The Politics of Being Nice
It was a blistering summer day in Jerusalem and the sweat was pouring from our faces. My friend and I had just visited the Kotel Ma’aravi, the Western Wall, to say our prayers. It was Friday afternoon and we wanted to walk home and prepare for Shabbat. We crossed through the Arab section of old Jerusalem and weaved our way through the masses of Muslim Arabs who left their mosques after Friday prayers. Even though the old quarters were crowded, people graciously let us pass. My friend wanted to buy a refreshing limonana drink from a Palestinian vendor. The vendor asked if I wanted one too but I declined because I still had a bottle of water. Even though we were clearly identifiable as Jewish women in our modest skirts, headscarf and Star-of-David necklaces, the kindly Muslim vendor offered me a limonana drink for free. Gratefully, I accepted and knowing that he himself would be fasting due to Ramadan, wished him a blessed Ramadan. It was a small act of random kindness but it meant a lot to me. Between the politics of land, power and money, this stranger practiced the politics of kindness.
This is what I want to talk about today: the politics of being nice. ‘Nice’ appears to be the plainest word in the English language. Being kind is an underrated value. It is deemed a small thing. Being ‘kind’ in and of itself will not solve the environmental crisis, world hunger or usher in world peace. It may not even be a guarantee for personal happiness. There are plenty of kind and good people in the world who suffer nonetheless. Our collective voice of cynicism may even ask what good small random acts of kindness do. They seem fleeting, like a drop in the ocean.
And yet, the politics of being nice is one of the pillars on which our tradition stands. The Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud really valued kindness, chesed, and the power of acts of kindness, which they called gemilut chasadim. In fact, our Rabbinic Tradition values kindness so much that it, according to Pirkei Avot 1:2, is one of the three pillars on which the world stands, together with Torah and the service of God itself – ‘al shlosha devarim haolam omed – al haTorah, al haAvodah v’al Gemilut Chasadim’.
After the destruction of the Temple, it was prayer and kindness that replaced the sacrifices and that became the heart of our Jewish spirituality.
Of course, the cardinal importance attached to kindness didn’t merely begin with the Rabbis. Our entire tradition—from the earliest Bible stories to the Chassidic tales of the 18th century—brims with a love of kindness. Avraham Avinu himself was praised for his kindness and exceptional generosity towards strangers and wayfarers. His exemplary kindness towards the citizens of Sodom is something I spoke about on Rosh haShanah.
But Abraham Avinu isn’t the only Biblical hero who displayed kindness, of course. Shifra and Puah, the midwives of ambivalent status (some hold that they were Jews, others hold that they were righteous Gentiles) displayed great courage and kindness when they tried to save Hebrew babies from Pharaoh’s evil decree. They gently took care of baby Moses. According to Rashi, the kindness is even reflected in the etymologies of their names. Shifra is related to the root shin-peh-reish, ‘to beautify’ and Puah is related to the Hebrew word signifying cooing. In other words, not only did Shifra and Puah save babies, they also displayed extra chesed by beautifying and comforting them.
Of course, there is the story of Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, who rescued Moses from the gaping mouth of the Nile. There are the stories of Job and Noah, two Gentile heroes our Tanakh accords great respect on account of their kindness. Moses was praised for his humility and his kindness to even animals. The Midrash states that the Eternal chose Moses for his mission because God saw the great mercy Moses displayed towards retrieving a straying lamb. David, as a young man, showed compassion for the troubled Saul by playing his harp to sooth Saul’s spirit.
Moreover, the Midrash recounts another act of supreme kindness: in the time of King David, there were two brothers. Both had an equal share of land. One, however, was single but prosperous. The other, destitute but rich in children. The single brother thought, ‘I have more than enough crops to sustain me, let me go give wheat to my brother who has so many mouths to feed’. While the brother with wife and children thought, ‘Through my children, I will have support in my old age and so I do not need all this crop, let me go to my single brother who has no such guarantees and share my wheat with him. ‘ Unbeknownst to each other, they secretly filled each other’s silo with wheat, out of the goodness of their heart. Because of this, God merited that the Holy Temple itself would be built on the very land that prompted them to act with great mercy.
