Ethical will: Loving-kindness

In composing my ethical will, I usually find myself resistant to including entries that should, according to my sensibilities, be self-evident. That’s not to say that I personally exemplify any of these self-evidently positive traits; rather, it is to say that I wish I did.

On the other hand, my ethical will is, by default, a Jewish document, and it strikes me that no such ethical will would be complete without the traditional basics. In the ancient Jewish text called ‘Pirkei Avot’, which is known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (but is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’), the following text is broadly known among Jewish scholars and laypeople alike (Ch. 1:2):

… ืขึทืœ ืฉืึฐืœืฉืึธื” ื“ึฐื‘ึธืจึดื™ื ื”ึธืขื•ึนืœึธื ืขื•ึนืžึตื“, ืขึทืœ ื”ึทืชึผื•ึนืจึธื” ื•ึฐืขึทืœ ื”ึธืขึฒื‘ื•ึนื“ึธื” ื•ึฐืขึทืœ ื’ึผึฐืžึดื™ืœื•ึผืช ื—ึฒืกึธื“ึดื™ื: … The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the Service [to God], and on [deeds of] loving-kindness.

This is, of course, hardly the only ancient Jewish text to highlight loving-kindness, and today’s Jewish scholars and religious leaders have certainly not abandoned this most basic of religious tenets either. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l (1948-2020) wrote:

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

‘From Optimism to Hope p. 130

‘Loving-kindness’ as the cornerstone of successful marriage

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

I found a beautiful vort (Yiddish for ‘word’ of Torah) shared by Rabbi Schorsch (1935-), which highlights the degree to which Jewish tradition emphasizes ‘loving kindness’. It spoke to me in particular because it highlights the profound significance of ‘loving kindness’ in marriage, which is exactly what first came to my mind when I chose to include this Jewish value in my ethical will.

I encourage you to read the entire vort, but following are the salient sections:

We don’t pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?

This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate…

Eliezer… devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac… He will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master’s son.

The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. “Drink, my lord…. I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19).

The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition – first Eliezer’s own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah’s greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.

Maimonides (1138-1204) went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners…

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.

-Rabbi Ismar Schorsch (1935-)

My good luck

My wife

It would embarrass my wife to know that I’m writing the following, but here goes anyway:

That which most attracted me to my not-yet-wife at the start of our relationship was her kindness, which she glows with. In fact, in the years previous to meeting her, I had spent some time contemplating which character traits I would most like my potential spouse to have, and I came to the conclusion that kindness was the most important to me.

Papa & Mama

I would also like to add the following:

After Papa died in 2018, I thought a lot about what I had most appreciated about him, and I must say that it was certainly his kindness. I have listed many of Papa’s most positive traits, but – his loving-kindness remains the one that first comes to my mind. His kindness was of the most simple, natural kind – and it informed his general selflessness.

It is my belief that Mama, being incredibly kind herself, was drawn in large part to Papa’s gentle kindness – I have come to consider this one of the pillars of their marriage. (I haven’t asked Mama about this thought of mine, but it is my strong impression.)

Loving-kindness โ‰  charity

In writing about kindness from a Jewish perspective, it’s important to draw a distinction between the Jewish understandings of ‘charity’ and ‘loving-kindness’. In fact, the word ‘charity’ is an inexact translation of the Jewish word ‘tzedakah’.

‘Tzedakah’ is a word derived from the Hebrew root แนฃdq (ืฆื“ืง), which means: ‘Justice’. In Jewish tradition, you see, ‘tzedakah’ is an obligatory 10% of one’s earnings, as a matter of social justice. Even the poorest Jew is religiously mandated to give away 10% of their earnings to others. ‘Charity’, on the other hand, is voluntary. Not so ‘tzedakah’.

