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The Price of Kindness

Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

On my way to the store to purchase important plastic additions to our home, an old lady called to me from across the street. Could I help her carry her heavy bags of potatoes home for her? I immediately agreed and carried them to her door about half a block away, for which I was rewarded with her repeated "thank you"s and blessings.

In America, I would be called a Boy Scout or a Good Samaritan. In Israel, where I live, I would be called a "frier." A frier, in Israeli usage, is one of the worst things that anybody could call you. It means that you have done something for someone else without getting paid. Allowing yourself to be exploited in this way earns you the reputation of being a frier. It is debatable whether there is anything lower on the social scale. Maybe a bug.

Thus, derision is the price of kindness. Even if no one is there to snicker at you and actively remind you of how you have been tricked and exploited by that little old lady (probably a strong, young man masquerading in woman's clothing), you sometimes still can't avoid feeling slightly foolish, so effectively has the social conditioning taken hold.

It is unfortunate, to say the least. Why should the ancient Jewish way of helping others be co-opted by the Boy Scouts and the Good Samaritans? Why should other Jews deride us for it? After all, kindness is a virtue as old as Abraham. He practically invented the concept. As the Midrash says, he was the first to engage in tsedaka. It was Abraham who pioneered the franchise concept, setting up a string of hospitality tents along the thoroughfares of the land of Canaan. But he wasn't in it for the hefty profits of hotel management. After providing his guests with the finest of food and drink, they would thank him profusely. Abraham would then explain to them that they should instead thank the Creator, who provides sustenance for all.

On a deeper level, kindness is the key to Jewish monotheism. There is a famous Midrash that compares Abraham's discovery of G-d's existence to someone walking down the street who notices a great house all lit up. "Where is the proprietor of the house?" he asks. It was the dawning realization that a structure of light and life must have a proprietor. And if it is true of a house, all the more so must it be true of an entire world---that there must be a Creator.

Rabbi Eliayahu Lopian taught that it was Abraham's trait of kindness which enabled him to perceive what others had not. Only someone who himself does kindness can truly appreciate the kindness done by others, and he instinctively looks for the author behind the altruistic act. G-d created the world out of His own essential goodness and benevolence. He wished to give us life, and the opportunity to earn eternal life. Because of what he was, Abraham was able to recognize a sublime benevolence in the workings of heaven and earth. By emulating the example of our great ancestor, we can also come to a clearer awareness of G-d's existence.

Surely, no one thinks of Abraham as a frier, even though his acts of kindness must have cost him greatly. Just think of all those people who took advantage of Abraham's generosity! Once word got around about those delicious, free meals at Abraham's, it's a safe bet that some of the regular customers were more interested in the salad bar (all you can eat!) than the correct Hebrew pronunciation of the blessing on sprouts. Yet, we take pride in the fact that the founder of Judaism was someone who loved other people so much that he was willing to risk being taken advantage of in order to show them the truth.

So, even if there is sometimes a price to be paid for doing kindness, the rewards are well worth it.

Still, there is a line to be drawn. We live in a world full of dangerous and exploitative people. In our effort to emulate Abraham, must we leave ourselves completely vulnerable?

The Midrash provides an answer. It tells the story of Rabbi Yehoshua, who agreed to host a stranger for an overnight stay. He showed him his place up in the loft; and because he looked suspicious, Rabbi Yehoshua took the precaution of removing the ladder to the loft. His suspicions proved well-founded, when in the middle of the night, the stranger went about gathering up all he could steal. But when he went to make his getaway, unbeknownst to him, the ladder was gone, and he fell to the floor. "You empty-headed fool!" said Rabbi Yehoshua. "Don't you know that we were taking precautions with you?" Concludes the Midrash: "People should be suspect before you like thieves---and you should honor them like Rabbi Gamliel [the Prince]."

That Rabbi Yehoshua---he was no frier!


Reprinted with permission from www.e-geress.org.
E-geress is a Hebrew word meaning letter or correspondence. We welcome your questions and comments. Our address: fox@moreshet.co.il. Visit our web-site for back issues & subscription: http://www.e-geress.org. The cartoon accompanying the above article is scheduled for viewing there next week.


 
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