Commentary by Jeanette Gross
In the first chapter of Pirke Avot we learned that Shimon the Righteous used to say: The world stands upon three things…. Torah, Avodah, and g'milut chassadim.
This bit of wisdom from our ancestors teaches us how to live a meaningful life and describes the ideal for us to strive toward: a person who is close to God and is a gift to humankind. This ideal pious person should learn Torah, should fulfill its commandments in both rituals and actions towards others, and should go beyond the strict obligations of the Torah by making acts of kindness a personal hallmark. Each of these pillars is ultimately of permanent value for our souls.
With Torah there is input; with avodah - divine service, there is output; with g’milut chassadim - lovingkindness, there is both input and output. The three together create a balanced world.
Torah is input: it must be learned, studied and absorbed to be of use to us. It is a never-ending teaching, holding new lessons for us with each repetition. The greater the input, the greater the diligence in the study of Torah, the greater is the enlightenment.
Avodah is output: There are different types of avodah: hard labor (like work in the fields), Temple service and tefillah – prayer, which is often called the "service of the heart." All forms of avodah have a common factor: unburdening oneself. Whether physical or spiritual labor, there is an unburdening. One is elevated and feels lightened through this practice of divine unburdening.
In g’milut chassadim there is both give and take, and the phrase is in plural language because both the giver and the taker gain…
For example, a person visiting the sick gives of his time and attention, but gains for having performed a mitzvah. It is said that 1/60th of the sick person’s illness is removed because of the visit and at the same time the visitor is given the opportunity to do a mitzvah. The performance of this mitzvah casts its light upon both the visitor and the visited. Shimon believed that the power to do kindnesses to others is one of the great gifts of being alive.
G’milut chasadim: the reality of absolute giving, literally means to repay a favor. The best way to repay God is by doing acts of kindness to others. The good we do for others is remembered by them forever. One good deed sets in motion other good deeds that go beyond the initial intention. An act of true kindness is like toppling the first domino; it sets up a chain reaction of good will that transcends the physical act itself.
If you search Google for the word ‘kindness’ you will find more than 5 and a half million listings! Many of the listings are about something called the World Kindness Movement - based on the concept of doing ‘random acts of kindness’. When my daughter Becka was younger, she heard about someone doing a random act of kindness by paying the bridge toll for the stranger behind them. It became an important ritual for her – we paid double tolls for years and she loved watching the people’s expressions as they raced to catch up with us and see who we were, and delighted in their smiles as they realized we were total strangers!
According to Rabbi Akivah the Torah rule that “one has to love one’s neighbor like one’s self” is the Klal gadol baTorah (The large rule in the Torah). We have a responsibility to perform acts of kindness to make the world a better, holier place. Each individual act of g'milut chasadim can make the world more holy. Chesed to others is a responsibility in one’s relationships, even toward the strangers we encounter each day, and is done through acts of kindness. We can experience the Divine in our world, in others and within ourselves by engaging in acts of g’milut chasadim. G’milut chasadim includes any helpful action done without expectation of reward or recompense.
The world truly depends on our G’milut Chassadim. This is because Chesed is done regardless of whether the recipient is deserving. Rather, it is done out of one's own goodness, which arouses a similar response from others, and therefore from Above.
In many circumstances people feel reluctant to help, even in our mandated obligations such as visiting the sick or comforting the bereaved. As part of the practice we need to look at what attitudes make a person reluctant to do acts of kindness? What outlook makes a person more eager to do acts of kindness? How can we cultivate these qualities in ourselves?
It is said we are created "B'tzelem Elohim" (in the image of God). This is obviously more about our actions than our physical attributes. Some people think God “appears” through acts of loving-kindness (g’milut chasadim) so it is essential to consider the ways we can ‘behave like God’.
One Midrash states that one who does acts of chesed is viewed as if she believes in all the miracles that God performed for the Jewish people; one who does not do acts of chesed is considered as if he denied all the miracles. Only one who can be selflessly concerned with others, who can divest oneself of personal needs and be sensitive to those of others can attain the objectivity needed for the true belief in God.
The Rabbis said that the difference between a window and a mirror is but a little "kesef"-silver. Kesef is derived from the root "to desire." When we give in to passions and desires, we see only ourself. Similarly, one who is only selfishly concerned will distort the world. If we free ourselves of this selfish perspective and look out the window to be concerned with others we will ultimately have a more honest and objective perspective of the world.
Session One: Torah