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Beit Midrash Jewish Laws and Thoughts Middot - Character Traits

Doing Favors

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There is a concept of charity that is pretty paramount in Jewish life and law. The halacha even prescribes the minimum and sometimes even the maximum amounts to be donated to charity. Charity in this sense encompasses support of Torah institutions and scholars, donations directly to the needy and support of other well-established educational, social and health related institutions. We are all aware of the continuing various drives and needs of such organizations and individuals. However, this charitable giving, vital and important as it is in its own right is not the full gambit of the Jewish concept and value of chesed - kindness to others. The word chesed itself indicates a breaking down of barriers between people, an ability to somehow relate to another’s feelings and mental and spiritual needs. Thus when the prophet demands of us to love to do acts of chesed he is not only speaking about charitable donations of wealth and goods, he is also speaking about a donation of time, attitudes and creating a sense of empathy one with another. Home hospitality is an example of the fact that it is sometimes much more convenient to pay for someone’s hotel lodging than having that person stay over in one’s house. It then becomes an act of charity - not to be minimized - but it is not yet an act of true chesed. For chesed requires and demands personal involvement with others and oftentimes in life people find it difficult to become so involved. Human beings by nature are reticent about breaking down such barriers. Therefore the Torah goes out of its way, so to speak, to impress upon Jews the necessity to perform acts of chesed. Chesed somehow is against our inborn nature.

Part of this reticence is that no one wishes to be seen as a naïve patsy that can easily be taken advantage of. Therefore when someone asks a favor from us, not money but just a favor - pick up my mail or groceries, etc. - we have a natural tendency to refuse because of our vulnerability to exploitation by others. There is a voice within us that says "Why should I do you a favor? When have you ever done something for me?" The Torah wishes to break us of thinking in such a mode. One is not allowed even to do a favor for someone else and at the same time remind that person that when the circumstances were reversed the other person refused to do the favor. Thus chesed becomes a very demanding goal. It requires a revamping of attitudes towards others and a reworking of our individual personalities. The Talmud sees that wishing others a good morning is an act of chesed that has the potential of lengthening one’s life span. We do not often think of a friendly greeting in that vein but the Talmud views this ordinary act of sociability to be of cosmic importance. The Mussar movement placed such seemingly small gestures of sociability and concern for the feelings and well being of others at the forefront of its definition of Jewish ethical values. Being a good Jew meant being able to do favors for others without a feeling of resentment and reluctance. Not an easy task.

Many schools have instituted chesed programs wherein the students are required to perform specific acts of chesed at appointed times of the week to assigned people and groups. In an unguarded moment, a number of such students over the years have complained to me about coerced chesed. The program instead of training these young people to love doing chesed had a completely opposite effect upon them. Coercion rarely breeds acceptance within the soul and mind of the coerced person. Very few good and believing Communists were created in Stalin’s gulag or Chairman Mao’s retraining camps. Chesed is basically a habit learned at home and emphasized in the general society. Here is Israel where the prevailing fear amongst all is not to be considered a freyer - a naïve simpleton who can be taken advantage of - chesed has a difficult struggle many times to burst forth. Good defensive driving and giving consideration to others on the road to others, even to the idiot who is trying to get back in your lane is an ultimate act of chesed. Our father Avaraham and our mother Sarah built the Jewish people on the pillar of chesed to others. The world itself is built on the idea of chesed. So we actually do ourselves a favor when we do a favor for others.
Rabbi Dov Berl Wein
The rabbi of the "HANASI" congregation in Yerushalim, head of the Destiny foundation, former head of the OU, Rosh Yeshiva of 'sharai Tora" and rabbi of the "Beit Tora" congregation, Monsey, New York.
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