Gemilut Hasadim : there is no limit to the empathy we should feel for each other.

Mishnah Pe’ah begins with two lists – the things for which there is no fixed measure for us to do in this world; and the things for which we can enjoy the fruits of in this world and also receive merit in the world to come. Along with Torah Study, Gemilut Hassadim appears on both lists.

Along with the statement of Simon the Just (in Avot 2:2) which describes Gemilut Hassadim as one of the three pillars on which the world stands, these mishna’ot tend to be well known and form the basis of much of our progressive understanding of  Jewish practise.

Maybe you, like me, have been so comfortable with the phrase “Gemilut Hassadim” and its usual translation – “Acts of Loving Kindness” or “Bestowing Loving Kindness” that Gemilut Hassadim has merged with Tzedekah and Tikkun Olam as a kind of catch all of our expected actions in the world, the behaviour that will help mitigate the decree against us as we traverse the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and hope that God will judge us more kindly than maybe we think we deserve.

While “Gemilut Hassadim” certainly has overlap with Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam, it is in fact quite a different – and much larger – phenomenon. The Talmud tells us that Gemilut Hassadim is greater than Tzedakah because “Tzedakah can be given only with one’s money; gemilut hassadim, both by personal service and with money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor; gemilut hassadim, both to rich and poor. Tzedakah can be given only to the living; gemilut hassadim, both to the living and the dead” (Suk. 49b).

It fascinates me that the Rabbis use the word “Gemilut” rather than the more usual word for deeds which is “Ma’asei”.  Gemilut, comes from the Hebrew root Gimmel Mem Lamed, which has three meanings. The word for Camel is directly drawn from the root, and some say the letter itself is drawn to look like a camel walking. But it also means “to ripen, to wean” – and in modern Hebrew it is used in that sense to mean to recover from an addiction; And finally it has a cluster of meanings around “to pay”, “to recompense” “to pay back”– and also “to reward” – even when the reward is undeserved or over and above what is required.

So when for example we recite Birkat HaGomel, the blessing one recites after having successfully averted danger, we thank God for rewarding us with safety and health. We are, in the words of the blessing rewarded with a kindness despite our spiritual shortcomings.  “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-Olam, ha-Gomel l’chayavim tovot she-g’malani kol tov.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, ruler of the world, who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and who has rewarded me with goodness.

So the reward or recompense is not in response to what we have done or what we deserve, but is given DESPITE our behaviour.

Hmmm

So – back to the language of Gemilut Hassadim. I particularly like the idea of this verbal root being chosen –rather than the normal ASSA – action – because I like the concatenation of both weaning and restitution which is offered despite ourselves, and which together enable and empower both the giver and the receiver of gemilut hassadim.

When we wean someone, it means removing them from another entity. Weaning a child means removing its dependency from the nourishment of the mother’s milk, but that is not all – to wean a child OFF the milk one has to wean the child ON to other sustenance – which takes time and investment in the process. The modern usage to wean someone from an addiction is maybe even clearer – ongoing and sometimes very long-term support is needed for the change in behaviour of the addict. So Gemillut Hassadim is more than a simple and limited act of kindness which can be quickly over and moved on from. For this mitzvah the actor has to invest and commit to the other person, has to give whatever is needed – potentially over a significant period of time –  to the other, to ensure they have the necessary support to continue their life.

So while Gemilut Hassadim encompasses an act of kindness, it necessarily changes both the actor and the one who receives the kindness, because the commitment to and investment in the other creates a relationship between them.

Gemilut Hassadim then is unlike Ma’asei Hassadim because it is not just an action, it is an action designed to effect change in both parties and in some way to bond them.

The Maharal of Prague, Judah Lowe ben Bezalel, discussing the difference between Tzedakah and Gemilut Chesed says that Tzedakah is judged by the needs of the recipient – the assistance given is to alleviate the perceived need. But Gemilut Chased is judged by the giver – since it is limitless and since it is not tied to what is merited by the receiver, the level reflects the caring the person who gives is able to feel and to offer – it reflects their empathy and their willingness to engage.

Tzedakah is important – indeed many charities rely on the impulse to give tzedakah at this time of year. Tzedakah is a way to support the most vulnerable in our society – to share resources in order to make the life of others who are less fortunate or less able to support themselves.  Maimonides builds on the verbal root of Tzedakah (Tzedek, Justice) by saying that tzedakah is granted according to the right that they have in law, or giving to every being that which corresponds to their merits. There is nothing limitless in tzedakah – it is calibrated and regulated in halachic terms, a transaction that once completed is indeed complete – nothing more need happen between giver and the receiver unless they choose for a relationship to continue.

