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Kindness—Acting Like God #752

11/11/2022 06:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Vayera: God appeared to Abraham under the terebinths of Mamre. He was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot." Genesis 18:1

KindnessActing Like God


If you ask most people who have rejected their religion, why they reached that decision, their response is often:

“Too strict. Too many rules. Too much judgment. Too many wars fought.”

And, if you ask what they truly needed from their religion, I believe many would reply:

“More spirituality. More peace. More meaning. More kindness.”

How interesting that the fastest growing religion in the United States these days is classified as “Spiritual, Not Religious.”

A survey conducted in 2017 indicated that about a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) regarded themselves as “Spiritual, Not Religious”—up 8 percent over the previous five years. And that trend continues.

To me, it means that while so many believe in a higher power—the power of love, and a heartfelt desire to be at one with the universe—they have not been experiencing that from traditional religion.

Why the disconnect?

Although rabbis and other religious leaders are responsible for teaching tradition, history, rituals, values and the meaning of various holidays, it is also important that they listen to the hearts of those they serve in order to remain relevant through changing times.

This has not always been the case, as religion has often focused more on practice than on values.

But that is not the case this week, as a simple appearance by God inspires our Sages to teach one of the most important values of all: Kindness.

As we begin this week’s parashah, Abraham—after undergoing circumcision—is resting at the entrance of his tent in the city known today as Hebron.

Suddenly, God appears to him. And although the visit is brief, our Sages attach great significance to the encounter, concluding that God must have been paying Abraham a “get well” visit.

I’m not sure that is what the actual biblical text was intended to convey, but how interesting that 2000 years ago the rabbis drew the following conclusion:

"God believes in kindness above all."

Our Sages note that while none of us can be God (we cannot be a Burning Bush), we can act the way God does in the Torah, and in so doing, we can be God-like.

They provide four biblical examples:

Says the Talmud (and please click below):

“Just as God provided clothing to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, so we too should clothe the naked

“Just as God visited Abraham after his circumcision, so we should visit the sick.

“Just as God appeared to Isaac after Abraham’s death—so we should comfort those who have lost a loved one.

“Just as God buried Moses in the desert, so we should attend to family and friends who pass away.”

Therefore, notes the Talmud—and this is perhaps my favorite observation in all of Judaism: The Torah begins with kindness, and ends with kindness.”

You may have noted in recent months, occasional references to my mentor, the late Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz. (I am currently assembling a book on his teachings, which will be released in early 2024.)

As he and I studied this Talmud section prior to his passing in 2013, he raised his arms over his head and howled, “Why didn’t we learn this section about kindness on the first day of Hebrew school?

“And why didn’t we learn this Talmud passage on the first day of rabbinical school?”

That is one reason why—each September, on the first day of Hebrew school, I offer this teaching to our students: “The Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness.”

I often reflect that if each of us learned that critical Jewish lesson on the first day of Hebrew school, and it was underscored by rabbis, cantors, teachers, and all family members who often taught us our Judaism, so many more would remain satisfied and enriched by religion.

Indeed, Judaism is more of a rabbinical religion rather than a Biblical one. That is, so many of the past and current laws, customs and practices governing Judaism have been instituted by rabbis “riffing” off a biblical passage.

So, based on a simple reference to God appearing to Abraham thousands of years ago, rabbis were inspired to draw on four examples to teach their generation, as well as today’s, that kindness—not strict obedience—is what God desires of us.

The lesson has been there all along.

And if we are not feeling the kindness, I would suggest we are not pursuing religion the way it was meant to be.

Still, we can change the world.

We as parents, grandparents, teachers and leaders can build a better religion to inspire our children, grandchildren and those who look to us to reject the harshness, commercialism and the gossip-ridden world that increasingly surrounds us.

We need to model more care and compassion. The Talmud taught this 2000 years ago, but it is as fresh today as it was then.

And it is within our grasp to learn it, to teach it and to model it.

“The Torah begins with kindness and the ends with kindness.”

These are not words of idealism. These are the words of realism.

For we are just as good as next thing we do.

Therefore, let our next act be one of kindness.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784