Through a Mussar Lens: Generosity Begets Lovingkindness
By Alan Morinis
These are trying times for the virtue of lovingkindness (chesed in Hebrew). The online world has made it so easy to tweet hatred, vilification and intolerance, and some leaders have become fully complicit, actually leading the charge toward unkindness. The impact is felt not online but in the actual reality of people’s lives. Refugees are no longer people in dire need but terrorists. Neighbors who are different from us are inherently suspect. Kindness is judged a weakness.
Nothing could be further from the Jewish view, and once more we find that the modern world is out of step with the perennial truths and aspirations of the Jewish heart. In the Talmud, Rabbi Simlai points out that the Torah begins with chesed (when God clothes Adam and Eve just before their expulsion from the garden) and ends with chesed (when God buries Moses). His point is that the entire Torah is characterized by lovingkindness, and our role model in this quality is none other than God. We are meant to take that point to heart, so that our entire lives are likewise oriented to lovingkindness.
Notice that the chesed cited by Rav Simlai is not feelings but deeds. This is a fundamental aspect of the Jewish view of lovingkindness: it is not a sentiment but benevolent action we undertake for the sake of another’s well-being.
Chesed is such a fundamental concept in Jewish thought that the Psalm teaches: “The world is founded on lovingkindness” (Psalms /Tehillim 89:3). When the Maharal (1512–1609) offers his interpretation of the traditional image that the Torah is black fire written on white fire, he tells us that the white fire—the very background on which the letters appear—is chesed. The list of citations in praise of kindness is very long and very ancient.
Though innumerable sources and commentators have praised the virtue of kindness through the centuries, being kind remains an elusive goal for most human beings (me included), even as the idea is so appealing. How can I be kind when I am so often tired and stressed, when so many demands are being made on me, when my experiences in life fall so short of the hopes and the images I carry around? Why be kind to others in this unkind world, when I am so much more likely to encounter indifference, or even cruelty, not kindness?
Praising kindness in a world as hard-hearted as ours is appealing, just as a call for light stirs those caught in a world of darkness. But that praise no more creates a kind heart than praising light brings on illumination. We are still stuck in theory, words, concepts, tools for understanding that do not touch deeply enough within us to transform our hearts. Here is where we get enormous help from the great Mussar teacher, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892–1953).
Rav Dessler was as thoroughly steeped in Mussar as a person can be. In 1906, at the age of 14, he had become one of the youngest students at the Mussar yeshiva at Kelm in Lithuania, which was led by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Braude, the son of the founder, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (known as the Alter of Kelm; 1824–1898). With a brief interruption during the First World War, Rabbi Dessler spent a total of 18 years learning Talmud and Mussar at Kelm, where the spirit of the Alter remained strong.
Rabbi Dessler’s father had been a close student of the Alter, and in 1920 Rabbi Dessler cemented the link to the Alter’s family when he married Bluma, the Alter’s great-granddaughter (b. 1889).
In 1928, Rav Dessler accompanied his father to England for medical treatment, and decided to remain behind. That someone as immersed in the world of pre-Holocaust Lithuanian Mussar as Rabbi Dessler should find himself in London in the 1930s turns out to be a great gift to those of us who were born and raised in more recent times. For one thing, Rabbi Dessler was spared the fate of many great Mussar teachers by being sheltered in England when the Holocaust ravaged European Jewry. But it was also a gift to us that Rav Dessler made some income tutoring young men, a practical decision that created a great legacy for later generations.
His students were English, not products of a yeshiva world, and much more connected to the world at large than was anyone in the more cloistered Jewish community of Lithuania. Aware of those he was addressing, Rav Dessler undertook to explain Mussar concepts in terms that would be understood and appreciated by his audience, whose background and worldview were so different from that of the young men where he came from. The result was the creation of a body of letters, lectures and essays written with the goal of opening the world of Mussar to people who had not been raised under the tent of a yeshiva—people just like many readers of this Yashar newsletter.
After Rabbi Dessler’s passing in 1953, his wide-ranging and mostly Mussar-focused writings and correspondence were collected into six volumes published as Michtav mi-Eliyahu (“Letter from Elijah”), later brought out in an English translation called “Strive for Truth!”
Rav Dessler wrote on many topics, but where he has perhaps had his greatest influence is in his beloved “Discourse on Lovingkindness.” His main innovation there was not conceptual, but lay in his practical guidance in the how-to of being kind.
He tells us that the personality infused with chesed is unlike the majority of people because he or she is not concerned with what he or she can take from the world, but rather focuses exclusively on giving. The practitioner of lovingkindness may receive but does not take, and sees his or her mission on earth in the opportunity life provides to be one who gives. From this we learn that a kind heart is brought into being by acts of generosity.
These two powers—giving and taking—form the roots of all character traits and of all actions. And note: there is no middle way. Every person is devoted, at the deepest level of personality, to one or the other of the two sides, and in the innermost longing of the heart there are no compromises. It is a basic law that there is no middle path in human interest. In every act, in every word, in every thought ... one is always devoted either to lovingkindness and giving, or to grasping and taking.
Like many Mussar teachings I have encountered, I am certain I never could have realized this truth on my own. Rav Dessler opens our eyes to see that we do not transform ourselves in the direction of kindness by trying to do acts of kindness, but rather by practicing acts of generosity.
If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to whom he gives, he would realize that the only reason the other person seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to that one; he has not taken the trouble to show the other friendly concern. If I give to someone, I feel close to him; I have a share in his being. It follows that if I were to start bestowing good upon everyone I come into contact with, I would soon feel that they are all my relatives, all my loved ones. I now have a share in them all; my being has extended into all of them.
In place of a world in which fearful and selfish grasping is not only the norm but celebrated, here we have a beautiful vision of a world transformed by kindness, transformed into a world of generosity, goodness and love. This is the Jewish vision and we know it is not impossible because we have actually already experienced it ourselves, perhaps only occasionally or fleetingly, but who hasn’t been the recipient of kindness in some form? Whose heart was not touched by the experience? And whose heart does not crave more of that kindness?
All it takes is for more people to be like Joe Majercsak of Chilliwack, British Columbia. After 40 years of cutting hair as a barber, when Joe was ready to hang up his scissors, he decided to gift the barber shop to Hane Al Hashesh, a Syrian refugee who had arrived in Canada just a year earlier. “My father arrived in 1957 with only $5 in his pocket,” said Mr. Majercsak. “He was a refugee from the Hungarian Revolution. Hane has five kids. I thought to myself, he really needs a hand up.”
“Olam chesed yibaneh—The world is built on lovingkindness.” When we do not give into fear or follow the fear-mongers, when we do not model our lives on the leaders who are takers, when we engage in acts of chesed large and small, we build a world of kindness that can be there to be inhabited by us and our children and our children’s children.
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