A BREATH OF KINDNESS
Kindness. Like water, it’s the universal solvent. With kindness, hard edges can be smoothed over and jagged tears repaired. Without it, even the most promising relationship becomes an arid planet on which it’s impossible to breathe.
Olam chesed yibaneh: Hashem founded the world on kindness. Everywhere we look, we see the fruits of His bountiful munificence. There is profound benevolence in the rainfall that nurtures all living things, producing the verdant countryside and the crops that feed us. As though in imitation of our Creator, even the most ferocious mother beast acts with instinctive kindness toward her helpless infants. As for human parents, the moment their first child is born they step onto a moving conveyer belt of kindness that rarely slows and never stops.
The face of unkindness can be harsh and cutting, or it can simply be uncaring. It is not a slew of high crimes and misdemeanors that drive many couples apart. It is simply a dearth of the vital and ever-replenishing liquid that keeps relationships alive.
Plain old, garden-variety kindness.
Small Nuggets, Giant Impact
A soft word turns away wrath, Mishlei teaches. How many potential quarrels have been defused by offering an understanding rather than an abrasive response to complaint or criticism? Meeting aggressiveness with softness is a counter-intuitive, but astoundingly effective, tactic for keeping potential conflict from escalating. By showing kindness, you render the wrath irrelevant.
Kindness packs a big punch. How many of us treasure the memory of a friendly word or a comforting hug when the rest of the world seemed to be passing us by? It’s not the grandiose episodes in our lives that shape us. It’s the little moments, those tiny, gift-wrapped nuggets of gentleness or solicitude, sometimes from an unexpected source, that make an impact. Sometimes with startling results.
I recall a story about a shochet who inadvertently locked himself in the industrial-size freezer at his meat plant, and who would have languished in its icy precincts all night long if not for the guard who noticed his absence among the stream of departing employees at the end of the day. Why was that gentile guard keeping an eye out for that particular Jewish man? Because the shochet, day after day, had never failed to warmly greet the guard as he passed by. Missing his daily shot of friendliness, the guard raised the alarm and the shochet was rescued. A brief moment of warmth, repeated consistently, ended by bringing a good man in out of the cold.
There was a gadol b’Yisroel who could have had any number of glowing accolades about his accomplishments in Torah and communal leadership etched onto his gravestone, but who insisted that he be described only as a man who performed kindness for others. Though best known for his Torah, he wanted to be remembered even more for something else of overarching importance: how he extended a loving hand to his fellow man.
It feels wonderful to be the receiving end of kindness. There’s nothing like the indescribable joy that fills our hearts when someone takes the time and trouble to reach out to us when we’re feeling low. To show that they see us, and care for us. Why, then, when we are so grateful for the kindness of others, do we at times hold ourselves back from dishing it out? For all our superior values and rock-solid heritage, we are not immune to the drives and impulses that can turn a person away from the sweet wells of kindness. What are those drives and impulses?
In a nutshell, I think they can fall into the category that Pirkei Avos refers to as kinoh, kavod and taavah—envy, the pursuit of honor, and unwholesome desires.
The three enemies of good character. The three murderers of kindness.
The Three Enemies
If you’ve ever felt a powerful envy toward another person, you’ll know how very difficult it is to extend yourself in kindness to them. The reason you’re jealous in the first place is because the other person has something that you want. You’d prefer to see them have less of whatever it is they have in such abundance, be it money, smarts, praise or love. Giving to them feels like offering a sable muff to someone who’s already all bundled up in furs: unfair, unnecessary, and as difficult as pushing a stone uphill.
Our baser instincts insist on dragging down the object of our envy, in accordance with the laws of emotional gravity. Not building them up with kind words or deeds.
The pursuit of honor is another huge obstacle block on the road to a kinder, gentler world. That pursuit requires that others to be kept down so that you can lift yourself up. Raising others’ spirits through acts of kindness is not on the agenda. And the single-mindedness that chasing honor demands hardly leaves room in one’s mind for noticing other people, let alone attending to their needs.
Unwholesome desires, too, keep our thoughts so busy that we can scarcely see those around us or extend ourselves in kindness to them. Other people are either perceived as competitors for what we desire, or negligible to the point of non-existence. If you can’t help me get what I want, I have no need for you… An attitude not exactly conducive to developing a kindly spirit.
These three broad tendencies, and everything that derives from them, are like roadblocks on our journey to spiritual elevation. As long as they preoccupy us with their negativity, constancy and even compulsivity, they prevent us from interacting positively with the world around us. And they deter us from tapping into the strength and goodness within us, to reach out to those who could use a kind word or a helping hand.
An old friend of mine once related an incident that happened when we were both children of perhaps nine or ten. Along with a group of our classmates, we had met at Bnos one Shabbos afternoon and were assembling for the walk home afterward. She and I were not especially close in those days, and she generally felt on the social fringe of things. Seeing a group gathering around to come over to my house, she felt lonely and left out. Suddenly, as she recalls it, I turned to her and asked if she wanted to come along. That day, told me, marked a turnaround for her in our class. Those few words left an indelible impression on her, both socially and emotionally, while I didn’t even remember the episode at all!
Which all goes to show just how worthwhile it is to reach out in kindness anywhere, to anyone, at any time. It’s a seed that can’t help but bear fruit, in the short term, the long term, and everything in between!