Many of us can remember when President John F. Kennedy exclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” When it comes to engaging in acts of kindness, “chesed,” many of us need to ask ourselves the same question. It’s not “what can others do for me” but rather, “what can I do for others?” Being kind and acting charitably is one of the 13 attributes of Hashem, whom we are encouraged to model. Pirkei Avot (3:22) reminds us that simply being scholarly or performing mitzvot without engaging in good deeds is comparable to a tree that has many branches but has no root system. Eventually, a wind will come and blow it over. The ultimate act of “chesed” is when we occupy ourselves by taking care of matters that encompass death and dying with no expectation of reciprocity. This is called “chesed shel emes,” true acts of kindness.
There are societies that are set up to perform these acts of kindness. These people participate in the work of the Bikur Cholim/chesed committees. They call or visit the sick. They set up shiva houses, arrange for minyanim and provide chairs so that mourners can easily and properly observe shiva. They provide meals such as the “seudat havra’ah,” the first meal surviving relatives eat when they return from the cemetery. They lend out emergency medical equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers when our members are in need. They stock special rooms in local hospitals with kosher food for the sick and their visitors.
However, one need not belong to a chesed committee to perform acts of kindness. This can be done on an individual level as well. After all, our morning davening (prayers) reminds us that performing “gemilat chasadim,” acts of kindness, has no limits. The fruit of their rewards are felt in this world and ultimately in the World to Come.
The odds are that we will all need some sort of “chesed” one day. We all eventually sit shiva and many of us occasionally fall ill or need an act of kindness from a friend. In the great “bank account of life,” we should all prepare by making deposits of chesed if we ever expect to make a withdrawal someday. Chesed transcends shul politics. It is just the right thing to do.
R’ Dovid Goldwasser, with whom I once visited the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, related the following story regarding the rewards of providing acts of kindness for others: Long ago R’ Aryeh Levin lived in the Old City section of Jerusalem in dire poverty, together with his family. One day, his rebbetzin left her infant daughter at home in the care of the older children while she ran out to the local grocery store to buy some food. On her way, she encountered an elderly Jew who approached her and begged for a drink of water.
The poor man insisted that she get him a cup of water since he was so parched. He said he needed the water immediately for he had no strength left.
The rebbetzin ran back home to bring him some water and found her infant daughter immersed face down in a bathtub full of water. In another few minutes it might have been too late to save her. The rebbetzin grabbed her daughter out of the water and called for medical help. When she went looking for the thirsty old man he was gone and was nowhere to be found. By performing an act of chesed for this man she merited to save the life of her own daughter.
The Gemara (Baba Kama 92a) states that when an individual prays for another who has a similar problem, their prayers will be answered first. R’ Shlomo of Zvhill commented that if a person is answered for merely praying for another person, how much more so will he be answered if he actually helps another person with acts of kindness.
In the merit of performing these acts of chesed may Hashem bless us all by providing for our needs through good times and bad.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is vice president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]