Written & Animated by Hanan Harchol
Jewish Food For Thought: The Animated Series was created with generous funding by The Covenant Foundation.
Study Guide by Rabbi Leora Kaye
What is it about a selfless act of kindness that makes it so special? Does kindness just affect the person on the receiving end, or also the person giving it, and if so, how? And maybe most importantly: what gets in the way of kindness and what can be done to overcome the obstacles?
1. Introduction to Chesed
What is Chesed?
Hanan titled his animation Kindness for the purpose of accessibility, but the theme of this animation can more accurately be described as chesed (חסד) There is no perfect English translation for the Hebrew word chesed, and though many texts translate it loosely as “loving kindness,” this is only an approximation. A more complete definition can be broken down to three components:
- Choosing to feel and/or hear another person’s pain or hurt.
- Choosing to act to heal that person’s pain or hurt.
- Doing the above without any expectation of reward or calculation
This type of selfless kindness requires making the choice to shift the focus away from yourself and your own needs, and really put yourself in another person’s shoes. While it is easy to talk about, it can be far more difficult to do in a genuine way (especially if fear gets in the way.)
The Importance of Chesed
Chesed is considered to be one of the most significant mitzvot. Judaism’s emphasis on chesed is pervasive. Throughout the legal codes and commentary, chesed is commanded towards all of humanity, as well as towards animals. It is highlighted in Jewish text and commentary covering both ethical and theological teachings, such as the two examples below, which are amongst the most often quoted teachings for children and adults alike:
And later in Pirke Avot, a section of the Mishnah that focuses on ethical teachings, we read:
...עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:
...the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.
But it isn’t only in popular texts that we learn the lessons and weight of chesed. In a less quoted, but equally significant text in the Talmud, the rabbis teach:
And in Kabbalah, Judaism’s mystical teaching, there are ten characteristics or emanations that act as a framework for understanding God. Known as sefirot, chesed is the fourth of the ten, but distinguishes itself from the others because it is the only one of the ten that is unconditional. Kabbalists describe the act of creation itself as the greatest act of chesed.
- Which of the three elements in the above definition of chesed do you think is the hardest for people to do? Why?
- When have you been on the receiving end of an act of chesed and how did it feel?
- Have you ever wished someone had treated you with chesed when they haven’t? What do you think held them back?
- Hanan begins the episode by telling a story about a three-yearold boy who was successful in helping someone else, precisely because he was able to hear what the other boy needed. Why do you think he was able to do what the adults could (or would) not?
- When do you find it most difficult to choose to really feel or hear someone else’s pain? What kinds of things get in the way for you? How easy is it to blame the other person for your inability to treat them with chesed ?
2. The Three Paradoxes
Hanan is fascinated by the selfless kindness of the three-year-old boy on the plane, but when Daddy begins to talk to Hanan about the importance of kindness, Hanan is quick to resist. Hanan argues that although kindness is good in theory, it is not a very pragmatic approach in our modern, competitive world. This leads Daddy to expand on three paradoxes that illustrate how chesed is not only pragmatic, but immensely productive and powerful in helping us lead successful, happy, and most importantly, meaningful lives.
Paradox #1: Giving, Leads to Receiving
Hanan is resistant to Daddy’s insistence on kindness because he is worried that by focusing on another person’s needs he will neglect his own needs in the process, and he will lose.
HANAN: Well obviously Daddy. Everyone knows that kindness is important. It’s just not the first thing on people’s minds...I mean, singing Kumbaya is not going to help me pay my rent.
Daddy counters that research has shown that giving, paradoxically, leads to greater and more lasting success.
DADDY: Don’t be so sure... …This professor analyzed hundreds of people in business, entertainment, sports, all kinds of professions. And he discovered, that the people at the very top of their fields, the most successful - were the ones who gave, the ones who helped other people out, even their competitors.
The research that Daddy is referring to, is by Professor Adam Grant, a faculty member at The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, whose 2013 book Give and Take, documented that the people who were at the top of their fields, the most successful, were “givers”, people who helped other people, even their competitors. While this book made headlines when it was released, many of its lessons can be found thousands of years ago in the Talmud.
The Talmud explains a text from the Torah which describes the Israelites’ travels:
... וּמִמִּדְבָּ֖ר מַתָּנָֽה׃
...And from Midbar to Mattanah,
מאי דכתיב (במדבר כא, יח) וממדבר מתנה וממתנה נחליאל ומנחליאל במות א"ל כיון שעושה אדם את עצמו כמדבר שהוא מופקר לכל תורה ניתנה לו במתנה שנאמר וממדבר מתנה
What is the meaning of that which is written: “And from the wilderness Mattana and from Mattana Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel Bamot” (Numbers 21:18–19)? Rava said to him that it means: Once a person renders himself like a wilderness, deserted before all, the Torah is given to him as a gift [mattana], as it is stated: “And from the wilderness Mattana.”
