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):

… עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: … 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 ≠ 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 dq (צדק), 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 ḥasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ת”ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut ḥasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut ḥasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut ḥasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut ḥasadim 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. Priceless principles, Ben! Thank you for that very inspirational writing. Loving-kindness will make for a beautiful meditation throughout my week.

    1. Hannah, I’m so glad that you got something out of this… on the one hand, the blog is obviously for me, but on the other hand I know that other people read it, and I don’t want to be a bore! I really appreciate your kind support.

      All best,
      David

  2. Beautiful post, David! ❤ Kindness is on my list of top three desirable qualities, along with ethics and intelligence. The anecdotes about your daughter are very touching. In an earlier post, you focused on her intelligence. I suspect she is also a very ethical person. 🙂 Have a great day!

  3. Very enjoyable post, Ben, thank you. This seems to be my day to think about loving kindness – I keep reading about it. The universe is trying to tell me something and I plan to listen.

    1. Elizabeth – please feel free to call me David 🙂

      I’m really glad you got something out of my post – loving-kindness is an aspiration of mine too.

      Yours,
      David

  4. I know nothing about Jewish traditions and reading your posts gives me some idea about them, so I am grateful that you share it here.
    Loving-kindness is so often underrated but for me it is right at the top.

  5. I totally agree that acts of kindness never die, as they snuggle into the heart’s niche of good memories. And for some of us who’ve not had much kindness shown to us, the few kind acts are worth more than gold. I’m so thrilled for you that you have a wonderful, kind wife–and such a little sweetie for a daughter–you are a RICH man indeed! 🤗 Blessings! Jael

  6. I love how you intertwined your jewish faith which is so rich in spirit with love and kindness.
    If we were just kind to each other, the world would be a different place. I can imagaine your wife blushing, your daughter beaming and your Babuska, mother and father beaming down looking at you with so much love. And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! ❤️

        1. Al ha Torah, ve al ha Avodah, ve al Gmilut chasadim:
          Torah, (we used to mime lifting the Sefer from the bimah here), we interpret as Torah study and doing mitzvot,
          ha Avoda, (we mimed sheckling in davening) interpreted as davening, which is the substitute for the korbanot, and
          gmilut chasadim: (we mimed waving hands) acts of kindness.
          I explained to my students that the Avodah is the work of Tikkun Olam, which can include building peace, but I’d never heard this song until you mentioned it (but I taught in 2001-2003 for a Nashua, NH reform shul, where folks often looked askance at me for attending Chavurah Shalom down in Somerville, MA).

        2. No, my helped me out with some of the motions: I used a sign language motion for The Earth as haOlam, (two-handed rather than ASL), and I think another teacher suggested the hagbah idea for haTorah, while one of the kids suggested wavy-hands horizontally for gmilut chasadim, and of course, omed was obvious. I guess it was a group effort! 🙂

        3. So, there’s a traditional zemer based upon the original text, the tune of which may very well be from NCSY… but there’s a more recent version that changes the words… you can hear it in this video, for example:

          I believe that this newer version was composed by Allan Naplan.

        4. Yes! I’ve seen in in the NCSY bencher! Thank you, I knew I’d seen it before somewhere, and that the kids all knew the melody.
          Ok, looking on youtube I see renditions of Allan Naplan’s version. Totally different melody.
          But there must be many niggunim used for this zemer.
          It was one way I used to ‘persuade’ kids to bench with us if they were unfortunate enough for me to catch them after a kiddush/lunch after services when I could instigate benching! 🙂

        5. Most of the kids went to camp Ramah, or at least in most congregations (which tend to be Masorti) that I’ve been part of, so the NCSY youth songs are pretty standard, even for reform kids, it seemed to me.

  7. 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 🙂

  8. 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.💕 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. 💕

  9. 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.

  10. 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. 💗

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