Acts of Human Kindness
Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )
Taking a look at one strange bird.
While waiting in line at the bank this week, I opened up an illustrated copy of the Torah and the man next to me must have thought I was a zoologist – because there were pages filled with pictures of birds!
This week's Parsha enumerates all the non-Kosher birds – e.g. raven, vulture, magpie. I guess keeping kosher is pretty easy! But wait – the Torah also says you can't eat falcons. Oh ... no more of my favorite Falcon Burgers!
Another of the non-kosher birds listed is the chasida bird (Leviticus 11:19). The Talmud says it's called "chasida" because it does chesed, which in Hebrew means performing acts of kindness.
In Hebrew, the name of something reveals its essential characteristic. The Midrash (Genesis Rabba 17:4) tells us that the first man, Adam, looked into the essence of every animal and named it accordingly. The donkey, for example, is characterized by carrying heavy, physical burdens. In Hebrew, the donkey is named chamor - from the same root as chomer, which means physicality. Which means to say, the donkey (chamor) typifies physicality (chomer).
(Compare this to English, where the word "donkey" doesn't reveal much about the essence of a donkey!)
But if the bird is called chasida because it does chesed, then why does the Torah list it as a NON-kosher bird?! It's understandable (as Maimonides writes) that the raven and vulture should be classified as non-kosher: They're vicious birds of prey and it is spiritually unhealthy to internalize these traits. But since the chasida bird seems to embody the desirable trait of chesed, why isn't it kosher?!
Let's look closer: The Talmud explains that this bird does chesed "by giving food to its friends." The Chidushei HaRim (19th century founder of the Ger Chassidim, and my cousin's great-great grandfather) explains: The chasida's generosity is limited to its own circle of friends, to the exclusion of others. Such partisan kindness is not what the Torah wishes us to practice. Hence, the chasida bird is non-kosher.
Consider the following illustration:
About 100 years ago, a group of neighbors in Jerusalem wanted to form a Chesed Society amongst themselves. Proposed activities included: inviting each other over for Shabbat meals, collecting clothes for families who couldn't afford it, and providing interest-free loans for someone wishing to start a business.
So the group went to the great sage, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, to get his blessing for their new Chesed Society. The rabbi asked them, "What if someone outside your neighborhood needs help?" To which they replied, "We would have to politely refuse, because we've limited our activities to just amongst our own group of neighbors."
The rabbi replied: "It's very nice that you want to help your friends and family. In fact, the Talmud states that our obligation is to help those closest to us first – our family, our community – and only then the rest of the world."
The rabbi continued: "But real chesed is about caring for others – and since all the kindness you're proposing comes back to you, you're essentially only caring for yourselves!"
Applying the Principle
Chesed cannot be predicated on an expectation of return. Did you ever have a relationship where the other person was always keeping score? ("You drive this time because I drove last time!") That's not friendship at all! A real friend sometimes gives and sometimes takes, but never keeps score.
How can we apply this principle to our relationships? Let's say a colleague at the office (we'll call him Bill) comes to me and says, "I'm taking care of some personal things on Wednesday, and I need someone to handle my calls. Can you cover for me?" So I'm thinking, Bill sits at the desk right next to me, I see him every day, and at some point I may need him to cover for me, so... "Of course, Bill, sure, I'll be happy to help you out!"
But then imagine someone comes to me and says, "We've never actually met, and I work in a different department, and in fact this is my last week with the company. I'm taking care of some personal things on Wednesday, and I need someone to handle my calls. Can you do that?" So I'm thinking, I'm never gonna see this guy again!
Judaism says when someone requests a favor, I need to consider: Is my response based solely on whether or not I perceive this as worth my own while? If so, then I'm serving no one but myself.
The Torah describes one particular act as "chesed shel emet," the true ultimate chesed: Taking care of funeral arrangements for someone who's died. This is true chesed because in this act we have absolutely no expectation of return.
Rights & Responsibilities
Years ago before I was getting married, I went to one of the biggest sages in Jerusalem and asked, "What's the key to a successful, happy marriage?"
He told me that the secret is to be a giver. Because if you come into marriage asking, "What will she do for me?" then you're pulling in the opposite direction, away from your spouse. But if you come in asking, "What can I do to provide and contribute?" that builds a connection. And if both partners approach marriage with this same attitude, the relationship flows beautifully in both directions.
Today we live in a society where everyone seems concerned about his rights: "What's in it for me? What do I get out of it?" The Torah perspective, on the other hand, is always from the standpoint of responsibility. For example, when the Talmud discusses property damage, it always states the law in terms of "Shimon is responsible to pay Reuven," as opposed to "Reuven has the right to collect from Shimon."
In the good ole days, the idea of civic responsibility was a standard feature of Western society. Perhaps the tide began to shift in the 1960's with changing roles and liberation – prompting John F. Kennedy to remind us all: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
Do Now, Feel Later
But, you say, sometimes I just don't "feel" like helping anyone! As any baby will attest, we're born selfish. Yet the process of maturing involves developing our sense of caring for others. This is crucial for our spiritual health. The Talmud likens someone who doesn't give to others as the "walking dead." A non-giving soul is malnourished and withered.
And it is a mistake to wait until we're emotionally "inspired" to help others. Rather, it is through the act of giving that I transform myself into a "giver." Eventually, my emotions will catch up with my actions. And in the meantime, a lot of good will have been done.
One of the 613 mitzvot is to emulate God. What does God actually "do" that we should emulate? We know that God, being infinite, has no needs at all. He didn't create the world for amusement, nor as a science experiment, nor because He was lonely. The Kabbalists explain that God created the world because He had no one outside of Himself, so to speak, to "give to." God's primary purpose of creation therefore was to bestow kindness upon others. Therefore the most profound way we can emulate God is through giving.
Is there a limit to the giving? Everyone, of course, reaches a point where they need something in return – or else they will resent being taken advantage of. But we must know our limits – and reach for them.
A World Built on Kindness
The story is told of a tzaddik at home one day when he hears a knock at the door. The tzaddik opens the door and finds a homeless man standing there. "Can I have a dollar for some food?" he asks. So he does what any good tzaddik would do: Hurries to find his wallet, rushes to give the beggar the dollar, and quickly sends him on his way.
The homeless man is already halfway down the street when he hears someone calling after him, "Wait, wait!" He turns around to see the tzaddik waving, who then hands the beggar another dollar.
Upon returning home, the tzaddik's wife is standing in the doorway astonished.
"I'll explain," he says. "When I first opened the door and saw a smelly, raggedy, grimy man standing in front of me, I felt uncomfortable. I ran to get the dollar because I wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible. But after he'd left, I realized that I didn't give him the dollar for him, I gave him the dollar for me – because I felt uncomfortable. So I wanted to give a second dollar – this time for him!
Chesed means reaching out altruistically, with love and generosity to all. The Talmud says it was baseless hatred amongst Jews which brought about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus it is only through unconditional love that our idyllic future will be built.
For in the words of King David (Psalms 89:3): Olam chesed yi-baneh – "the world is built on kindness."
Rabbi Shraga Simmons