The Talmudic text expands on the Hebrew word and concept of hefker (הפקר) which literally means, ‘ownerless’ and mattanah (מתנה) which means ‘gift’. It explains that once we realize that we don’t really have claim on anything, because the material things we are accumulating are transient, (that every physical “thing” we feel we own or take pride in, is really just illusory), and that even our talents and abilities are gifts, we realize that nothing is really ours: we are ownerless. And since nothing is ever really “ours”, accumulating (or taking) becomes meaningless, and we recognize our ultimate purpose is to serve (or give). And the Talmud is saying, that only then are we ready to hear / receive the ultimate gift (mattanah) of Torah. By enabling yourself to become the ultimate giver, you attain the ability to become the ultimate receiver.
- What do you think about the idea that everything you receive is a gift if, as the rabbis say, nothing belongs to anybody?
- When you give from a place of owning nothing, how does it feel? What do you consider to be the gift you receive when you give in this way?
- How do you feel this paradoxical finding actually works today? Why does it work?
- Why do you think the “givers” in Adam Grant’s findings give?
Nevertheless, Hanan insists that life is a zero sum game:
HANAN: Then again Daddy, bottom line, if someone else scores the account I wanted, then I’ve lost it.
DADDY: You’re thinking, if they get a piece of the pie it means one less piece for you…But you’re not taking into account that the pie can grow! In the short run they may get ahead, but in the long run both of you can succeed!
Daddy is explaining to Hanan that helping someone succeed does not mean that you lose. Both the giver and the receiver can succeed. This concept of both the giver and the receiver being rewarded is illustrated in a Midrash about Ruth, who as a poor woman helped her wealthy relative Boaz, by providing him the opportunity to give Ruth tzedakah (צדקה) Tzedakah, giving to the needy, is considered an obligation in Judaism, but also an act of justice and righteousness.
...יוֹתֵר מִמַּה שֶּׁבַּעַל הַבַּיִת עוֹשֶׂה עִם הֶעָנִי הֶעָנִי עוֹשֶׂה עִם בַּעַל הַבַּיִת, שֶׁכֵּן רוּת אוֹמֶרֶת לְנָעֳמִי (רות ב, יט): שֵׁם הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי עִמּוֹ הַיּוֹם בֹּעַז, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה עִמִּי אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי עִמּוֹ...
...More than what a householder does for the poor man, the poor man does for the householder, as Ruth says to Naomi, “The man’s name whom I helped today is Boaz” (Ruth 2:19). It doesn’t say, “Who helped me,” but rather “Whom I helped.”..
Judaism also describes tzedakah, which is an act of chesed, as an act that brings the giver closer to God and is rewarded, resulting in gains for both the receiver and the giver:
- When you give a person a chance to give as well, how does it feel?
- What is the difference between giving altruistically and giving with the hope of receiving? Is giving with the hope of receiving necessarily bad?
- Judaism teaches that the mitzvot of “accompanying the dead” (the mitzvot associated with burial) are some of the most selfless mitzvot because there can be no expectation of receiving anything in return. What other acts of chesed can you think of that do not have any obvious benefit for the giver? In the end, even if not intended, do you feel that you actually do receive a benefit from enacting those mitzvot?
The Importance of Balance:
The Talmud also teaches about maintaining balance in giving. For example, in Bava Metzia 33a, it says that people who put other people’s possessions/needs ahead of their own, “in the end will come to this [state of neediness].” which mirrors the comment in the animation that some givers get “burnt out”. On the other hand, Rashi’s commentary on Bava Metzia 33a reemphasizes our responsibility to do acts of gemilut chasadim and tzedakah:
Even though the text has not imposed it on him, a person should go beyond the letter of the law and not insist on “mine takes precedence” unless it involves an obvious loss [to himself]. And if he always insists [on this right] he is rejecting his responsibility for gemilut chasadim and tzedakah, and in the end he will become dependent [financially] on other people.
Note: The teachings in this section, Paradox #1: Giving Leads to Receiving, echo teachings in The Power of The Earth (on Humility), for example, that being low (humble) like the earth, leads paradoxically to more power, as well as the teaching that loving is giving, in Love & Fear, Part 1.
Paradox #2: In the Process of Protecting Ourselves, We Paradoxically Hurt Ourselves
Daddy points out to Hanan that competitiveness is often dominated by fear. When Hanan counters that “fear ensures our survival and that we don’t have a choice,” Daddy explains that what distinguishes human beings from wild animals (such as a hungry wild bear), is precisely choice, and, in particular, our capacity to choose to act to help another person when we feel the person’s hurt or need, even if it means going against our own urges and drives. However, Daddy points out, fear inhibits that unique human capacity, and as such, in the process of protecting ourselves (because we’re afraid) we are actually turning ourselves into a wild animal.
