The first acts of kindness recorded in the Torah occur in the Garden of Eden. God is Adam’s matchmaker. When these first humans discover they are naked, God provides them with clothing. The Midrash enumerates other kindnesses that God does for humans: visiting Abraham after his circumcision, providing food, shelter and clothing as we wandered in the desert, comforting Moses on the death of his brother Aaron, and, finally, burying Moses.
We are taught to act with holiness in imitation of God’s acts: “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) We are God’s hands and feet; performing Divine acts of kindness in a human world. We can offer food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, care to the ill and comfort to the grieving. The list is unending and therein lies the problem.
It is possible to list the single most important act one can do. The direct saving of a life, pikuach nefesh, trumps all else. In order to save a person’s life you may temporarily neglect all other mitzvoth, commandments in the Torah.
After that what is most important? It is hard to know. The classic literature preserves a variety of lists which seem to prioritize certain acts of kindness. The traditional morning service presents this list:
These are the things for which one enjoys in this world and the benefit remains in the world to come – honoring one’s father and mother, acts of kindness, going morning and evening to the House of Study, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick, dowering the bride, attending the dead, praying with devotion, and bringing peace between individuals. The study of Torah equals them all. (B. Shabbat 127a)
It is notable because it includes acts we do for our own benefit, for the welfare of others and as part of our devotion to God.
One approach might be to collect all these lists of Divine acts of kindness and see which acts get the most attention. We might then conclude that those are the most important deeds we could do. But I believe that leads us in the wrong direction.
Lists are not helpful for two reasons. First, different people have different skills. Some are natural builders and can do any mechanical task set before them, but are uncomfortable sitting with a dying patient. The most effective act of kindness you can do may be to use your natural skills to help others. Not only will you do your best work utilizing your natural skills, you will be more inclined to do that which fits you well. So any attempt to prioritize which acts of kindness are most important for any individual to do ought to consider their particular skills.
Second, objective lists may not address the particular needs of the moment. It is June, 2010, and the worst oil spill in history is fouling the Gulf of Mexico. The spill will kill oceanic wildlife, render beaches unusable, affect the livelihoods of millions, and more. We are only a few months past a terrible earthquake in Haiti that killed 230,000 people, displaced millions and left the country a shambles. Urgent needs may arise at any moment and claim our attention. We don’t know what will happen next, or when. The most important acts of kindness may those that demand immediate attention.
Maimonides offers more useful direction in his 8 steps of Tzedakah (charity), found in Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim (Laws about Giving to Poor People), Chapter 10:7-14. I would highlight three principles embedded in his list. First, selfless acts are better than self-interested acts. It may sound odd to say that acts of kindness can be self-interested; nonetheless they may give the donor prestige or power. Acts done solely for the benefit of the recipient take precedence in Maimonides’ list over those that include self-interest.
Secondly, Maimonides strives to maintain the dignity of the individual. The Sages interpret the verse, “But you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be” (Deuteronomy 15: 8) to mean that you must provide a person what is sufficient for their particular needs, and illustrate it with a tale of Hillel the Elder. They say of Hillel the Elder that for a certain poor man of good parents he bought a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him. (B. Ketubot 67b) Not everyone would merit such care, but he was intent on preserving the dignity of that individual who had fallen on hard times. Whenever we act we should strive to preserve the dignity of those for whom we care.
Finally, Maimonides rates highest those deeds which give a person the ability to be independent. If you can help an injured person to regain their health, a homeless person to find shelter, you have given them long-lasting aid. When you help a person in this way you return them to wholeness and give them the ability to act for themselves instead of relying of the kindness of others. What is true for aid given to an individual is equally true of aid offered to a country in need, such as Haiti, or in other disasters, such as the Gulf oil spill. Your ability to help restore wholeness, shalom, to any situation is the highest aid you can offer.
I offer no simple list that prioritizes some acts over others. Rather I challenge you to consider your own skills and find the ways you can most effectively work to repair our broken world. Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that we are not required to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2:15)
Of course Judaism prioritizes, although not as exactly as we might hope. Actually saving lives is a highest priority, one that can push aside almost all other needs, but it is important to remember that "saving lives" is generally construed in the near term. An Israeli rabbi, R. Nachum Rabinovitch, has ruled that a social worker may violate Shabbat to help terrorist victims, which seems to assume that psychological trauma can also be life-threatening. I suspect that for R. Rabinovitch that would mean he would allow the psychologist of someone threatening suicide to similarly violate Shabbat to help the person.
Burying the dead is also an immediate need that takes priority over other mitsvah observances. In particular, a met mitsvah, a deceased person who has no one to care for him, creates a need so pressing that even the High Priest would be obligated to incur the ritual impurity involved in burying the unfortunate corpse. In most cases, the need is not so pressing, but honoring the dead is a high value as well.
Beyond that, helping the poor with immediate needs-- food, then clothing-- is an extremely high priority; it is, in some contexts, the only "real" definition of tsedaka, charity. Other meritorious deeds, like lending money to a traveller who finds himself without any even though he is wealthy, might qualify as gemillut hasadim, acts of kindness, rather than charity.
Within the definition of helping the poor, though, many other things can come into play. Medical research and education are two examples that come to mind-- since few of us have the personal funds to fight various illnesses if not for the vast research efforts funded by both government and private donors, it seems plausible to argue that the donations made to those causes represent some attempt to help the poor. Similarly, by educating poor children, we increase the odds they will be able to support themselves in the next generation.
Beyond charity in that sense, the priorities become much more difficult to assign. Acts of kindness-- visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, helping others who need assistance-- are all important, but my understanding is that there is much room for personal decisions about which of these areas to stress more or less, and how to incorporate the realm of kindness in one's life.
QUESTION: Are some acts of kindness considered more important than others? There is so much need in this world - does Judaism prioritize some needs over others?
ANSWER: There are numerous statements within our Jewish tradition regarding priorities among the conflicting claims upon our kindness to which we respond. Some of the more familiar of these statements are the primacy of saving life, with its obvious extensions, such as the redemption of captives (whose lives would have been in danger), the imperative of turning to our brothers when they are needy, hungry, in need of shelter and clothing, the high value of facilitating the study of Torah, the defense of the Jewish community and promotion of Jewish welfare in the Land of Israel, and so on.
Some of our traditional sources reflect the conditions of their own day, and so we are justified in buffering those sources with our own contemporary analysis of the situations calling upon our philanthropy. For example, the rabbinic dictum that “the poor of your own city take precedence over the poor of another place” presupposes that the basic Jewish community structure is local, and that the Jews of a given region are competent to address their local needs. Since the mid-19th century, however, Jews have grown ever more proactive in addressing the needs of our co-religionists, worldwide. Moreover, there are Jews living in regions where Jewish life is so impoverished that there is no ethical way for Jews in another, more affluent part of the world, such as the United States, to ignore those needs. Our various Jewish federations’ allocations committees wrestle with these issues all the time, and typically, we divide our tzedakkah dollar among Israeli, world-wide, and local Jewish causes.
We ought to bear at least two other factors in mind, when we rank our priorities. One factor is our judgment concerning how much help a given cause will receive from others, if we ourselves do not prioritize it. There are, for example, many worthwhile, general, causes that ought to engage us, because Judaism has a universalistic side. We ought to do our part to save the whales, the rain forests, and so on. But we are also commanded to care for our own people, and it is legitimate to fear that, if Jews do not take the lead in caring for Jews, others will not fill the void. Therefore, it is not correct for Jews, a tiny minority of the world’s population, to assign the bulk of their charitable giving to causes where the large majority is also engaged.
Another factor is an assessment of the effect of our donation upon the recipients. Most of us would agree that giving five dollars to a habitual drunkard is less well spent than buying that man a sandwich, because the former gift is liable to abuse, i.e. being spent on his addiction. By extension, as seen from the perspective of Masorti Judaism, which is strongly Zionist, Israelis who evade their national service in the Israel Defense Forces are harming their community, and therefore we would sooner fund Israeli yeshivot which encourage their students to defend their fellow Israelis, than to fund institutions which abet draft-dodging.
Lastly, we should bear in mind the rabbinic distinction between tzedakkah and gemilut chasadim: the former involves monetary gifts, while the latter can be done by means of personal service as well as by money. We help to refine the character of the giver when we seek opportunities for gemilut chasadim, and do not confine ourselves to tzedakkah. Therefore, charities which promote volunteerism, such as homeless shelters that enlist the services of volunteers in fulfilling their social welfare mission, deserve a high priority, and we ought to support them both with our dollars and our investment of time and energy.
Rabbi Michael Panitz
Temple Israel of Norfolk, Va. (Masorti/ Conservative)
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