Amid the smouldering ruins of Jerusalem, a conversation takes place between two great Jewish leaders of the time. Their words reverberate through history, and have a life-changing message for us as we approach Rosh Hashanah 5780, almost 2 000 years later.
One of these leaders, Rabbi Yehoshua, utterly distraught, bemoans the inconceivable loss of the Temple, and especially the power of the offerings to effect atonement. (Avot D, Rabbi Natan 4:5) The Temple service enabled people to make a fresh start, to begin again after stumbling and to reclaim their innate purity. Of course, it had to be accompanied by a process of inner change and repentance – by sincere regret, a real resolve to do better in the future and a willingness to confront personal failings with real honesty. With the Temple gone, would atonement be possible?
Rabbi Yochanan consoles Rabbi Yehoshua. He explains that there is a force in the world with the same potency as the Temple itself to atone for sin. That force, he says, is kindness. The simple act of reaching out to others – providing them with help, support, comfort and strength in their time of need – can rewire the spiritual universe in much the same way as the ancient sacred Temple services. Kindness, says Rabbi Yochanan, can unleash a force of Divine forgiveness in the world that changes everything.
This has profound implications for us as we approach Rosh Hashanah – Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. Of course, at this time, we have to confront our wrongdoings and find a sincere way to become better in the year ahead. But the words of Rabbi Yochanan remind us that there is a powerful force that can help drive this inner journey.
Bringing up an offering in the Temple was a moving, transformative experience, rich in symbolism and spiritual power. Rabbi Yochanan’s insight was that acts of kindness are equally transformative. Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually… the person we were before doing a kind deed is not the person we are after it. Kindness purifies and elevates us, and thereby atones for our misdeeds.
We learn about the transformative power of kindness from Moses. We read in the Torah that Moses “grew up” (vayigdal) in the house of Pharaoh, and immediately after, in the next verse, the Torah repeats the fact that he “grew up”. (Shemot 2:10-11)
The Maharal explains that the first mention of vayigdal refers to Moses’ physical growth, and the second refers to his spiritual and moral growth. He became a gadol – a great person: “Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.” The act of opening his eyes to the suffering of his brethren enlarged Moses in a very real sense. He could have remained in the privileged and protected environment of the palace, yet he gave it all up because of a concern for those around him.
This is precisely what it means to be great – to see the people around you, to be aware of their plight. And when you alleviate another person’s pain, ease another’s burden, put another’s troubled mind at rest, meet someone else’s basic emotional, psychological or physical needs, it transforms not just the recipient of your kindness, it transforms you.
The message to us here in South Africa is clear. We need to see the suffering and the pain around us. South Africa is a country with so much promise, and at the same time, so much suffering. As the Jewish community, we need to feel that, and counter it with acts of kindness.
We have to unleash waves of kindness. There are many Jewish-led organisations and initiatives doing just that. But each of us can make a difference in our own personal capacity; we should confront every person we encounter with kindness.
We have a particular responsibility within our own community, too. So many are struggling with various challenges – health issues, financial difficulties, emotional strain. We need to feel others’ pain – and use that to spur us into acts of kindness.
To grow, to become great, we need to move from being people concerned only with our own well-being and the fulfilment of our own needs (a childlike state) and be sensitive to the needs of those around us. In short, to rise above ourselves. This is what it means to be a great person, a gadol.
We actualise this greatness by giving. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the great Rabbinic thinkers of the twentieth century, says that there are two major forces in this world working in opposite directions – giving and taking – and correspondingly, two kinds of people: givers and takers. He says that the goal of life is to become a giver.
When we transform ourselves into givers, when we give of our time, effort, money and advice, and when we are kind, concerned and compassionate to those around us – then we not only help others, we help ourselves. When we give, we become transformed, we transcend ourselves. We become, in a word, great – and that purifies us, elevates us, atones for the misdeeds of our past.
Crucially, to be kind isn’t just to be great – it’s to be G-dly. According to the Gemara, the mitzvah of kindness is to emulate G-d Himself: “Be similar to Him,” says the Gemara. “Just as G-d is gracious and compassionate, so too should you also be gracious and compassionate.” (Shabbat 133b)
The Gemara provides examples for the Divine acts of kindness we should seek to emulate: G-d clothed Adam and Eve when they realised they were naked; He visited Abraham when he was recovering from his late-life circumcision; He comforted Isaac after the death of his mother, Sarah; He buried Moses. (Sotah 14a)
The Rambam codifies acts of kindness among the list of 613 commandments – it is no less than an obligation. But what’s really interesting is that kindness is the only one of the 613 commandments for which the source of the mitzvah is the conduct of G-d, Himself. When we are kind, we are literally doing G-d’s work on earth. And that is the real power of kindness – its source is the source of all power; rooted in G-d’s own behaviour, it has the capacity to create and transform the world.
In fact, kindness is the very foundation of our world. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot lists kindness as one of the three things that “the world stands on”. (Avot 1:2) Similarly, King David, one of the great political and spiritual leaders of Jewish history, said: “The world is built by kindness.” (Psalms 83:3)
The Gemara says we are called on to become a “partner with G-d in creation”. (Shabbat 10a) G-d created the world in six days, but it didn’t end there. The work of “creating” the world – of nurturing and sustaining human life, of making the world a better, kinder place – is an ongoing concern. And, as G-d’s partners, we are part of this process, we help drive it. Through simple acts of kindness, we change the lives of others, and by fulfilling our G-d-given mandate to do so, we create cosmic change in ourselves. We become G-dly.
We see this on a practical level. Time and again, even a small act of kindness – a greeting, a gesture, a smile, a visit – can transform a person’s day. Or even that person’s entire life. Showing warmth and kindness and comfort to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one, or who is facing serious illness, can change a life. Helping a person going through difficulties with emotional support, but also with physical and material support, can change a life. Acts of kindness are soft and gentle, but their impact is powerful and awesome.
And so, as the South African Jewish community, let us welcome in the new year, 5780, by rededicating ourselves to bringing kindness into our world; into our country, into our community, into our families. Let us ensure that everything we do and everything we say is infused with its spiritual light. Let us be beacons of kindness, to follow in the ways of G-d, Whose “compassion extends to all of His creations”. (Psalms 145:9)
And, as we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us unleash wave upon wave of kindness, and in so doing, change not just the lives of the people around us, but our own lives – who we are at the deepest core of our being. In this way, may we merit G-d’s blessings for a good and sweet year.