate, and concern
for others -- even when those others were undeserving -- characterized their home.
We, as their descendants, are bound by tradition, history and covenant to follow
in their ways of kindness. For centuries, it has been the mark of Jewish culture
wherever Jews may be found in the world.
Kindness always has to be tempered by good sense. “Killing with kindness” is
not just an ironic phrase; it is a true danger. In Judaism there are strict restraints
as to the timing and propriety of exhibitions of kindness. Visiting the sick must
be done with caution and wisdom. And even when it is proper and desirable to visit
the sick, never overstaying one’s welcome becomes the ultimate kindness. This is
especially true when serious or painful situations are involved. In my years as
a congregational rabbi, I was almost a daily visitor at the local hospitals to visit
congregants or members of my community. The most heartfelt thanks that I received
from patients after their recovery was to thank me for making the hospital visit
to them one that was brief and comforting.
The same rule of restrained kindness applies to visiting and comforting the bereaved.
The shiva period of bereavement and grief is a halachic method of catharsis
and rehabilitation for the person suffering the loss of someone beloved. At such
times, some people need company and some people need to be left alone. The true
act of kindness is discerning what the mourner needs and accommodating one’s visit
to that need. The duration of the visit and what is said is a matter of utmost sensitivity
and personal feeling.
A little-known rule for the shiva visit is that the visitor should not
address the mourner until the mourner speaks directly to
or her, and then the subject of conversation should be started by the mourner. The
wisdom of this practice is that the mourner is given the chance to express himself
or herself as the need is felt and is not subject to the well-intentioned, but possibly
erroneous, assumptions of the visitor. The right word is often the greatest kindness
that we can offer one to another, as the wrong word, no matter how well intentioned,
can hurt. Kindness is always measured by the need of the other and not by the intent
(no matter how noble) of the one who believes that he or she is extending kindness.
There are numerous communal kindnesses that have taken the form of organized
institutions in our communities. Every Sabbath-observant Jewish community has arrangements
for hospitality homes for strangers who may be passing through. Jews stranded unexpectedly
over the Sabbath in a strange community can be assured of Sabbath meals (and often,
a place to stay) by speaking with the rabbi or by merely attending the synagogue
and revealing their plight. Jewish communities maintain a Jewish burial society,
almost always manned by volunteers. Proper and dignified burial and care for the
bereaved family is called the “ultimate kindness” in Jewish tradition.
Kindness to neighbors and attentiveness to their needs and personalities is emphasized
throughout Jewish moral and legal books. Free loan societies that make interest-free
monetary loans to the needy abound in the Jewish world. In addition, societies that
lend bridal dresses, jewelry, medical supplies, wheelchairs, baby carriages, dinnerware
and a host of other goods without charge are fixtures throughout religious Jewish
communities all over the world. These loan societies are known by the Hebrew acronym
GemaCH, which of course is an abbreviation of gemilut chasadim, and
they are notable in the fact that their goods are dispensed with no shame to the
borrower. Kindness in the Jewish world, therefore, is not merely an attribute or
a utopian ideal. It is a way of life.