The rabbis of the Talmud drew a sharp distinction between ‘tzedakah’ and ‘loving-kindness’ (‘gemilut แธฅasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ืช”ืจ ื‘ืฉืœืฉื” ื“ื‘ืจื™ื ื’ื“ื•ืœื” ื’ืžื™ืœื•ืช ื—ืกื“ื™ื ื™ื•ืชืจ ืžืŸ ื”ืฆื“ืงื” ืฆื“ืงื” ื‘ืžืžื•ื ื• ื’ืžื™ืœื•ืช ื—ืกื“ื™ื ื‘ื™ืŸ ื‘ื’ื•ืคื• ื‘ื™ืŸ ื‘ืžืžื•ื ื• ืฆื“ืงื” ืœืขื ื™ื™ื ื’ืžื™ืœื•ืช ื—ืกื“ื™ื ื‘ื™ืŸ ืœืขื ื™ื™ื ื‘ื™ืŸ ืœืขืฉื™ืจื™ื ืฆื“ืงื” ืœื—ื™ื™ื ื’ืžื™ืœื•ืช ื—ืกื“ื™ื ื‘ื™ืŸ ืœื—ื™ื™ื ื‘ื™ืŸ ืœืžืชื™ื Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut แธฅasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut แธฅasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut แธฅasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut แธฅasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

It’s important to understand this fundamental point if we’re going to expound upon ‘loving-kindness’ from a Jewish perspective: this is not an entry about ‘charity’.

My daughter

As I watch my six-year-old daughter grow up, I am moved by her constant acts of kindness. Even when she was younger and less articulate than she is now, she was constantly warming the hearts of others will her love and sweet affection.

When we used to visit my Babushka (mother’s mother), for example, my daughter would climb up unto the couch next to her and smother the old woman with hugs and kisses; and this was at a stage in Babushka’s life when she was blind, weak, and generally unable to entertain her youngest great grandchild. Once, when Babushka felt her way down the hall to the bathroom, our little girl took her by the hand so that she wouldn’t bump into the walls.

I suppose that it’s actually an odd thing for me to be waxing didactic about ‘loving-kindness’ in my ethical will, which is ostensibly for my very kind & loving child… Really, I should be learning about it from her.

55 thoughts on “Ethical will: Loving-kindness”

  1. Really beautiful post, through and through… even down to formatting… and loving kindness indeed permeates the whole of it. A treat to read, especially with the cultural wisdoms and knowledge woven in. (Also very cool to see Bhuddist and Jewish similarities, in the phrase “loving kindness” which is a key element of Bhuddist teachings too). A lot of love evident in this household. ๐Ÿ’—

  2. Loving kindness. Such an unforgettable, invaluable phrase. One the voracious human heart should ever hunger for. It is so natural, isn’t it? Children demonstrate this again and again, until we teach them to be more selfish, and eventually arrogant. Loving kindness. Thank you, David.

  3. How wonderful that you are surrounded by the trait that you considered to be the most valuable, prior to meeting your wife. A beautiful ending to your heartfelt piece, David.๐Ÿ’• Recently, I had the absolute privilege of listening to my dance instructor read her grandmother’s Ethical Will. The writing practice is moving and I felt honored to benefit from the moment.

    1. Wow; that’s so sweet – may I ask why your instructor shared her ethical will with you? What was the context for that?

      “Friends, today, instead of dancing, I thought we would do something different!”

      1. Haha! She read it at the beginning of class, before dance. It was beautiful and uplifting, which helped to set the tone for our class. I dance virtually with (mostly) women from around the world and everyone is challenged right now, to varying degrees. Uplifting and hopeful messages are needed right now. ๐Ÿ’•

  4. loving kindness is my principle concern … without it we are lacking! Beautifully stated David and I’m guessing that your partner is the mother of your 6yo?

    How blessed to be surrounded by so much clear loving kindness in your close ones, stay blessed ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Yes, Kate, my wife is the mother of our child. This year will be our tenth anniversary ๐Ÿค

      Thank you so much. I do, indeed, feel very blessed.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s