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Kindness changes everything




One of these leaders, Rabbi Yehoshua, utterly distraught, bemoans the inconceivable loss of the Temple, and especially the power of its offerings to effect atonement (Avot D, Rabi Natan 4:5). The Temple service enabled people to make a fresh start, to begin again after stumbling, and to reclaim their innate purity. Of course, it had to be accompanied by a process of inner change and repentance – by sincere regret, and a real resolve to do better in the future, and by a willingness to confront personal failings with real honesty. But with the Temple gone, would true atonement be possible?

Rabbi Yochanan consoles Rabbi Yehoshua. He explains that there is a force in the world which has the same potency as the Temple itself to atone for sin. That force, he says, is kindness. The simple act of reaching out to others – providing them with help, support, comfort, and strength in their time of need – can rewire the spiritual universe in much the same way as the ancient sacred Temple services. Kindness, says Rabbi Yochanan, can unleash a force of divine forgiveness in the world that changes everything.

This has profound implications for us as we approach Rosh Hashanah – Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgement. Of course, at this time, we have to confront our wrongdoings and find a sincere way to become better in the year ahead. But the words of Rabbi Yochanan remind us that there is a powerful force which can help drive this inner journey.

Bringing up an offering in the Temple was a moving, transformative experience, rich in symbolism and spiritual power. Rabbi Yochanan’s insight was that acts of kindness are equally transformative. Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, the person we were before doing a kind deed is not the person we are after it. Kindness purifies and elevates us, and thereby atones for our misdeeds.

We learn about the transformative power of kindness from Moses. We read in the Torah that Moses grew up (vayigdal) in the house of Pharoah, and immediately after, in the next verse, the Torah repeats the fact that he grew up (Shemot 2:10-11). The Maharal explains that the first mention of vayigdal refers to Moses’ physical growth, and the second refers to his spiritual and moral growth. He became a gadol, (great person): “Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.” The act of opening his eyes to the suffering of his brethren enlarged Moshe in a very real sense. He could have remained in the privileged and protected environment of the palace, yet he gave it all up because of a concern for those around him.

This is precisely what it means to be great – to see the people around you, to be aware of their plight. And when you alleviate another person’s pain, ease another’s burden, put another’s troubled mind at rest, meet someone else’s basic emotional, psychological, or physical needs, it transforms not just the recipient of your kindness, it transforms you.

The message to us here in South Africa is clear. We need to see the suffering and the pain around us. South Africa is a country with so much promise, and at the same time, so much suffering. As the Jewish community, we need to feel that, and counter it with acts of kindness.

All South Africans watched the recent wave of xenophobic attacks with horror. Shop owners, workers, people simply going about the business of earning a living, were subject to merciless beatings and worse at the hands of angry mobs. Equally alarming is the surge in violent crime against women. Attacks on women have doubled over the past two years.

We have to unleash corresponding waves of kindness. There are many Jewish-led organisations and initiatives doing just that. But each of us can make a difference in our own personal capacity; we should confront, with kindness, any person we encounter.

We have a particular responsibility within our own community as well. So many are struggling with various challenges – health issues, financial difficulties, emotional strain. We need to feel others’ pain, and use that to spur us into acts of kindness. We are called on to become a “partner with G-d in creation” (Shabbat 10a). G-d created the world in six days, but it didn’t end there. The work of “creating” the world – of nurturing and sustaining human life, of making the world a better, kinder place – is an ongoing concern. And, as G-d’s partners, we are part of this process, we help drive it. Through simple acts of kindness, we change the lives of others, and by fulfilling our G-d-given mandate to do so, we create cosmic change in ourselves. We become G-dly.

We see this on a practical level. Time and again, even a small act of kindness – a greeting, gesture, smile, visit – can transform a person’s day. Or even that person’s entire life. Showing warmth, kindness, and comfort to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one, or who is facing serious illness, can change a life. Helping a person going through difficulties with emotional support, but also physical and material support, can change a life. Acts of kindness are soft and gentle, but their impact is powerful and awesome.

And so, as the South African Jewish community, let’s welcome in the new year, 5780, by rededicating ourselves to bringing kindness into our world, into our country, into our community, and into our families. Let’s ensure everything we do and everything we say is infused with its spiritual light. Let’s be beacons of kindness, to follow in the ways of G-d, whose “compassion extends to all of His creations”. (Psalms 145:9).

And as we approach Rosh Hashanah, let’s unleash wave upon wave of kindness, and in so doing, change not just the lives of the people around us, but our own lives – who we are in the deepest core of our being. In this way, may we merit G-d’s blessing for a good and sweet new year.

  • Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein has been the Chief Rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa since 2005. He has a BA, LLB (Unisa), and a PhD in Human Rights and Constitutional Law (Wits).

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