Kindness, the Queen of Virtues

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The world stands on three things—on the Torah, on the Sacred Service, and on the practice of loving-kindness.
— Shimon the righteous, Pirke Avot 1:2

What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?
—George Eliot

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) once said, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” Indeed, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests, kindness and compassion compose the keystone in the great arch of Jewish values. In a sense, all other Jewish values depend on, and may be derived from, these central virtues, which are expressed in Hebrew by the word rahamim. Thus, Rabbi Shlomo Toperoff tells us that, “Torah itself cannot exist if it is divorced from acts of lovingkindness.”

Another way of putting it: without kindness and compassion, no matter what else you do in life–you are not a mensch, and you are not living like a worthy and decent human being. Indeed, the Talmud tells us, “one who shows no pity for fellow creatures is assuredly not of the seed of Abraham, our father” (Babylonian Talmud, Betzah 32a). A consistently unkind person is, spiritually speaking, essentially expelled from the Jewish community. I would argue that such a person is not fit to be a member of the human community—while adding the caveat that we are all capable of changing for the better, and that even habitually unkind people should not be “written off” as beyond redemption. (That would be neither kind nor compassionate!) Let’s see how the qualities of kindness and compassion are sometimes put to the test:

There was no love lost between Carol and Malkah, her mother-in-law. “‘Malkah’ means “Queen”[in Hebew], doesn’t it?” Carol would tease her husband, Joel. “Well, your mother sure lives up to the billing!” It was true that Malkah criticized Carol at almost every opportunity, though she (Malkah) “meant well.” Usually, Malkah’s critiques were in the nature of “looking out for my son,” and involved such things as how Carol would prepare meals, whether she was spending enough time with Joel, etc. Occasionally, though, Malkah would rip into Carol for no apparent reason. Once, Malkah made the statement, “Joel would have been better off if he had never married, the way you treat him!” This jibe had hurt Carol deeply, and she had never fully forgiven Malkah for the remark. One night, Carol and Joel received a phone call from Joel’s father, who was calling from the hospital. Malkah had suffered a mild stroke, and was having trouble with arm movement and speech. She was expected to recover, but would need a lot of “rehab” and assistance at home. Carol began to wonder what her responsibilities were, given how Malkah had treated her.

We will have more to say in a later chapter, regarding a child’s responsibilities to his or her parents (and in-laws!), as well the mutual responsibilities involved in “forgiveness.” (Forgiveness is not a one-way street, as we shall see.) But for now, it’s enough to say that Talmudic ethics call for kindness and compassion at this point in Carol’s life—notwithstanding Malkah’s own less-than-spotless record of kindness. In a situation like this, it is Carol’s responsibility to let her “good inclination” (yetzer tov) overcome her “evil inclination” (yetzer hara), and to assist her mother-in-law as best she can. Ideally, Carol would find a way to do this without a sense of disgruntled and begrudging duty—though this would hardly be easy! But as Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and Francie Schwartz put it, “Only when we find the inner power to lovingly take back the one who hurt us can we overcome estrangement.”

How does a person who has been hurt by another find the ability to show rahamim to that individual? One way is suggested by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who describes a group in Israel that meets on a regular basis, and actually tries to come up with “excuses” for slights that group members have suffered! Here is one example:
You were hoping that somebody would invite you to his house, but he failed to do so.
a. Perhaps someone in his family is ill.
b. Perhaps he was planning to be away from home.
c. Perhaps he did not have enough food in his house.

So, in the case of Carol and Malkah, perhaps Carol might come up with a few creative “excuses” for Malkah’s inconsiderate behavior; for example, “Maybe Malkah needs to criticize me because she is afraid she herself hasn’t done enough for Joel. Or, maybe she doesn’t know how to express affection, except by criticizing.” Sure, these may sound like “lame” rationalizations, and they are not meant to exonerate Malkah. But for the moment—and particularly in the circumstances of Malkah’s stroke—inventing some plausible “excuses” for Malkah’s bad behavior will do more good than harm. They may allow Carol to get in touch with her “better angels” (yetzer tov) and show compassion to her mother-in-law.

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Excerpted with slight modification from chapter 2 of Dr. Pies’s book, Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone, to be released in late December, 2010, by Hamilton Books.

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