I was reminded this week of one of the many lessons I learned from my father as a child that has stuck with me throughout my life. When mincha ended on yom tov afternoon at Shul and a short Dvar Torah would fill the time until we could daven ma’ariv, invariably the same thing would happen – most of the room would clear out. My father would often remark to me afterwards that there is a big difference between not going to a Shiur, and choosing to walk out of one that is being offered in the place you currently find yourself.
The principle my father shared is not limited to learning opportunities, but in fact can be applied to most virtuous things in life. Even if we would never initiate a particular noble act or activity, would we go so far as to turn it down or walk out on it when it presents itself to us?
Perhaps the greatest expression of this distinction is in our attitude towards chessed. We are blessed to live in a community that performs chessed in ways I have never seen before. Our incredible chessed infrastructure comprised of the anonymous people who do the ‘little’ things behind the scenes are truly remarkable and extraordinary. But we, like every other community, nevertheless still struggle to expand the list we can turn to when a meal needs to be cooked, a ride needs to take place, hospitality needs to be offered, or a Shiva minyan needs to be made.
Recently, a member of our community was sitting shiva and a few of the scheduled minyanim fell short of the requisite quorum. On consecutive days, Rabbi Moskowitz and I came to a minyan scheduled to begin at BRS and asked for volunteers to help complete the minyan at the shiva home. We both received the same response to our initial ask – essentially nothing. It took my reminding everyone that if we can’t get a few people, someone will not be able to say kaddish for their parent, and the next day Rabbi Moskowitz’s threatening not to start the minyan at shul until we have a minyan at the shiva house, for people to respond. Of course there are legitimate reasons why many couldn’t go, but it is frankly humiliating that in a Shul of hundreds of families and in a minyan of dozens of people, we had to essentially grovel to recruit people to perform this basic chessed.
The very next day, I received an email from a woman who works with a committee to make sure that nobody in our community eats alone on Shabbos. She expressed her shock and disappointment by the limited list of people that have offered their hospitality. Even more troubling to her, was that when she specifically calls, emails or texts individuals directly asking them if they can host someone for the coming Shabbos, almost all say no and many don’t even have the courtesy to get back to her at all.
Chessed, showing selflessness in helping others, is a fundamental and core value of our people, tradition and sacred Torah. It is a pillar upon which the world leans, no less critical and supportive than Torah and davening. And yet, so many of us struggle with instinctively and intuitively leaving our comfort zones and extending ourselves to help others.
Real chessed is almost by definition inconvenient. Having someone when you are having many guests anyway, visiting someone when you will be at the hospital anyway, hosting families or singles that are your close friends, are all meritorious and admirable, but they shouldn’t be confused with the highest form of chessed. Real chessed is doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and for whom it needs to be done, even, and perhaps especially, when it is not convenient and brings no glory.
Many older people take a pass on chessed opportunities, saying that they have put in their time when they were younger and many younger people don’t participate saying that their children’s needs and their personal lives leave them no time to help others. So who is left to do chessed? Does one ever graduate or complete their obligation and duty to extend themselves for others? Would it not be the greatest education we could provide our children to invite them to participate in our acts of chessed for others so that chessed is not taking away from our children, but rather it is enhancing and enriching them?
Many are not predisposed to seeking out chessed opportunities and looking for ways to help others, and perhaps that is even understandable. What is not understandable, however, is not answering when an opportunity presents itself to us directly.
Even if you don’t seek out or look for chessed, I beg you not to look away when chessed seeks you out. If it was us, God forbid, needing a minyan for shiva, or our family member needing someone to host them for a meal, we would be terribly disappointed if nobody would step up. Next time, when asked to do a chessed, please step up and save someone else that same disappointment.