Kindness

Consolations

Anyone who gives a nominal amount to a poor person receives six blessings, and whoever consoles him with words receives eleven...
— BT Bava Batra 9b
I heard the teaching that a person who gives charity to a poor person receives six blessings, and someone who offers consolation receives eleven blessings but had no idea how the Talmud arrived at these numbers. Nor did I understand why consolation almost doubles the blessings of charity itself. I also wasn't quite sure what consolation could be offered that would make someone of unfortunate circumstances feel whole again.
 
I found the answer to my first question in the Talmud itself. Basically, the rabbis took the bulk of chapter 58 of Isaiah and ran it through their somewhat unusual methods of exegesis and came up with this categorization. Let's take a look at the passages of Talmud where these texts appear:
 
"One who gives a peruta (a nominal amount) to a poor person receives six blessings, as it is written 'Is it not to share your bread with the hungry that you shall bring the poor that are cast out into your house? When you see the naked that you cover him?' (Isaiah 58:7) 'Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your health shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer; you shall cry and He shall say, 'Here I am'" (Isaiah 58:8-9).

This is a stunning expression of causation. Isaiah understands the altruistic impulse as natural, as our human purpose. When we share bread and our homes and cloth those who lack means, as one verse suggests, the six blessings of the next two verses will ensue. These small acts will bring light and health, righteousness and glory. God will answer us in our time of need if we are attuned to the needs of others. God himself says "hineni," as it were, to us when we are present in the lives of those who need us most. It would seem that from the point of view of social justice and kindness, it doesn't get better than this. But it actually does.
 
This is how the Talmud continues:

"And whoever consoles a poor person with words receives eleven blessings, as it is stated: 'And if you draw out your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be as the noonday. And the Lord shall guide you continually, and satisfy your thirst in drought...And they that shall be of you shall build the old waste places, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations,'" (Isaiah 58-10-12).

In this depiction, the giver is not offering bread but words to the afflicted soul, discovering what ails the person with these emotional needs and touching that person deeply.  There are many forms of poverty. In addition to the previous blessings, we add light, the continual presence of God, the redemption of ruins, and the gift of legacy. Generations that follow will be inspired by this example and follow it.
 
Maimonides and other medieval commentators on this page of Talmud believe that this teaches that even one who cannot give money, should offer words of consolation and not feel that this gift is less worthy. They also derive the way charity should be given. When a person gives a charitable gift, he or she should do so pleasantly. If one gives it with anger or begrudgingly, he loses the merit he gained, even if it is a large sum. This is codified in Jewish law (Maimonides, "Laws of Giving to the Poor" 10:4-5, Shulkhan Arukh Y.D. 249:3-4).
 
The capacity to go outside ourselves and sympathize, commiserate, and give solace to one who is suffering cannot be bought with money. Food and clothing take care of immediate needs, but the validation and compassion that comes with consolation can linger for decades. We hang our humanity on small kindnesses. These are days where consolation is necessary. Many of us are angry or confused or dejected. We need consolation, and we need to offer it to others, especially those who are not like us.
 
A few pages later in the Talmud, Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, was ill and fainted. His father asked him what he saw in his near-death state: "I saw an inverted world. Those above were below and those below were above." His father's response: "You have seen a clear world."
 
When our world order turns upside down, it is hard to find balance. But sometimes a word of consolation lifts us up above the fray and creates order out of chaos and deeper wisdom and understanding.
 
Shabbat Shalom

White Friday

One who increase possessions increases worry
— Hillel

Last week I suggested to readers that to combat some of the baseless hatred of the Friday before - when the Paris terrorist attacks happened - they engage in random acts of kindness. Many reported back on acts small and large that helped lift them above the despair of what seems an ever intolerant and violent society. One tutored an Afghan war veteran in physics and calculus to help him complete his pre-med requirements. One made a bank teller feel good by wishing her well on her recent marriage. Some of you said that you were studying to honor the memory of Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year old American who was murdered last week while studying in Israel for his gap year.

Another 18 year old Israeli, Naftali Litman, and his father Yaakov, were also killed in a terrorist attack last week. The family was driving to a Shabbat celebration before the wedding of Naftali’s sister, Sara, to be held later that week. Despite the heavy and tragic losses, the Litman family went ahead with the wedding and invited the entire State of Israel to participate. Sara and Ariel, her fiancé, responded to tragedy by lifting everyone else up to share in their joy.  Last Friday, one reader contributed to a fund in their honor, which has currently raisedover $21,000 from complete strangers in what, could be argued, is a wedding gift registry held up by a thousand kindnesses.

That takes us to this coming Friday. What will you be doing tomorrow?

The Friday after Thanksgiving has been named Black Friday to put merchants in the black by pumping up pre-holiday sales. Some stores have started opening on Thanksgiving itself so that football game viewing ends with door-buster spending. Thank goodness, some chains have reacted to this consumer fever with a backlash. REI, the outdoor equipment supplier, will close all of its 143 stores not only on Thanksgiving but on the Friday afterward and is paying all of its 12,000 employees so that they can have a day outdoors with their families. Forty-nine state parks in Northern California are offering free admission to encourage people to spend the day in nature, not in the mall.

But not everyone will be so high-minded. Many will hunt outdoors for parking spaces and then hunt indoors for bargains. They will lose sleep to save a few bucks on new technology or new clothing. They will bring home their packages and have to find a place for them. They will buy gifts that may get returned. They will buy things they never needed in the first place and they will ignore the famous statement from Ethics of the Fathers 2:8: “One who increase possessions increases worry.”

Why, you may ask, will more material possessions generate more anxiety? Because, in the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers, these things seem "desirable to many but can have an adverse effect on those who possess them." The ancient Sage behind the quote, Hillel, pushed back by also enumerating “things” that, when increased, only bring more joy and wisdom: “The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding, the more devotion to duty, the more peace.” On this, Rabbi Hirsch writes: “The more the Torah will be acquired in theory and observed in practice, the more will human existence become life in the true, genuine sense of the word.”

If what you already have doesn’t make you happy, then how will having more of it make you happier?

If you want to acquire anything that brings about a better state of humanity, here is what Hillel recommends you buy at the mall: a good name and words of Torah. If you acquire a good name, Hillel states, that is the best acquisition you can own.

Many years ago, I saw a sign in the elevator at work, “If what you already have doesn’t make you happy, then how will having more of it make you happier?” Black Friday does not exist to help you. It’s there to help store owners and jolt the economy. Do something for yourself instead. Reconsider tomorrow from a Jewish point of view. You might join with REI and make it Green Friday and then, when you come back from your hike, you might want to turn Black Friday into White Friday, a day pure and free of consumerism, a day that ends with a white tablecloth and a Shabbat meal and the white light of candlesticks. And if you are going shopping, shop for some food that enables you to host a neighbor or a person in need of some company. If you can’t begin the day with rest, kindness and serenity, at least end it that way.

Shabbat Shalom