Furthermore, it is the Prophets themselves who enjoined acts of kindness upon us. As the Prophet Isaiah states in the Haftarah for Yom Kippur: “Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:1-14)
Finally, in the Midrashic imagination of the Rabbis, even God Himself graced us with His kindness. It was God Who adorned Eve as a beautiful bride and escorted her to the chuppah in Gan Eden. And it was God Himself who made sure that Moses was buried when he died at 120 years of age. Unsurprisingly, core rabbinic values of kindness are accompanying the bride and burying the dead.
When we are reflecting upon our shortcomings during Yom Kippur, it’s easy to dwell on the spectacular transgressions. After all, our liturgy focuses—thankfully addressing us in the collective—on committing adultery, slandering, hatemongering and theft. In a way this may cause a disconnection. Do all of us really commit adultery and acts of violence? Of course not. But this sense of disconnection from the liturgy makes it easier for us to fall into the trap of putting this criticism aside and believing that we have less inner work to do. What if we choose to focus on our relationship with our ability to be nice? Let us think about what it means to be kind—both from the vantage point of our tradition (as I have already discussed) and from the vantage point of our personal experience. I am not proposing that we should ignore the negative injunctions of the liturgy but instead I propose that we add positives as well. In what ways could we have been kinder? In what ways could little acts of chesed have brightened the days of our fellow human beings? Perhaps added to our solemn list of ashamnu’s and al chet’s, we could chant to the rhythm of our heart:
‘We can smile at a stranger on the bus. We can open the door for an elderly person. We can extend a hand to a lonely refugee. We can treat a single mother with dignity. We can give a little more charity. We can write a Get-Well card for a sick co-worker. We can give an extra hug to a grandchild. We can listen to a lonely friend. We can make that extra phone call to an ailing parent. We can spend those few extra minutes recycling our trash. We can volunteer an extra hour at the local shelter. We can help our neighbour carry her groceries. We can, as the Prophet Micah commands us, not only walk humbly but also do justly and love mercy.’
Kindness begins as a reflection in the face of our fellow human being, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Traditionally, the introspective period before the Yemei Teshuvah—the Days of Repentance—is divided up between contemplating two categories of relationship: bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero. The first refers to the relationship between the individual and the Divine. The second refers to the relationship of the individual and his or her fellow human beings. Modern Jewish thought, however, has proposed a third category: bein adam l’atzmo: between an individual and his or herself. We don’t only reflect upon our so-called horizontal and vertical relationships but also on our internal relationship—with ourselves.
This logic can be extended to practicing the transformative politics of kindness. Not only should we be kind to others, and to the Omnipresent and all that God encompasses (such as our sacred, physical Universe) but also to ourselves. Perhaps this is the hardest kindness of all.
‘V’ahavta larecha kamocha’, our holy Torah commands us (Leviticus 19:18), ‘Love your neighbour as yourself – I am the Lord’. Rabbi Hillel taught this verse to the convert who asked him to explain the essence of Judaism on one foot: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it’ (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a). Rabbi Akiva expounded this verse as being a ‘great principle of the Torah’ (Midrash Torat Kohanim).
Usually we look at thsis verse one-dimensionally. It seems obvious. Love your neighbour as yourself. We read it with the emphasis on neighbour. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. But what if we shift the emphasis and read it as, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? We can only truly be kind to others if we can first be kind to ourselves. If we judge ourselves too harshly, this will provide fertile ground for harsh judgments of others. But if we are gentle with our own souls, then we create the spaciousness of heart and the fortitude of spirit to be gentle with our fellow human beings. One cannot exist without the other.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”, thus spoke Philo of Alexandria, the ancient Hellenist Jewish philosopher. This truth echoes across the millennia. Life is hard, and in varying degrees, we have all experienced its hardships. Being kind is gratifying. Although it is not easy, it is simple. It is a task from which we are not free to desist and it is an investment that yields immediate returns. In a cynical world where it is easy to feel disempowered in the face of great evil and suffering, it is random acts of kindness that can empower us: both as givers and as receivers. Be kind to our world, to others and last but not least, to yourself. When saying the ashamnu’s and al chet’s, don’t literally ‘beat yourself up’ but rather gently knock at the gates of your heart. ‘Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah’—‘Open for me the gates of righteousness and I will come there and thank God’ (Psalm 118:19).
Open yourself up to the rhythms of compassion and attune to the music of your heart. Then perhaps we may one day discover that there is more love to go round than we had expected. That we can build up our world through this grace, this abundant love, stone by stone, brick by brick, layer by layer. And then we might find that acts of loving kindness are indeed the pillars of Creation after all.
You might be surprised yet.