DADDY: But that’s the paradox! That’s my point! When we’re afraid, we lose our capacity to feel and react to another human being’s pain, because we’re concentrating on our survival. But that capacity to feel another person’s hurt and pain and react to it is precisely what makes us human beings. So in the process of “protecting” our own interests we actually turn ourselves into the animal.
Paradoxically, Daddy explains, in the process of “protecting” ourselves (because we are afraid), we actually make ourselves less safe, because we distance ourselves from the other person and lose access to our capacity for chesed, and in the process we make it much more difficult to build a connection, hear the other person’s point of view, and/or come up with a creative solution. Daddy tries to teach Hanan that in the long run, chesed can protect us more than fear:
DADDY: Reach out to the other person with a kind gesture. Ask them to explain their point of view. Stand in their shoes and then, really listen. Even if you eventually discover that you have to defend yourself, you will be much more effective if you understand the person’s point of view. And who knows, you might even become partners! But, fear just shuts everything down. Fear and compassion don’t mix. Fear and creativity don’t mix. Fear just makes you afraid.
Rabbi Art Green, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, explains: "Our fears create defenses, and defenses turn into kelipot, “shells” around our hearts that make our own natural chesed inaccessible to us".
- Take a moment to think of a real time in your life when you acted more like the “hungry bear” than you would have preferred in hindsight. What are some other ways you could have responded to the situation? At the time, what got in the way?
- What makes it hard to stop and make the choice to reach out instead of trying to protect yourself?
- When these fears are present, would identifying them be helpful for quieting them down and accessing your ability to choose to respond differently?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935, Latvia), a prominent 20th century rabbi commonly known as Rav Kook, says it this way:
But, there are frightened and agitated people, whom because of their fear, the Heavens are not on their mind. They are not brazen enough to investigate the grandeur of the Divine nor do they attempt to study the Divine Glory. The Divine itself becomes an obstacle for them as the obligation to honor God manifests as a cruel demand to from a being that desires limitless honor. This sentiment degrades within them the gentle and good feelings and transforms the individuals to sad and cruel slaves, who hate each other and hate God in the recess of their hearts, despite their constant talk of love and honor when mentioning God. ‘With his lips and mouth, he honors God, while in their hearts they distance themselves from God.’ (cf. Isaiah 29:13)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Mussar Avikha u-Midot HaRaAYaH, Honor p. 81
- In the Rav Kook text, fear creates an obstacle that degrades a human being’s gentle and good feelings / love, and lead the person to hate. Has fear ever inhibited your capacity for love and kindness?
- What are parts of your life that you claim to love but that really cause you frustration and hate? How does that manifest in the way you interact with others? How could you move back from frustration and hate, to love?
Paradox #3: The Antidote to Fear is Chesed
The third paradox is that the antidote to fear is not isolation and separation, but rather, to choose connection, understanding, and empathy, in the form of chesed, even (or especially) if it seems impossible.
DADDY: Connect with the other person, by being giving, being kind, hearing their needs. It will break the cycle of fear and it will allow both of you to grow.
When you feel you have fundamental differences with someone else it is easy to jump to the conclusion that there is no way to connect with them. But Daddy uses the example of the patient in the psychiatric hospital who was seen as a futile case until a medical student chose to literally “stand in his shoes” to demonstrate that the opposite is true.
- Are there times when fear has gotten in the way of how you treated someone? What would have happened if you had connected with that person instead? What do you think would happen if you never tried to break the cycle of fear? How hard would it be to try to change?
- When have there been times in your life that you were unable to see another person’s point of view? How might standing in their shoes have helped you see where they were coming from? Would it have been helpful to literally stand where they stood and what would that have meant?
- How could you help the other person better understand what you believe? How could they do the same for you? What are the steps you would need to take in order to initiate the growth and connection between you?
In one of the most poignant exchanges in the animation, Daddy and Hanan discuss choice itself, and its significance:
HANAN: But Daddy, sometimes, I just don’t feel like I have a choice.
DADDY: But don’t you see Hanan, choice is the only thing that we truly have. It’s what makes life so complicated but also so meaningful.
3. Beyond the Fear
In Hanan and Daddy’s final exchange, Daddy repeats to Hanan that the key to breaking the cycle of fear is, paradoxically, to choose to connect with the person whom you fear, through chesed. Daddy’s final words to Hanan are:
DADDY: …when we choose to connect with another person, through a selfless act of kindness, we break the cycle of fear, and we quickly discover that everyone is a human being, just like you and me, and that on the deepest level we all want the same thing. We’re all the screaming baby on the airplane, longing for someone to hear us and help us meet our needs.
