Time after time on Yom Kippur, we recite the 13 Attributes of God (Exodus 34:6-7), where God is described as “Extending hessed (kindness) to the thousandth generation.”
The Prophet Hosea, who lived in the eighth century BCE, goes one step further: “For I desire hessed, not sacrifice” (6:6).
But the most famous biblical verse about kindness is found in Micah 6:8: “O man, you have been told what is good and what it is that the Lord requires of you – only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
In rabbinic literature, the biblical ideal of hessed led to the Rabbinic ideal of gemilut hassadim, acts of loving kindness, which encompasses mitzvot such as visiting the sick, burying the dead, comforting the mourner, helping a bride and groom rejoice, and clothing the naked. According to Rabbi Simlai (Sotah 14a), God Himself engaged in gemilut hassadim, by clothing Adam and Eve in Genesis and by burying Moses at the end of Deuteronomy.
Let us skip now to three contemporary stories that illustrate just how important kindness is to all human beings.
The first story happened 19 years ago. On 9/11, all flights heading to the US were diverted. Dozens of planes from all over the world made unscheduled landings at Gander, Newfoundland. Gander, with a population of 10,400 people, suddenly had to take care of 6,700 stranded passengers!
For example, the 218 passengers on Delta flight 15 ended up in the town of Lewisporte, where they were lodged, fed and given tokens to wash their clothes. The passengers were able to call and email around the world, and they were offered hikes and boat cruises. Two days later, they were delivered back to the airport on time.
On the way back to Atlanta, one of the passengers made an announcement. He reminded his fellow passengers of the incredible kindness of the people of Lewisporte and said that, in return, he wanted to set up a Trust Fund called Delta Flight 15 to provide college scholarships for the high school students of Lewisporte. On the spot, the passengers pledged more than $14,000. By 2019, the trust fund had raised over 1.5 million dollars and had enabled 150 Lewisporte high school students to get a college education. In 2017, the story became a hit Broadway musical, Come from Away.
The second story happened in Jerusalem, where the Rabbanit Bracha Kapach served for five decades as a one-woman social service agency. She provided Shabbat meals, set up day camps for poor children, kept a warehouse of used clothing under her house, arranged for swimming and exercise classes for poor women, and provided elaborate Yemenite wedding dresses for any brides who needed them.
Lastly, she provided kimcha d’pischa, food for Pesach (Passover). By the time I used to visit her before Pesach, she was providing food for 6,000 families every year! Please understand – she did not raise the money and then buy the food; she first bought the food and then raised the money. Every year I would ask her, “How will you pay for all this?” And she would reply: “Hashem ya’azor, God will help”.
Every year before Pesach, I would collect money from the students and staff at the Schechter Institute. I would then double that amount with my own donation, and I would take one of my children to see the Rabbanit Kapach. I could have sent her a check, but I wanted my children to meet a tzadeket, a righteous woman. She would always give us a blessing and tell us some mitzvah stories. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 91, and her family now continues many of her mitzvah projects.
THE THIRD and final story is that of my uncle, Rabbi Baruch Gershon Goldstein, a Holocaust survivor who passed away in May 2017 at the age of 94. I consider him one of the 36 Lamed-vovniks who, according to the Talmud, maintain the world in every generation.
At the beginning and end of his moving Holocaust memoir, For Decades I Was Silent, he quotes the verse from Micah that I quoted above: “… what it is that the Lord requires of you – only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
I believe that he emphasized this verse because he lived his life according to these three ideals. Let us focus on the second: “to love kindness.” Uncle Baruch was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He performed countless acts of hessed to his immediate family, to thousands of people in the places where he lived in the US and Israel, and to total strangers whom he had just met.
Rabbi Goldstein was also a generous donor of tzedaka to many worthy causes, including my own institution, The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.
What was the source of this hessed, which was incredible in light of his six years under Nazi persecution, 1,000 days at Auschwitz, and the loss of 45 members of his extended family who were murdered by the Nazis?
He relates that his parents, Meyer and Tirzah z”l, “were kind, gentle and soft-spoken people” and that the kindness of his beloved wife, Riva z”l, restored him to life and gave him the will and desire to help others.
But the night before the funeral, my brother Abe told me the third reason for Uncle Baruch’s kindness, which I did not know. Many years ago, Abe and our parents z”l, visited him in California and he took them along in his car to perform a mitzvah. While driving, he told them that he was constantly involved in doing hessed for people. The reason was that during the Holocaust, many different people had helped him in many different ways. He felt a debt of gratitude, but he had no way of thanking those people. So he was thanking them by “passing on kindness.” He told Abe and my parents that they too should pass on kindness. It’s like ripples in a pond. In that way, one person will help many people; those people will, in turn, help others, and the world will be filled with kindness.
This Yom Kippur, the world is in a tough situation. We are all in a tough situation. The pandemic has affected almost every single person on this planet. We can sit around complaining or feeling sorry for ourselves, or we can fight the pandemic. And the best way to fight the pandemic is to pass on kindness: to give tzedaka to those who have lost their jobs, to help elderly people who cannot go out to shop, to make a shiva minyan in a park opposite a mourner’s house.
This is the message of Micah – ahavat hessed, to love kindness; the message of our sages – to perform acts of gemillut hassadim; and the message of the people of Lewisporte, of the Rabbanit Kapach zatzal, and of my uncle, Rabbi Baruch Goldstein zatzal – to pass on kindness. If each of us will help others, they in turn will help others, and the world will be filled with kindness. Rabbi Professor David Golinkin is the president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem