“Rabbi Elazar said, ‘Anyone who performs charity and justice is considered as if he filled the whole world in its entirety with kindness.’”
BT Sukka 49b
In an important and well-known midrash, Rabbi Zeira said of the Book of Ruth, “This scroll does not contain the laws of impurity or purity, or prohibitions or permissions, so why was it written? To teach you how good is the reward for those who do kindness!” [Ruth Rabba 2:14]. Ruth’s kindness to her mother-in-law is extraordinary, as is Boaz’ kindness to Ruth. As a couple, their final kindness – to rehabilitate Naomi through the birth of a grandchild that she names with the help of her friends – makes perfect sense. Two kind people in union can more than double the impact of their goodness.
Ever have a bad day that takes an unusual turn because of a small act of kindness? Sure you have. Moments like that make us wonder about the magic of kindness. And here Rabbi Elazar tells us that we don’t even realize the full power of kindness because if we did, we’d know that it not only transforms our day but that one some level, it transforms the world. How can it be that one act of kindness fills the entire world with kindness? The talmudic statement found above is supported by a biblical proof from Psalms about God, who “loves charity and justice; the earth is full of the kindness of the Lord (33:5).
To answer this, we turn to a number of other statements that Rabbi Elazar makes on the very same folio page of Talmud: “One who performs acts of charity is greater than one who offers sacrifices, as it is stated, ‘To perform charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than an offering’” (Proverbs 21:3). God wants us to give more to each other than to make divine offerings. And Rabbi Elazar keeps going: “Acts of kindness are greater than charity, as it is stated, ‘Sow to yourselves according to charity, and reap according to kindness (Hosea 10:12). If a person sows he is uncertain whether he will or will not eat. If a person reaps, he will definitely eat.’” You can give charity and not be sure if it will have the desired effect. But if you do an act of kindness you can always be sure that your warmth, affection, generosity and concern will touch someone.
To this, the Sages added that acts of kindness are superior to charity in three respects: Charity can be performed only with one’s money while acts of kindness can be performed both with one’s person and with his money. Charity is given to the poor while acts of kindness are performed both for the poor and for the rich. Charity is given to the living while acts of kindness are performed both for the living and for the dead.
These statements all place acts of kindness within a competition for what behaviors yield the most results, impact others most and engage the majority of our own resources. Kindness wins each time. Kindness involves the totality of ourselves in relationship to the totality of another, rich or poor, living or dead. Acts of kindness offer us more ways to express goodness than any other way we might engage others.
And the winner is (drumroll please)…kindness. Such goes the commercial for kindness. This does not, however, explain why kindness changes the world, only why kindness may change the one who offers it and the beneficiary of it.
When you think about that bad day you’re having, your mind creates a landscape of pessimism. You imagine that whatever can go wrong will go wrong and then even when good things happen, you manage to twist their meaning or ignore them in preference to the emotional narrative you have created around personal failure. Your gloom and doom begin to wear away at the rosy picture you may have had of the world at large. Any act of cruelty or insensitivity – from a newspaper article about genocide to a simple episode of road rage – confirms this mental spiral descent. Suddenly, a stranger does something unexpected and full of grace, and the downward plunge you were taking has to recalibrate itself. Maybe the world is not that bad after all, if a total stranger can reach out and do something nice for me or for someone else. Maybe I have to revisit the interpretation of events that I have conjured and come up with a landscape of greater optimism. It is not that the world has changed because of one act of kindness. It is that you have changed your view of the world through an act of kindness.
Desmond Tutu once said: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” In honor of Shavuot, let’s overwhelm the world today. Do something unusually kind today for someone you don’t know. You never know. It may change the world.
Reprinted from the blog “Weekly Jewish Wisdom.” Reprinted with the permission of its author. To subscribe, go to ericabrown.com.