While often used as a prooftext in Jewish teaching, the idea offered in Genesis 1:27, of every person being created in the image of God, B’Tzelem Elohim, resonates particularly strongly with Daddy’s words:
- If you truly imagined that each and every person was born into the world like you – exactly like you – how might that help you find ways to connect with people who seem radically different than you?
- Why is it so hard to really find ways to hear other people’s pain, move beyond your fears and connect with people? How can you find similarities as opposed to highlighting differences?
- How global do you think this message can be? In what ways could the message relate to even larger worldwide issues? And, in what ways do those issues really come down to the simple message of individuals finding ways to connect and put aside fears?
A Personal Note on Chesed from Hanan:
One of the most beautiful attributes of Jewish Study, for me, is how teachings connect and build upon each other. In the following addendum, I would like to share my personal thoughts on one way that I believe the Torah demonstrates that fear inhibits our innate capacity for chesed.
Fear may be real and necessary, but we are never truly naked: In my animation Love & Fear, Part Two, the characters explore the idea of fear as it relates to nakedness in Genesis. The characters point out that the first time fear is mentioned in the Torah is when Adam says: “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid.” and that God responds “Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:11) The question raised in the animation is what God is actually asking when He says “Who told you that you are naked?..” The mother’s character in the animation proposes that God might be saying: Who told you that you are naked, as in, how do you know? According to whom? How do you know that you are separate from Me? Maybe your knowledge (after eating from the tree) your NEW way of understanding nakedness - as separation from God - is perhaps an illusion? The mother’s character goes on to say “How you see your reality, makes all the difference in the world, Hanan. It’s the difference between living in fear and being in love.” She illustrates this by sharing Rabbi Nachman’s quote “Life is a narrow bridge, the main thing is not to be afraid” explaining that we should focus on the bridge instead of our fears, because: “how we see our reality is based on what we think we know, (Who told you that you are naked?), and our fears are based on that. The problem is that eventually our fears become our reality."
We are always loved, we were created out of love, and we have an inherent capacity for chesed: The Torah speaks of Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which describe the qualities or ways of God. The first two attributes are “Compassionate and Gracious (or Merciful),...” (Exodus 34:6-7) God is first and foremost, as I see it, a loving God. All of the punishments and curses in the Torah narrative are in my opinion framed within the context of an inherent, selfless kindness. Commentary even teaches that the world itself was created by God as an act of chesed. The Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed (clothing the naked in the story of Adam and Eve - and burying the dead at the end of Moses’s life). I explore the Jewish idea of “loving=giving” in my animation Love & Fear, Part One (Fish Love). Love is the building block of creation itself. The very first commandment that appears in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply (an act of creating and giving). Having a child is often the event in our lives that most clearly exposes our inherent capacity as human beings for selfless giving - after having a child, parents often realize that their professional busy lives fail to approach the profound feeling and meaning of this unexplainable love we feel for our children. Even when we punish a child for a behavior, it is hopefully within the context of deep, profound, limitless, and unconditional compassion, mercy and love. Even when the child feels like his father is separate from him, that is an illusion, because his Father is always there. (Please refer to the end of Love & Fear, Part 3 for a story expanding on this idea)
Fear inhibits chesed: Genesis 4:5, is often translated as: “but to Cain and to his offering He did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.” However, the last words in that text, (his countenance fell), translate literally from the Hebrew into English as, “his face fell.” In researching the Hebrew word panim (face), I found that panim comes from the root word poneh (which is to turn from, towards, or away), and pnim means inside. I believe that Cain is afraid. Just like Adam was afraid because he was naked (and Adam understood his nakedness to mean he is separate from God), Cain believes that when God does not turn to him that God has forsaken him. Cain is afraid that he is not loved, and that he is unlovable. But God reminds Cain of God’s compassion and mercy: “Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven…” (Genesis 4:7) With this statement, God is, in my opinion, doing three things: 1. God is reminding Cain of God’s inherent compassion and mercy. 2. God is also reminding Cain of Cain’s own capacity for chesed. 3. God is also explaining that accessing God’s mercy and Cain’s own capacity for chesed, requires action on Cain’s part (turning to God/God’s ways). But Cain is not focusing on the aforementioned bridge, he has let his fear consume him. God says to Cain: “Where is Abel your brother?” and Cain says: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”(Genesis 4:9) I believe that this statement by Cain “Am I my brother’s keeper” is the antithesis of chesed. I believe it displays the lowest, most selfish capacity in human beings. And I believe that the Torah is illustrating how fear (as a result of a false assumption of being separate from God) creates a barrier from accessing one’s inherent ability for chesed. However, the TaNaKh also teaches us that if one remembers that “...you shall trust, for there is hope...” (Job 11:18) and clings to the love of God, not just in our thoughts but also (or mainly) in our actions, then we will be closer to God, and live up to our potential.
Jewish Food For Thought: The Animated Series was created with generous funding by The Covenant Foundation.