Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hesed Without Judgement

The Talmud tells a fascinating if troubling story of the great Amora, Rav. It was his practice to visit the cemetery there to converse with the dead. He often asked them of what did they die. In nine out of ten cases they answered "we died because of the ayin hara, the evil eye".

One of the renowned commentaries on the Talmud explained that the ayin hara that causes our death does not refer to the evil eye cast on us, but rather the ayin hara with which we look at others. It is our crtical gaze on others, questioning whether they deserve what they have that brings G-d's judgement on us. G-d says, as it were, "if you think others should only get what they deserve and no more, then I will judge you by the same standards". When we are judged exclusively on our merits inevitably we fall short.

This week in the parsha we meet our father Avraham. Avraham was the exemplar of doing hesed, acts of loving-kindness. His whole life was devoted to teaching the way to Hashem by outreach in the form of hospitality and care.

It is interesting to note that though Avraham extended himself to care for others and showed them love he was not naive about the evils of human nature. Avraham was no Pollyanna. He knew people were flawed and flawed severely. Just look at the stories and this becomes clear. Early on we read of his travels to Egypt and later to Gerar. In each case he saw the citizens as likely to kill him so as to claim his beautiful wife Sarah. When his shepards fight with those of his nephew Lot, Avraham does not say "lets work this out". On the contrary he sees the feud likely to escalate unless action is taken. He tells Lot "separate from me". Rather than mediate the confrontation he chooses to end the relationship. And still later after he saves Lot, the king of Sodom offers to let Avraham keep the booty he has won in his war on their behalf. Avraham refuses saying I suspect if I keep it you will go on to say "I enriched Avraham".

No, Avraham knows people can do terrible things. They are not necessarily good at all. He doesn't invest in hesed because he thinks the people are entitled to it. He does hesed because he realizes the way to tikun olam, repairing the world is by engaging in doing kindness to others.
Avraham recognizes that acts of kindness create a force for the good in the world, a force that enhances all of life and moves it to greater shlaimut. Avraham does hesed because hesed is what the world needs. And all humanity is blessed and sustained when a person does kindness to another.

I remember a few decades ago when much was written about the power of random acts of kindness. When I write of random acts of kindness I mean doing something kind for someone you do not know or may never know simply for the blessing it brings to the world. It may mean walking over to the man working hard on the train tracks in mercaz ha'ir and giving him a bottle of lemonade or ice cafe. It may mean putting money in a parking meter that's expiring, or it may mean giving 20 shekel to the woman who asks for a donation and would be grateful for 1.
Random acts of kindness don't ask whether the person is deserving of the gift I am giving. They are powerful precisely because we do not make a judgement. We simply see an opportunity to do a kindness and we do.

That's the hesed of Avraham, the hesed that made him the great benefactor of all, both Jew and non-Jew. When someone asked him for a favor he did not ask himself whether they warranted his effort. He did not do good for others on the basis of their deserts. He did for other because hesed is always good. Hashem built His world on hesed and so Avraham emulated His ways.

Can there be a more important lesson for us to learn. How often does the man collecting ask us for a donation and we start to question whether he deserves or really needs our help. We judge before we give. We judge before we do. That attitude is sadly the kind that brings the kitrug, the judgement down on us from above. As we judge others so we are judged.

Would we not be better if we simply did the act of hesed for no other reason than the person asked for it, without judgement or critique. Then we would be walking in the footsteps of Avraham. Then we would be doing hesed in the way that sustains the world. Then we would be doing the random act of kindness that makes both us and others better.

I take the lesson this week to heart and on a personal level. Bli neder, without taking a vow I pledge to do 5 acts of random hesed a day. It can be a kind word spoken to someone who does not expect it and maybe has not earned it, or it can be letting the person behind me go in front of me in line at the makolet. It need not be money. It simply need be hesed for the sake of hesed. I hope you will join me in such a pledge. The results will make another happy, create a positive energy in the world, and earn us the kindness from Hakadosh Baruch Hu that we bestow on others.

Let us walk in the way of our father Avraham. Let us do hesed without the judgement!
Can their be anything more worthwhile!

Shabbat Shalom

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