Thursday, November 13, 2014

Learning Kindness

Today is marked on the calendar as World Kindness Day, a fact that Jewish Treats celebrates annually because kindness, known in Hebrew as chesed, is one of the foundations of Jewish life. According to Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 1:2, the world stands on three things: Torah, Prayer (Avodah) and Acts of Kindness (Gemilut Chasadim).

Most societies have laws that promote social welfare - laws that can be defined as acts of kindness. Most people perform acts of kindness on a regular basis, for instance by offering a friend a  ride or donating funds to charity.

In Judaism, many acts of kindness are regarded as specific commandments, and many of these commandments are derived from the actions of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. One example of an act of kindness learned from the Patriarchs is the respectful interment of the dead. This mitzvah includes both the procurement of a proper burial site and honoring the deceased with a eulogy, both of which are described in Genesis 23.

Abraham went to great lengths to purchase Maarat Hamachpela (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron. To stress the importance of providing proper burial (and indisputable ownership of the site), the Torah dedicates 13 verses to recording the negotiations that took place between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite, who sold the land to Abraham for 400 silver pieces.

The act of eulogizing the dead, which the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) calls a “great mitzvah,” is also found in Genesis 23: “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her” (23:2). The mitzvah of a proper burial is not limited to relatives or close friends. Taking care of an unknown deceased person is considered the ultimate act of kindness because such an act can never be repaid.

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