ESSAY POINTS OUT THE IMPORTANCE OF JEWISH ETHICS
Our congregant Bonnie Eisenman wrote this essay for the 19th Annual Kaplan Essay contest. Bonnie was one of the finalists in the competition. Her essay is so special that I would like to share it with you this month.—-Rabbi Warshaw
Our jeans were splattered with mud; we had bramble scratches running up our arms. My arms and legs ached from guiding the horse along the overgrown trail. Now, the trail ride over, the two other volunteers and I were sitting on the porch, catching our breath before the second shift of students.
The three of us were volunteering at the 4STEPS Therapeutic Riding Program, a horse-based therapy program for mentally and physically disabled students. We accompanied our riders in the ring and on the trails, keeping a general eye out for trouble while leading the horses. I’d stumbled into 4STEPS when I was searching for a Bat Mitzvah service project. Though I’d long since fulfilled both that and my school’s service-learning requirement, I was still there.
Michael and Larry—our riders—were still grinning from their jaunt through the woods as the program’s director walked them through the cool-down exercises in the ring. From the distance, you couldn’t tell that the two boys were autistic. They were simply laughing, grinning boys, perfectly at ease atop their gentle beasts.
Laura, Gina, and I were dirty, tired, caked with dust and the smell of horses. But we reveled in the feeling of gritty exhaustion. We were all there of our free will, and this was why we came: to see those smiles, to hear those laughs. There is something deeply spiritual about helping others, and it didn’t matter that the three of us came from different religions. Whether or not the others termed it as such, we all felt the everyday holiness of our service.
Judaism places a great stress on what our school system likes to call “community service.” Helping others is part of gemilut chasadim, one of the three pillars of the world—the other two being Torah and avodah (service). Often translated as “acts of loving-kindness,” the term’s meaning is much broader than that simple phrase. “Gemilut” signifies reciprocal acts; “chesed” (the singular of chasadim) combines steadfast love and pure giving. Combined, the term connotes a covenant between people—it is a social responsibility. Our responsibility to aid each other supports our community; this is why gemilut chasadim is considered a pillar of the world. It carries far more weight than tzedakah, or charity. Unlike tzedakah, gemilut chasadim can be given to the rich or the poor, the dead or the living; it can take the form of a monetary donation, or be given as personal assistance. (Sukkot 49b) There is no prescribed minimum or maximum. Conceptually, it is also unique because its rewards are found in this world, not the next.
Those rewards are often small or subtle, but they are real: goodwill, a sense of joy, new connections between former strangers. Earlier, I invoked 4STEPS because there I experienced firsthand the transformation of an obligatory service project to a true example of gemilut chasadim. I befriended my fellow volunteers, the riders, and the horses; I relished the physical exertion and rejoiced as the students made slow but steady progress. The grin of a wheelchair-bound student first experiencing the swift freedom of horseback riding, the looks of awe as a “rain-dance” exercise actually prompted a sunshower—these, to me, were proof of goodness in the world, and they were reward enough. Years after I first started, I have seen how the parents of those autistic boys have thrown themselves into community service of all kinds; they are present at many functions and fundraisers. “Pay it forward” might be a slogan, but it’s true: gemilut chasadim serves the world, even (and perhaps especially) if we approach it one person at a time. Recipients of chesed are more able to pass on chesed in return, and thus loving-kindness gives birth unto itself.
When I saw the prompt for this essay—what facet of Judaism is most important for me to pass down to my children—gemilut chasadim immediately sprang to mind. Belief in God gives me an anchor, and I find solace in prayer; the tradition-steeped rituals and vibrant culture of the Jewish people give me pride. But for me, it is the goodness of Judaism that resonates most broadly. Time and again, we are called upon to welcome strangers, to help the needy, to love our neighbors as ourselves. The consistent call to righteousness is much of what makes me proud of my faith. And what better concept to pass on to the next generation than loving-kindness, which is meant to be practiced throughout one’s life?
And so I wish this to be my children’s inheritance. While I plan to raise my future children in the Jewish faith, they will ultimately grow into independent adults. Perhaps they will embrace Judaism as I have. Perhaps not. Either way, I hope that gemilut chasadim will be a pillar for them, just as it is a pillar of the world. It is possible to live without specific rituals or traditions, but recognizing our social responsibility to others is a crucial element to living a good life. Yes, I wish good health and success for my future children, just as I wish Judaism for them. But most of all, I hope that they will grow into happy adults with fulfilling lives, and the only way to be truly happy is to know that you have also brought happiness to others, and that your life is a good one.
Gemilut chasadim: loving-kindness; the social contract; community service. English does not have the precise words necessary to explain the concept in its entirety, but the sentiment remains. To my children, though they are yet unborn: may your lives be filled with acts of loving-kindness, and may you bring goodness with you into the world. Of all our species’ abilities, loving-kindness is our most powerful—more important than our material accomplishments, more potent than our technical prowess. It is nothing less than a pillar of our world.