In a previous life, I worked in a job in which I received about one hundred emails a day, most of which demanded some kind of response. Needless to say, I came to despise that inbox.
A number of months ago, I had to sit shiva and emails started arriving en masse yet again. This time, however, they weren’t messages demanding my attention but instead they were bringing attention to me. They were brief communications from friends, from relatives, from former students and colleagues, many of whom I had not spoken with in years.
Each brought with it words of comfort and consolation that I would never have anticipated. And each made no demands for a response, though I ultimately tried to do so.
It was, in some sense, the electronic version of the laws of mourning that say that you should not be preoccupied with talking to the mourner; your presence alone says that you care. Those emails were quintessential acts of chesed—loving kindness without any expectation of reciprocation. Make no mistake; if you can’t do the chesed of a shiva visit in person, then, at least in my case, you would be amazed at how powerful and touching a small gesture like a short email can be.
I reflect on this because our family suffered another challenge recently when our grandson in Efrat, Israel, fell three floors and suffered a serious brain injury.
He needed critical support, and, in some ways, his parents needed it even more. Being so far away from immediate family, without the kind of 24/7 support that parents and siblings might otherwise provide, the loneliness of a recent aliyah could be all the more searing and disquieting. And yet, tears come to me even now as I recall the way that our children’s new friends and neighbors were there for them. Indeed, I am in awe of the literally thousands of people from around the world who came together on behalf of this little 3-year-old boy.
To give you a few examples: There were, and continue to be, the scores of times that the book of Tehillim has been recited on his behalf, not only by family who complete it every day but by Tehillim groups and individuals far and wide who proffered their time and their prayers for a little boy they did not know.
The night of the accident, a few dozen people came to the hospital to be there while the surgery was taking place. People signed up to make meals for our children and other grandchildren so that virtually every night was accounted for, largely by different individuals, from roughly the middle of September until the end of December.
Every day that I accompanied my daughter to the hospital there were two boxed lunches waiting outside her door in the morning for us to have that day. A small group of friends formed a committee to anticipate all our kids’ needs and to coordinate and implement their realization.
There were people who volunteered to keep vigil at the hospital, people who drove those people to and from the hospital, girls from seminaries who came to help with the other kids, people who gave those girls rides to and from, women who gathered together after carpool to say Tehillim, or to have an “Amen” gathering.
There were friends who gathered in the wee hours of the morning to go to Rachel’s Tomb to pray on his behalf, people who called from the grave of the Baal Shem Tov in Eastern Europe to say they were praying for him. People who traveled to the Mount of Olives to invoke the merit of some of the leading rabbinic personalities who are buried there, people who traveled to my parents’ graves to invoke their merit for their great-grandson, shiurim and classes where people gathered to learn Torah on his behalf, synagogues who continue to say a mi sheberach for him every time the Torah is taken out, people, many of whom you don’t know or at best only know by sight, who continue to stop you on the street to inquire about his progress and, once again, the scores of people who just send an email without any hope of getting one in return.
The world continues to stand on three things, says the Mishnah in Avot: on Torah, on worship and on gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. Our family’s life has certainly been rooted more than ever before in these principles these last few months as we have been overwhelmed by the ways in which the community at large has reached out on behalf of our children and grandson. Everywhere we turned, it seemed that there were people who just showed up in some way, personally and electronically, and just showing up was enough to say they cared.
But for me, and in the context of this column, some of the most moving moments were those involving young children. There were his early childhood classmates who got together every Shabbat afternoon to say Tehillim (and have a yummy Shabbat party), the young girls who helped make and separate challah, the bat mitzvah girl who dedicated her celebration to his recovery, or the elementary school children in another community who keep reporting the updates from their grandmother to their classmates who all say Tehillim for a little boy they never met.
There were the ones who clamored to go visit him in the hospital or who stop by on Friday afternoon just to say hello. These are not necessarily natural behaviors but learned ones, ones that come when the adults in their lives take the time to teach them, usually by example. For there are other children too, and often they are tweens or teens, who do not know how to react under such circumstances, who are too afraid or uncomfortable to inquire or to visit or to show up.
On the other hand, our 4-year-old granddaughter passed by me on a recent visit carrying small shopping bags from a play set. She told me she had groceries in the bags and when I asked what she was going to do with them, she told me that she was taking them to someone who just had a baby and needed some help. That kind of chesed behavior is caught, not taught.
Moreover, from the time that HaKadosh Baruch Hu took the trouble to give Adam and Chava clothes, or visit Avraham in his tent when he was recuperating, or “personally” buried Moshe, we have been told that chesed is a Godly trait to be emulated. It is, then, not only a kind, empathetic, selfless act but a religious one as well and we would do well to remind our kids of that. Doing for others is a way to imitate God, to literally walk in His ways, and to thereby feel closer to Him. The oxytocin high that neuroscientists now tell us can make us feel greater connectedness to others when we give can also make us feel more religious as well.
Our grandson is making miraculous progress even as there is still a long way to go and we are so very grateful—first and foremost to God and then for the continuing chesed of friends and strangers. And as an educator I am grateful and in awe too of the children whom these adults are guiding to live a life of imitating God doing acts of chesed, teaching them that there is enormous human and religious value in just showing up.
In honor of a continued recovery for Aharon Meir ben Yael Miriam.
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is educational director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.