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The Pursuit of Kindness #686

07/30/2021 06:44:00 PM

Jul30

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Eikev
The LORD will establish you as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in His ways. (Deuteronomy 28:9)

The Pursuit of Kindness

The other day, I was thinking about the evolution of magazines. You remember magazines.

We’ve evolved from Life and Look magazines — established during the mid-1930s — which, through photos and articles, examined the world around us.

In 1974, People Magazine began feeding our fascination with personalities. Then came US Magazine and a variety of publications and websites beginning with the word, “My.”

Step by step, year by year it seems, the world is becoming more concerned about “us,” but only some of us, rather than all of us.  

This past Monday, returning from a wedding in Canada, I visited the airport news stand before boarding my flight in search of a weekly news magazine to read.

“Do you have Time, Newsweek or Macleans?” I asked, referring to the top three magazines once available on newsstands in Canada.

“No, no and no,” was the response, as the clerk and I eyed dozens of magazines dealing with fashion, body building, relationships, gossip and entertainment.

It occurred to me how, in many ways, so many currently view their lives, less in terms of “life” and more about “me.”

It’s really not a new trend. It existed 2,000 years ago when rabbis wrestled with a phrase that appears in this week’s Torah reading.

The rabbis considered the question, “Can any of us be God?”

Pharaoh believed that, and look where it got him. Today, many entertainers, sports figures and politicians are deified in our culture, and look where that’s getting us.

Indeed, too many today are obsessed with themselves, their appearance, and their unchecked pursuit of happiness.

How is that benefiting anyone?

The quote in question comes from this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, where Moses — in one of his final addresses — commands the Jewish people to, “walk in God’s ways.” (Deuteronomy 28:9)

The rabbis in the Talmud debate this phrase, pondering, “What does it mean to walk in God’s ways?” Indeed, can any of us literally walk in God’s footsteps?

The great sage, Rabbi Chanina states in the Talmud that walking in God’s shoes is technically impossible because, “God is a consuming fire.” Hint: Remember the burning bush.

Rather, says the Talmud, while none of us can be God, we can embrace the God within us, by emulating the acts God performs in the Torah.

Just as God clothed Adam and Eve, we should clothe those in need.

Just as God visited Abraham while he was recovering from his circumcision, we should dedicate ourselves towards comforting those who are ill.

Just as God appeared to Isaac immediately after the death of his father Abraham, so should we comfort mourners.

And, just as God buried Moses at the close of the Torah, so should we attend to those who pass away within our families and communities.

Rabbi Simlai sums it up with a beautiful observation: “The Torah begins with the performance of kindness and ends with the performance of kindness.” (Talmud, Sotah 14A)

By extension, Rabbi Simlai is implying that everything in the Torah — between the beginning and the end — is based on the performance of acts of kindness.

Indeed, our journey on this earth, says our tradition, should be based less on the quest for pleasure and self-indulgence, and more upon the pursuit of meaning and purpose.

In the words of the late writer David Foster Wallace: “If you worship money and things…you will never feel you have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.”

As I reviewed the selection of magazines during my recent trip, I noticed that most of the titles revolved around the pursuit of money, body perfection and the sharing of salacious information.

At the end of our days, is that what we want to be remembered for?

This week’s Torah portion challenges us to consider, “What does it mean to walk in God’s ways?” That does not necessarily mean sitting every week in synagogue, studying Talmud or following strict dietary habits.

Rather, according to the Talmud, walking in God’s ways means “being kind.”

Are we kind enough? Are we patient enough? Are we considerate enough? 

With the High Holidays barely a month away, during these pleasant days of summer, the cycle of the universe affords us a wonderful opportunity to assess these matters.

We have survived so much. Have we considered saying, “Thank you” to God?

In truth, God needs no thanks. Rather, according to the Talmud, all that God requires of us is to emulate the kind acts the rabbis noticed God performing in the Torah.

Clothe those in tatters. Visit the sick. Comfort the mourner. Take care of our families.

These simple phrases from the Torah can inspire us to live truly meaningful lives.

Indeed, as this world continues to edge toward a “me” focused existence, let us return — in spirit — to the intent of those now extinct magazine titles. Let us “Look at Life,” as we ask: How can we turn ourselves into something better? How we find true meaning?

Our rabbis noted this thousands of years ago, as they reviewed this short but vital phrase from this week’s Torah reading — while we cannot be gods, we can act like God.

For indeed, the walk begins with kindness.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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