By Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides
(AJNews) – “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people,” – Abraham Joshua Heschel
There is a wonderful, ancient story from the Hindu tradition told by the spiritual teacher, Mark Nepo, in his “Book of Awakening.” It tells of an old, holy man who doesn’t know he is holy – much like one of the thirty-six Tzaddikim (holy souls) from our tradition. Every day, this old, holy man would go to the river Ganges to pray.
One day, the old man was reciting his prayers when he noticed a spider struggling on its back in the water. The old man reached out, turned the spider over, and cupped the spider gently in his hands to place the spider back on shore. But the spider was a poisonous spider and it bit the old man. Since the man was holy, the poison didn’t penetrate, although the bite still stung.
The next day, the old man went back to the river and saw the same spider, struggling again. The holy man did the same thing; reached out to gently take the spider to safety, but the spider bit him again.
This happened again and again until one day, the spider finally spoke to the old man, ‘Don’t you understand? I will bite you every time because I am a poisonous spider and that is what I do!’
The holy man looked kindly at the spider and said, “Oh, I do. It is you, my friend, who does not understand. You see, I will save you every time because that is what I do.”
Our Jewish tradition speaks often about kindness. In fact, the concept of Chesed appears more that 190 times in the Torah, leading many Jewish thinkers to hold that the value of Chesed is Judaism’s primary ethical virtue. But Chesed is hard to properly translate – there is no direct correlation. English versions usually try to represent it with such words as “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” even “loyalty,” but the full meaning of the word cannot be conveyed without context. Contemporary Jewish scholar and teacher, Avivah Zornberg, has said Chesed is “not just loving-kindness as it’s usually translated, but is also courage and imagination.”
In one of our tradition’s most important books, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), Shimon the Righteous is quoted as saying, “The world is based on three things – on the Torah, on the service of G-d, and upon acts of loving-kindness.” Dr. Yvette Alt Miller adds this commentary, “Kindness isn’t optional in Judaism: reaching out to others is a key part of working to make the world a better place. Being kind is integral to what it means to be a Jew.”
I don’t know about you but coming back into the world in the post-Covid-age has not been easy. We’ve had to relearn how to socialize and be polite in company. Interactions are awkward, people are stressed and maybe a little crabby. For the past few years, we’ve kept our masks on and our heads down – just trying to survive. Now that we are out and about, we must relearn small civilities and kindnesses. If we don’t need to leave 6-feet between us anymore, can we hold the door for the person behind us? Now that our masks are off, can we smile at the customer service person at the check-out counter? If we can be in one another’s company, can we visit our isolated Uncle at the Home? Bring him a coffee? Have a chat?
With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, as we take part in the ‘reckoning of our soul’ or Cheshbon Hanefesh, it is tempting to strive for a completely clean slate to begin our Jewish New Year. We look back on how we behaved and look forward to how we can do better. But let us not forget, we rarely regret kindness. We don’t have to leave that behind – that aspect of the past can be, and should be, kept. It is kindness that is the balm for our souls, that carries us through the hard times, and bathes us in the sweetness that the New Year promises. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book From Optimism to Hope: “Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.”
The story about the holy man and the spider comes from a chapter in Mark Nepo’s book called, “I’d rather be a fool than not believe.” It speaks not just to the beauty of kindness, but to its power. As the author says, “This story tells that the strength of our kindness dilutes the sting of the world.”
My wish for all of us as we approach these Days of Awe is that we risk looking foolish in the pursuit of kindness. Yes, the world can sting. But we have the power, all of us together, to make our world less painful, less bitter, and more sweet, one gentle cupful at a time.
From my family to yours, Shana Tova, Good Yontef and Goot Yor!
Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides is the Assistant Rabbi at the Beth Tzedec Congregation, the Jewish Community Chaplain for Jewish Family Service Calgary, and stewards her own small Rabbinic Practice. Please visit RockyMountainRabbi.com for more information.