Chayei Sarah – The Power of Kindness

Dr. Kelli Harding wrote an important book called The Rabbit Effect, which studies the connection between kindness and longevity, happiness, and health. The book’s title […]

Dr. Kelli Harding wrote an important book called The Rabbit Effect, which studies the connection between kindness and longevity, happiness, and health. The book’s title is based upon a 1978 experiment that tried to establish the relationship between high blood cholesterol and heart health of rabbits.  The team fed a group of rabbits with similar genes the same high fat diet, and after several months measured the animals’ cholesterol, heart rates and blood pressure.  As expected, the cholesterol values were all high, and virtually identical to one another. However, as the lead researcher studied the inside of the rabbit’s arteries, he discovered a mysterious surprise- a huge variation. One group of rabbits had 60% fewer deposits than the other.  It made no sense!  They checked protocol and procedures and found one variable.  The tests were administered by a series of different post-doc researchers – and all the animals with fewer fatty deposits were under the care of one specific post-doc researcher.  What made her different from the others was that she was known as an unusually kind and caring individual.  When she handled the animals, she cuddled and petted them; she spoke to them with love.  They repeated the experiment – this time with tightly controlled conditions and found the same effect again.  Their conclusion was that care and kindness are important factors in physical well-being.

For Dr. Harding, this was contrary to her medical training. Her book is about the science of how love, friendship, and dignity – all the social aspects of life that medicine often overlooks- contribute to health and well-being. Of course, kindness cannot cure all physical and health problems, but to know the link between wellness and kindness is important. This lesson is needed now more than ever.

This lesson is also in this week’s Torah portion.  Abraham tells his trusted servant, Eliezer, to go back to his native homeland in Aram and find a wife for his son Isaac.  While Abraham is worried about family background (his only demand being that the wife has a particular lineage), Eliezer realizes that there is something more important in marriage, and that is kindness. In the first example of personal prayer in the Torah, Eliezer prays to God that he will meet someone kind, and then he will know that it is the right match for Isaac. In his words: (Genesis 24:12 – 14)    Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness (chesed) to my master Abraham.  See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water.  May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness (chesed) to my master.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, who sadly died last Shabbat, taught that Eliezer’s use of the word chesed here is no accident.  Chesed is the very characteristic that creates for successful marriage and impacts the rest of the family.  Finding a mate who lives chesed for Isaac brings chesed to Isaac’s father, Abraham.  Eliezer is so aware of the need for chesed, he looks for the trait to be so deeply ingrained, that the right spouse for Isaac will respond to a thirsty stranger’s request for water to drink with enthusiasm, effort and attention. This was not only for the travel-weary camels, but for the livestock as well.

Eliezer had his priorities straight and has much to teach us.  We too should look for chesed in our relationships, cultivate chesed in our personal behavior and deepen our understanding of the ripples of chesed for our world. Chesed is the essence of Jewish life.  In the Talmud, we emulate God whenever we do chesed. Rav Simlai taught that the Torah begins and ends with chesed.  It begins with the chesed of God clothing the naked – making garments for Adam and Eve after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden; and it ends with chesed of God caring for the dead by burying Moses.

Think of all the teachings of ways we can show Chesed: shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, assistance to the poor, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, providing a dignified burial for all, a kind word, a helping hand, seeing the person who is upset and being present, sending a thank you note, giving a smile…  Throughout the centuries Jewish communities organized around providing chesed.  Many beautiful Jewish teachings revolve around developing chesed as an essential trait.

 Chesed also defines how we have responded to tragedy.  On Yom Kippur, I shared the story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who together with his student Rabbi Joshua sees the ruins of Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. Rabbi Joshua begins to cry, and laments that with the Temple gone, there is no way to atone – as we used to atone by bringing offerings to the Temple. Rabbi Yochanan responded, “Don’t grieve – there is another way to atone – and that is chesed – acts of love. While his response addresses the specific question of how to find atonement in a post Temple world, it more broadly dealt with the question of responding to tragedy.  We respond to tragedy with chesed.  When we respond to tragedy with chesed we realize there is something we can actually do to make things better. We internalize that we don’t need to remain in a state of constant pain.  We experience what science is coming to understand and what Dr. Harding writes about – that caring creates healing.

Chesed ripples.  Kindness breeds kindness.  It connects us. It heals us. It restores trust and lets us find the common good. Dr. Harding writes: “True health is hidden in the million tiny moments of our everyday life.”  Our world desperately needs the healing that comes through chesed. 

We can orient our lives around chesed.  Here is one request:  Two weeks ago, Pastor Hurmon Hamilton – the dynamic, beloved pastor who leads the New Beginnings Community Church which shares our building – reached out to me.  He asked if we would like to join NBCC in their Be Rich to Others project taking place throughout the month of November.  This program creates a month of chesed – it is religion at its best! My response was an enthusiastic, “Let’s do this together!”

One aspect of the project is assembling hygiene kits that will be distributed to homeless families in our area, focusing on two shelters. We will put the kits together (we will send out a list soon) and include a kind note.  The church is seeking to collect 2,000 kits to distribute. Let’s exceed that number! What if people got together in small groups at their homes – 2 -3 families outside, masks on and put the kits together?  Drop off date is Sunday, December 6, at the CBJ parking lot between 10:00am – 2:00pm. The church suggests taking a selfie as you assemble the packages which will be posted.  The church is also financially supporting local schools and service organizations as part of the program. This is incredible act of chesedIt will create ripples, not just for the people who receive the kit and the people who put it together, but it will also bring healing and connection to a community and country that has become polarized and divided. To see two faith communities united and connected around the goodness models what can and should be.

Join us in putting together hygiene kits.  Please also support our efforts to donate to Second Harvest of Silicon Valley for Thanksgiving so that everyone can enjoy a delicious holiday meal.  Search out stories of chesed and let them inspire you.  This week’s issue of People Magazine was about kindness, and there are many articles about kindness and its impact both on the one who receives, the one who gives, and its ripples to the broader world.

I loved the story of 11-year-old Cartier Carey who when the pandemic began, worried about single moms who could not afford diapers.  An 11-year-old worried about diapers – how did this happen? Cartier shares: “Ever since I was little, I’ve seen a lot of people struggling.” He saw the hardships many of his friends’ families were facing – including families who could not afford diapers and decided to do something.  With the help of family, he set up a stand selling lemonade and snacks to his Hampton, Virginia neighbors.  With the money from the sales, he bought diapers and baby wipes. Word spread and people began to drink more lemonade.  Cartier and his family have raised $7,500 – enough to provide 28,000 diapers and wipes. They distributed to hundreds of mothers through local shelters, churches and other organizations. He said, “It makes me feel great because I know I’m doing the right thing.”  That is one of the ripples of chesed!

There are scores of small and large acts of chesed to be done by every single person here in the coming days. “What can you do to add kindness to this world?” Let’s emulate the deeds of Eliezer and Cartier Carey as we live chesed.   In his commentary about this portion, Rabbi Sacks brought the English poet William Wordsworth: “The best portion of a good man’s [and woman’s] life is their little, unremembered acts of kindness and love”. Let the coming weeks be full of small and large acts of chesed every day.  Your kindness will send ripples of hope which can help our bodies, souls, and our world thrive.

Shabbat Shalom.