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Olam Hesed Yibane: From Kindness to Connection, Empathy and Mutual Responsibility – Kol Nidre 2023/5784

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

In the spirit of Yom Kippur, which we usher in tonight, where we take responsibility for the wrongs we have done in the past year, I begin by asking us some questions as a way to reflect on misdeeds or missed opportunities ben adam l’re’ato, between ourselves and our neighbors, in this past year.

You are invited to answer in your own minds, no need to raise your hands or nod in admission.

In this past year, have you:

  • Been given your plate at a restaurant, only to find the dish was not as you asked for it, called the server over and spoke with harsh words and/or a harsh tone about the kitchen’s mistakes?
  • Saw someone blocking the sidewalk subway entrance or blocking the subway exit from inside (when there is plenty of other room for them to stand) and you, whether loudly or audibly under your breath, yelled “Get out the way!” or nodded to another knowing New Yorker: “Tourists!” (with an eyeroll)?
  • Raised your voice or spoke unkindly to the “customer service” person on the other end of the phone line who is not able to answer your inquiry or fix the problem you called about?
  • Walked into a store, grabbed what you wanted, paid and walked out, all while not making eye contact with a single other person human in the store? (perhaps buried in a phone)

And for that matter, have you frequented the same store for weeks or even years and not know the names of the people who work there, with whom you interact multiple times a week?

While I know I said you didn’t have to self disclose your answers, I feel compelled to tell you that my answer is “yes” for all of the above! Yes to all of these — and then some!

On this night, when we initiate a 25 hour experience of reflection and atonement, where we consider where we have gone wrong and where we can turn as individuals and as a society, I want to focus our attention on the quality (and activity) of “kindness” — particularly with regard to those with whom we might not share an intimate connection.

Those with whom we do not share bonds of love or deep friendship — yet with whom we share sidewalks, apartment buildings, subways, stores, parks and more. Those strangers or neighbors who may come into our lives for a few seconds or minutes or for years or even decades yet whose bond with us is primarily as fellow citizens of this city and world.

As New Yorkers, we are in a unique position to consider our relationship to kindness with strangers. My suburban family members and friends can get in a car, go to work, get back in a car and go back home without interacting with anyone they don’t already know or are in some kind of ongoing, potentially intimate relationship with.

Sure, a coffee shop run or grocery store shop may change the calculation a bit — but nothing compares to the experience of New York City, where we choose to live in close proximity to millions of people; where our lives are interconnected and our bodies are often even forced in closer proximity than we would like, with arms poking our faces or pressing against our bodies during a rush hour subway ride.

What a better place to experiment with extending kindness than our home of New York City?

Before I go further, let’s take a moment to consider the word “kindness.” When we hear that word, our mind might go to images of rainbows, puppies, smiley face emojis, a person handing out flowers to random people on the street, or something of the like. “Kindness” can feel light, superficial.

Jewish tradition views it quite differently. “Chesed” — the Hebrew word for “kindness” — can also be translated as lovingkindess or even simply as love. While it can include actions like visiting the sick, caring for the elderly, it is more than just actions — it is a quality, a way of being.

Chesed is showing up in the world with compassion, care, love, and a sense of responsibility. Chesed is a way of seeing others and the world. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “[hesed is] a mark of a people joined by covenant. It means seeing strangers as if they were our long lost siblings.”

Chesed/kindness is paramount in Judaism. In fact, according to the Psalmist, it is the very foundation of the world: “Olam Chesed Yibane: The whole world was built on chesed.” From this verse, I understand that not only is chesed the basic building block of Creation, it offers a blueprint for building the kind of world we wish to see.

Chesed is a door that opens us up to connection, to empathy and compassion, and ultimately to responsibility to the other.

Chesed/Kindness is the first step towards that messianic vision of a world of harmony and peace.

So how do we take that first step?

I am going to share tonight three teachings on expanding our vision to help us build a city and world of chesed. These teachings hinge on a fundamental practice of learning to see others in a different way.

They are:

-Bringing People into View

-Seeing Beyond

-Seeing and Responding

Bringing People into View:

In the book of Exodus, the Torah says that “God heard the groaning of the Israelites who had been enslaved for hundreds of years, God remembered the covenant.

וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃

God SAW the Israelites and God took notice of them.

According to the twentieth-century Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe in his mussar classic (Jewish ethics) the “Alei Shur,” this verse from Exodus offers a vital instruction for cultivating chesed.

Wolbe explains that in the Torah text, God had previously concealed Godself and could not see the people’s suffering. But in this moment, God stops and intentionally sees the people.

We are to follow the Divine model: to open our eyes to see those who were previously hidden from our view. This, he argues, is an opening for chesed.

This image feels very resonant. How many times a day do we pass by people and not even physically see them?

Consumed in the drama of our lives, we go about the business of our day, sometimes glancing at but rarely really seeing the stranger. Buried in our phones or rushing to the next place, we literally miss what is happening and who is in front of us.

To open our eyes to what is hidden by habit and our natural self-centeredness, Rabbi Wolbe recommends a practice rooted in the teaching of Shammai, the sage: at least three times a day, look at someone closely, then greet them with a wide grin and a warm face.

Now, I imagine that if we suddenly went around New York City staring into the eyes of strangers or offering a wide toothed grin, things might not go so well for us!

Even more so if when asked why we had that smirk on our faces, we said “Our rabbi told us to do it!”

While we may not be able to smile broadly to strangers on the subway without getting harrassed, each of us can put our phones in a safe place — even — alas! — turning them off completely, look around, and take in the wonder and diversity of the human beings we encounter on the street, in the subway, in a restaurant or theater.

Each of us can go into the stores we frequent, at least a few times a week, and really see the person who is serving us, maybe even strike up a conversation and start to get to know them.

As Wolbe said- this practice is an opening for chesed, for after really seeing another, we might break out of our internal monologue and enter into a dialogue. We might find a moment for a brief, loving and compassionate gesture or a spark of human connection.

The magical and mysterious part of the practice is that we have no idea what impact our small act of chesed will have.

I remember as clear as day the tiniest of interactions I had with a stranger twenty-three years ago. Just weeks after the sudden death of my father, I was sitting in a coffee shop not able to hold back tears when a stranger came up to me, gave me a warm, knowing look, offered me a tissue, and then walked away. That small kindness made me feel so seen and gave me reassurance that I was going to be ok. Each of us can probably recall moments of kindness that brought us healing and hope exactly when we needed it. We can do that for each other, when we get out of our own heads, open our eyes and really see those in front of us.

We must remember, as Wolbe teaches, that “every act of chesed, even the smallest of things, is an act that truly builds and forms, which gives life to the spirits of the downtrodden and gives life to the hearts of those struggling to see the good.”

Olam Chesed Yibane, we are building a world of connection.

Seeing Beyond

Returning to the verse from Exodus, we find something interesting.

וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃

God saw the Israelites and God took notice of them.

There are two verbs to describe God’s turning here-”ra’ah” — “seeing” AND “yada” which here means “take note of” or “to know” in a more personal, emotional sense.

Thus, our second lesson in cultivating chesed: seeing beyond the surface. To know that each person is a world unto themselves. Even if we do not know the details, they are siblings or children or parents or beloved friends. They have life experiences, joys, traumas, triumphs, and struggles that we will never know, but can infer, since we, too, are human.

In the words of Dr. Charles Glassman, “Kindness begins with the understanding that we all struggle.”

A story: My friend Nancy, a mom of two toddlers, moved to a new city where she did not know anyone. One day, Nancy met a mom of similarly aged children. The children played so well together. She tried to strike up a conversation with this woman, but this woman simply sat there, staring off into space, giving one-word answers, doing everything she could — my friend thought — to make it clear she was not interested. The next day, she saw the same mom and the same interaction ensued.

And then the next day. After a few more interactions, Nancy came to believe that this mom didn’t like her and didn’t want to be friends with her, so Nancy avoided her.

A short while later, Nancy learned from another mom that the woman who had “slighted her” had just lost her mother suddenly, right before Nancy first met her.

Immediately, Nancy replayed every interaction “on the screen of her mind” but with a very different storyline. This woman hadn’t rejected her! She was grieving. Nancy’s judgment was replaced by compassion.

