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Kindness Begins at Home

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Why do we feel proud of ourselves for cooking for an acquaintance who just gave birth and burdened by making dinner for our families?

Write up a proposal for just about any topic and chances are someone, somewhere will give you grant money. Most of the subjects are silly, boring, irrelevant. Once in a while they are strikingly new and interesting. And sometimes they just confirm something we Jews have known all along.

Such was the study conducted by Stanford University psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. Students who performed five weekly acts of kindness were happier than a control group who didn't, with those who performed five acts a day being the happiest of all.

The happiness is even greater, according to other researchers, when the acts of kindness are directed towards those we know as opposed to strangers. We benefit from feeling good about ourselves and from creating or deepening relationships.

We all feel like we've had a better day when it's been punctuated by doing for others. It doesn't have to be major time-consuming activities. It can be a phone call to say I care, grocery shopping for a shut-in, a note or email to say thank you. While we may not all be behaving like this, it's easy to recognize the truth in the research and to implement the findings.

The Torah is constantly reminding us that the more we give, the more we care.

Yet ironically the hardest place to feel good about giving may be our own homes. Why do we feel proud of ourselves for cooking for an acquaintance who just gave birth and burdened by making dinner for our families? Why do we rush to visit a sick stranger in the hospital and feel put upon by our children's aches and pains? How can we be friendly and chatty with the checkout girl at the local market and then snarl at our husband when he walks in the door?

Although it doesn't get us honored at banquets, giving to our family should be our greatest pleasure.

Although everyone has heard the adage that "charity (substitute kindness) begins at home," few of us are able to fully live it. Sometimes what we do for our own family seems less significant, less meaningful -- and certainly more expected.

We seem to have our priorities backwards. I'm reminded of a story told of one of the descendants of the Chafetz Chaim. His rabbi asked him why he was late for morning prayers yet again. "Well I always plan to arrive on time," the young man explained. "But on the way to shul I always run across an overworked and overwhelmed young mother. Three children need to be fed, two need their diapers changed, and the trash is piling up by the front door. So I stop to help her."

"That's terrific," responded his teacher. "Who is this young woman? We should all pitch in and assist her."

"My wife" replied the clever -- and kind -- young man.

Kindness is no less a mitzvah, no less powerful when done for members of our immediate family. In fact the opposite is true.

Our family is our first responsibility. They are the most dependent on our chesed. Giving to them should be our greatest pleasure.

It doesn't get us honored at banquets. We may not experience the same show of gratitude. But we certainly reap the rewards.

We have been misled by society to believe that only work outside the home is truly significant. This idea is not just manifest in the workplace but extends to charitable efforts as well.

Chairing a dinner for the Make-a-Wish Foundation? Fantastic.
Feeding your own family a healthy dinner every night, sitting down together to enjoy it? Unnoticed (except perhaps by those who count the most).

Counseling abused children? Amazing.
Providing love to your own? Unappreciated (except perhaps by those who count the most).

Walking for breast cancer? A noble effort.
Attending to the physical health of your children? Taken for granted (except perhaps by those who count the most).

Serving as Sisterhood president? Noble and laudable.
Administering to the spiritual life of your family? Unremarked (except perhaps by those who count the most).

We need to change our mindset. Yes, the more acts of kindness, the better. Certainly once our family is attended to, giving to the community is a wonderful and important thing to do. We couldn't survive without it.

But let's not forget where to start. Let's not forget where the real difference is made. For them and for us. Giving to the community: lots of public acclaim. Giving to our families: priceless.


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