Does the world care about kindness? If Google is the mouthpiece of the world, it does. When I typed “acts of kindness” into the computer search engine, I got 1,210,000 hits – quite a few of them websites like helpothers.org, which describes itself as a portal dedicated to small acts of kindness such as “holding the door open for people at all times” and taking home-cooked food to old folk who live alone.
“Extraordinary acts of kindness” garnered 14,000 hits. “Amazing acts of kindness” returned 5,460.
Kindness is on my mind this week, probably because it is the leitmotif of the Book of Ruth, which we just read on Shavuot, its message being that kindness – in this case, Ruth’s to her mother-in-law, Naomi – brings tremendous rewards.
ONE OF the extraordinary acts of kindness my search turned up was that of Chiune Sugihara who, as Japan’s consul to Lithuania at the beginning of WWII, risked his career, his life and the lives of his family by issuing transit visas for Jewish refugees desperate to escape Nazi persecution. (The movie Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness
tells the inspiring story.)
In August 1940, this indefatigable diplomat spent more than 16 hours a day in Kovno defying Tokyo by issuing such visas until the country’s last remaining consulates were forcibly closed. His visas enabled thousands of Jews to escape Lithuania via the USSR, and it is estimated that more than 40,000 people alive today owe him their existence.
Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and Frank Foley are other names that come to mind in this context, and they are only the best-known: By January 1, 2009, Yad Vashem had recognized 22,765 Righteous Among the Nations from 44 countries, people who risked their lives or liberty in acts of extraordinary kindness toward Jews in the Shoah.
I WAS intrigued to see the dictionary explain “kind” as deriving from the Old English cyn
meaning “kin,” implying that this is how we behave toward those who are related to us; or perhaps vice versa – that when we act kindly toward someone, we feel drawn to them as if they were our kin.
This speculation led me back to the monstrous absence of kindness that was the Nazis’ Final Solution – and to a piece called “Second Generation speaks” which I wrote for the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem.
In it, I described a family gathering where I, the “naive child,” heard Auschwitz survivors speak with a “curious, quiet detachment about things my ears heard, but my brain could not encompass.”
I could well understand why unease hung “heavy in the air” – but not, for the life of me, why my family sat “shamed, like guilty ones condemned.
“‘Isn’t it enough?’ I want to shout. ‘Isn’t it enough what our enemies did? Must we be their conscience, too?’
“Then I think it is the shame of having been there and seen the last vestiges of feeling stripped away, of witnessing the final insult. Humanity is a common possession, after all.
“And I, the infant, also felt the shame, and whatever is in me that is akin to all mankind held its face in its hands and wept.”
THIS, of course, is the line that links kindness and kin, and it hardly matters which of them prompts the other: What all people, everywhere, share is the trait, the attribute of being human, and the immeasurably sad fact is that while many of us feel that kinship and are moved to act accordingly, others don’t feel it much; and in horribly tragic instances, not at all.
Which is how one group of people can dehumanize another, and act accordingly.
SOMETIMES it is expedient for one group to not dehumanize, but simply not take much account of the human-ness of another, and it seems to be happening more and more in the modern Western world of work.
Corporate employers are showing little shame over an exclusive preoccupation with the bottom line, squeezing budgets and wages till they squeak and slashing manpower to the bone while remaining aloof from those who work for them, whom they scarcely know, if at all.
This deliberate maintaining of distance isn’t difficult to understand; for once you form even a slight relationship with your employee, it’s going to be that much harder “to do what needs to be done.”
Western society, including Israel, is undergoing one of those harsh transition periods in which the world of work is changing radically, many of its former assumptions and sureties swept away like a field of grain at harvest-time.
The effects of globalization and burgeoning technology on a mass of today’s workers recall those of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, when automation left many artisans embittered and without employment, and changed their entire way of life.
It’s called progress, and boy, can it hurt.
There’s a Jewish angle, at least the way I see it.
A Jew living what I call a real Jewish life ought never to feel too comfortable. There must always be a tension between what is expedient, what “needs to be done” to survive, and the obligation to be a mensch. Where bosses are concerned, this necessarily means recognizing the human-ness of one’s workers, and acting accordingly.
Does this complicate bosses’ lives? You bet. And there are no pat answers. An employer who leans too far toward his employees may end up bankrupt.
But, then, no one ever said it was easy to be a Jew.
ISRAELI SOCIETY overflows with organized acts of kindness. There are hesed
(kind-action) groups helping people in almost every imaginable plight 365 days a year – the hungry, the sick, the troubled and the economically challenged. Schools organize programs where pupils volunteer in individual needy settings and have the results recorded on their report cards.
There are extraordinary acts of kindness here as well, which have become commonplace – or so the foreign press largely finds them – such as terrorists who have harmed Israelis being tended in Israeli hospitals by Israeli staff alongside their victims and receiving the same level of care.
Spontaneous acts of kindness are daily in evidence, too – the passerby I stopped recently in an unfamiliar part of town put his own concerns aside and spent several minutes accompanying me to make sure I had understood his directions; the doorman of a public building who saw my heel parting company from my shoe as I was hurrying to an appointment promptly produced a hammer and nails and fixed me up on the spot.
What does still seem to be lacking is a public code of kindness and courtesy in much of life’s everyday business: giving way on the roads, allowing others their due – by not shouting them down or pushing ahead in line – showing consideration for others instead of the every-man-for-himselfness one often comes up against.
Some say it’s too much to expect from a country that has so quickly
ingathered such a broad spectrum of exiles and is, moreover, under
But it’s that Jewish tension thing again – the pull we ought to feel to
behave as morally as we can toward one another, whatever the
Israel is a funny old place of extremes, in this area of human dealings too.
Unlike the Britain in which I grew up, where the people you met out and
about tended to be somewhat parve
outstandingly kind to you, nor shockingly offensive – during my 38
years in this country, I must confess to witnessing examples of the
most shining, and the coarsest, personal behavior.
Perhaps, though, my assessment should be gentler: I’ve suddenly
remembered the occasion in London, back in the ‘70s, when a woman I had
never seen before slapped my face as she passed me while crossing the
That’s never happened to me in Israel.
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