We so often assume someone’s actions or attitude indicates something negative about their character — or even more, that their behavior confirms something negative about us, that maybe we did something to offend that person or we’re inherently unlikable. Consumed with our own struggles and insecurities, we often forget that others are going through their own.

What if we took on “seeing beyond” as a practice? Let’s try it for a moment.

If you feel comfortable, close your eyes. Think back to a recent subway or bus ride or visit to a store. Try to remember any one particular person with whom you interacted or who was in your visual field. What did they look like? What did they say? Were they loud or quiet? Wearing an interesting outfit? What do you wonder about them? Who do you imagine is in their family? Do you think they were heading to work? Did they seem tired, distracted, hurried?

Open your eyes. What might open for us if we were to practice “seeing beyond.”

Olam Chesed Yibane, we are building a world of compassion.

Seeing and Responding

Emmanuel Levinas, a 20th century French Jewish philosopher, takes the practice of seeing to yet another level.

Levinas believed that God could only be experienced in this world as a “trace on the face of the Other.” As such, the presence of a person we encounter is commanding, just like (ethical) mitzvot are (traditionally) commanding.

In other words, once we can recognize the Divine in the Other — or if you do not resonate with that language, we can name it as the inherent dignity in the Other, — we should feel a sense of responsibility toward them. It is aleynu (upon us) to be of service, to act to alleviate their suffering and respond to their needs.

Now, it may feel near impossible or utterly exhausting to go through our day, being of service to each person we meet. How would we get anything done?!

At the same time, let’s just imagine if we moved (even a fraction of a degree) toward a Levinasian mindset — where we feel a sense of responsibility toward those we meet, and feel compelled to be an active contributor to their experience of life?

And in doing so, we make the world better for everyone. Let’s take a common New York City experience as an example: an encounter with a homeless person. This experience can make us uncomfortable for varied reasons. Especially if the person is struggling with obvious mental health or substance issues.

Whether or not we give them money, we can still offer hesed. The first step, as was taught by the example in Exodus, is to simply see this person. This act of not turning away, of not hiding our faces is powerful. When we see, we can respond perhaps with a hello or a kind word for this person, which can offer desperately needed human connection and at least momentarily restore a sense of dignity.

The next step is “yada” — to see beyond. Recognizing that this person in front of me has struggles and a story can help quiet the negative storytelling or calm the fears or discomfort that may arise. Seeing beyond enables me to make space for this person’s pain and to be more loving and kind.

And now, the third step (the Levinasian leap):

I see this person, I feel compassion, and I want to be of service. This may or may not change what I do in that moment, but it might impact the next. It might mean that I try to keep quarters in my pocket for the next time or granola bars in my bag.

Most importantly, seeing this needy person as a commanding force, as the trace of the Divine filled with holy potential, will remind me what I know in my heart but don’t always make space to feel: that no person deserves to live on the street, no person should have to beg for crumbs, have their belongings taken from them in the middle of the night.

No person should be abandoned or treated like their life doesn’t matter. No one.

And the compassion and pain fills my heart and my resolve to do something, in some even small way, to build a world that is better, in which everyone has the capacity to thrive.

This is an idea that has roots in our own community at SAJ. Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, our founding rabbi, himself understood the interdependence of all life. Mordecai Kaplan taught: “Such is the mutuality of human life that none can be saved unless all are saved.”

Olam Chesed Yibaneh – We are building a world of mutual responsibility.

I want to close with a favorite poem (perhaps my very favorite poem) Naomi Shihab Nye and then I am going to invite you to join me in singing the words that I have been speaking about tonight:

Olam Chesed Yibane, I/we will build a world of love:

Shoulders:

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow
.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

***

May we open our eyes and see what is hidden from view.

May we see beyond, knowing each person is a fragile and beautiful world to themselves.

May we see and respond, making the world a better place for all who dwell in it.

Notes:

Exodus 2:24–25

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Alei Shur, Chapter on “Chesed” from a private translation by Rabbi David Eber. Thank you Rabbi David!

Charles F. Glassman, Brain Drain: The Breakthrough That Will Change Your Life

Mordecai Kaplan – Soterics — A Religious Humanism, page 239 taught to me by Dr. Mel Scult

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