By Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz
1800 years ago the rabbis taught that one of the three pillars on which the world stands is kindness. (Ethics of the Fathers 1:2) Kindness is at the core of our Jewish spirituality. According to the Talmud, Abraham and Sarah became our Patriarch and Matriarch because their loving-kindness, as manifested in their constant acts of hospitality, served as the gateway that would welcome all of humanity into “God’s Tent.”
A well-known midrash (rabbinic legend) teaches a story set in the time of King David.
There were two brothers who shared equally a piece of land.
One brother was single and prosperous.
The other brother was poor in his material resources, but wealthy with a loving wife and children.
The single brother thought to himself: “I have more than enough crops to sustain me. I’ll go give wheat to my brother who has so many mouths to feed.”
Simultaneously, the brother who was married and blessed with children thought to himself: “My children will lovingly support me in my old age, so I don’t need to keep my entire harvest. My single brother doesn’t have anyone to look after him; I’ll share my crop with him.”
The brothers, unbeknownst to each other, secretly filled each other’s silo with wheat, out of the love and kindness that filled their hearts for their brother.
God observed each of the brothers’ unselfish acts, and God determined that it would be this land on which the brothers resided that would be the location by which the Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple of Jerusalem) would be built; the location that exemplified love and kindness for another with no desire for anything in return.
There are a lot of “don’t do’s” in Judaism.
Don’t Commit Adultery.
Few people struggle on a typical day with these types of “Thou Shalt Not” commandments. But, every day we confront circumstances where we have to choose how we will focus on our relationships.
Will we stay patient?
Will we seek effective communication vs. simply saying what we might be feeling?
Will we look at a stranger and simply see a stranger, or will we look at the stranger and see a human being equal to ourselves and commanded by God that we love?
All of Jewish ritual life is irrelevant if it doesn’t prompt a self-discipline by which we actively and constantly pursue a daily course with our words and actions that manifests love and kindness.
Kindness also must be extended to ourselves. Often we will be lenient with our judgment of others, but be very judgmental when self-evaluating our own actions.
Self-Compassion is also a mitzvah. The Torah records God’s Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself — I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) The great Sage, Hillel, taught that this is the “entire Torah, all of the rest is commentary.” Usually we read this verse with the emphasis on “neighbor.” But, we should also pay attention to the “Love …. as yourself.” We usually can’t be as successful in being kind to others if we don’t practice self-compassion. Anger and judgment directed inward often spills outward as well. When we are kind to ourselves and others we will create sacred space and God’s presence will dwell in our midst just as it did in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.
Mitchell Hurvitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Greenwich.