Kindness

Kol Nidre, 5783

On Rosh Hashanah, we began our prayers in the hopes of moving God, the Holy Blessed One, from kisei din, the throne or seat of judgment, to kisei rachamim, the throne or seat of compassion. Ten days later, here we are at the eve of Yom Kippur, preparing for the next 25 hours of fasting, prayer and introspection, and hoping that we will be inscribed and sealed for another year of life and blessing.

Whether or not you “buy into” the themes of these High Holy Days–the Yamim Noraim–doesn’t matter. If you’re hearing this, the sanctity of these days is important to you, even if you don’t really believe that God really has a big book of names and destinies, or you’re not sure, but figure it can’t hurt to hedge your bets.

I believe there’s something there, but since we know that God has no shape or form, it would be difficult for the Divine Author to actually write in this book, assuming it does exist. Rather, as one of the readings in our machzor begins, “Each of us is an author.” V’khotaym yad kol adam bo, “and the signature of each person–through their deeds–is in it.

But what do we mean by “deeds”? The very first teaching in Mishnah Pe-ah reads,

אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוֹכֵל פֵּרוֹתֵיהֶן בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לוֹ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם,  וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ,וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Loosely translated, “There are three things for which a person enjoys a reward in this world and in the world to come,” and one of these is gemilut hasadim, acts or deeds of loving kindness. It brings to mind the concept of “random acts of kindness,” a term that was coined in 1982 by Anne Herbert who wrote a book by the same name in 1993. The full, original phrase is, “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Her expression was an attempt to counteract the phrase, “random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty.”

The phrase seemed to spawn a movement, but 40 years later, what has happened? Has the world become a better place because we jumped on this random acts of kindness bandwagon? Have we become, to paraphrase former president George H. W. Bush, kinder, gentler people? And what does that really mean?

A recent article in the New York Times entitled, “The Unexpected Power of Random Acts of Kindness,” began with a story of a stressed-out woman who was kind to a stressed-out Starbucks barista, who scrawled a “thank you” on the kind customer’s coffee cup. It then went on to quote findings from the Journal of Experimental Psychology which said, “Researchers found that people who perform a random act of kindness tend to underestimate how much the recipient will appreciate it. And, they believe that this miscalculation could hold many of us back from doing nice things for others more often.”

There’s no question that we really don’t know the impact our actions have on others, both positively and negatively. As we enter Yom Kippur; reflecting on our past year and imagining the year ahead, perhaps this is the most crucial thing we need to think about. What is my impact on others? On my community and the world? What impact do my words and actions have?

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I have ESP or a gift, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve decided in the moment to reach out to someone, and my reaching out has been just what that person needed. I’d like to believe that’s God, or a sort of Divine energy, prompting me. I’ve left those encounters feeling energized and good about myself. It reminds me why I do what I do, and not just in my capacity as a rabbi, but as someone who knits, or cooks, or just shows up.

I also know how amazing it can feel when someone does the same for me–even if sometimes it makes me uncomfortable–and I suspect it’s that way for many of us; we want to be the giver, not the taker. But in order to give, someone has to be willing to take. Why not me? Why not you? Who are we to deprive someone else of the wonderful feeling that comes from being kind, from doing something nice for someone else?

If you attend all five of the services on Yom Kippur, you’ll go through a total of nine confessionals. The Ashamnu is a shorter, broader list that covers categories of wrongs we might have done. The longer vidui, the Al Chet, is a litany of much more specific ways that we might miss the mark. While the word chet is usually translated as “sin,” it really means “arrow,” meaning that our well-intended arrows will routinely miss their mark. I still don’t know if wanton eyes has to do with nearsightedness or astigmatism. And what about a sin in eating and drinking? Is that because I insisted a pint of ice cream was really only a single serving?

Many years ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a “positive ashamnu” that begins, “We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.” While he doesn’t specifically say, “We have been kind,” it’s clear from the list of positive things we do every day that many of those come from a basic human desire to be kind, and to have others be kind to us.

I want to share a poem by award winning poet Danusha Laméris called “Small Kindnesses.” She writes,

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.

And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it.
To smile at them and for them to smile back.
For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.

We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire.
Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead–you first,” “I like your hat.”

As we go through our Yom Kippur, may this poem serve as a reminder of how each of us, created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image, helps to make the world a better place every day.

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