Tzedakah keeps a social order functioning, but it does not necessarily build a society. Only gemilut hassadim creates the empathic human relationships that underpin the collective group.

So why are we told that it is teshuva, tefila and tzedaka that can mitigate the severity of the decree? In part because the Talmud links giving tzedakah to being delivered from death – quoting Proverbs 10:2 (Rosh Hashanah 16b).

In part, as Rav Soleveitchik writes, it is because there is an element of selfishness in transgression.  Some form of personal benefit has been given precedence over religious and social principles.  Linking to the story of building the mishkan (tabernacle) after the sin of the golden calf, he notes that everyone was obliged to donate a half shekel towards building the mishkan and he describes this donation as a kofer, a ransom. It is as if each person must pay to be redeemed from the sin that binds them, and this tzedakah, the giving of money, is the correct pathway as it diminishes our personal wealth.

It may also be because tzedakah is measurable and subject to clear halachic judgment, so one can tell when and how it is done and if it is done enough – we can see the demonstration of responsibility and willingness to share our resource with others.

But  Gemilut Hasadim is limitless – how can we ever tell that we have done enough to avert the severity of the decree? So it makes sense that forgiveness from God is obtained when tzedakah accompanies the teshuva process, rather than demanding gemilut hassadim.

For the purposes of the Yamim Noraim, Teshuvah, Tefila and Tzedaka can be our focus, as we consider how we are living our lives and how we can become the better people we want to be. 

But move the focus a little, and consider our role in the various communities in which we live, think beyond the redemption of the individual, and it becomes clear why Simon the Just sees Gemilut Hasadim as one of the three pillars on which the world stands. We can understand why it appears on both the lists in Mishnah Pe’ah, being both never-ending and also a quality which we changes us in this world for the better, and also builds merit for us in the world to come.

So next time the refrain of the unetaneh tokef sounds in your head, make a mental note – Teshuva, Tefila and Tzedaka may avert the severity of the decree we deserve to be judged by, but Gemilut Hasadim will change the whole framework in which we live, will reward and change us despite our shortcomings, and will  help us to live our lives as a blessing to the world.

Va’era: Does God hear prayer? Does God appear to us when we pray?

When God speaks to Moses at the beginning of the sidra, God says to him “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant (6:5)

 וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַֽאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַֽעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָֽאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי:

In Bible, God hears prayer and frequently is recorded responding to the request. Be it Isaac’s prayer for a child for Rebecca (Genesis 25:21) or Jacob asking for deliverance from the avenging Esau (Gen 32:12), be it Moses and Aaron asking for the healing of Miriam’s skin disease (Numbers 12:13) or the desperate request for a child from Hannah. Be it David asking for God’s blessing and support (2Sam 7:18ff) or Solomon asking for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5ff) It seems that people prayed for what they wanted or needed and God reacted.

Jewish traditional texts assume that prayer comes from the heart and finds its way to a divine hearing. Later in rabbinic Judaism, prayer was more formalised, the wording more fixed (or at least the themes of the prayers, their introductions and endings were organised and prescribed) and while there was room for spontaneous prayer there was also a structure of community prayer, with the underlying assumption that the prayers of a community together would somehow strengthen the power of the words, that God would more readily listen to the combined communal prayer. Hence the minyan, the minimum of ten people for some prayers to be recited, and the extraordinary effect it has of creating community and awareness of the needs of others. Jewish tradition teaches that our communal prayer reminds us not just to think of ourselves, that our prayer must be broader, and when we pray in the right way, with our hearts and minds fully engaged and within the community of our peers, that God will hear our prayer.

But this all begs the question – does God hear all prayer? And if so does our prayer make a difference to the outcomes we seek? What does it mean for God to hear our prayer? And what does it mean if it appears that God does not hear us, or at least does not give us what we want?

The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer –tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive, we do something to or for ourselves in prayer, albeit in the gaze of the divine. Prayer is not so much for God as it is for us. In one form, alluded to in the English form of the word, prayer, it is indeed about asking for something, usually for God to influence and outcome, but tefillah is much more than this – it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.

And yet we persist in praying as if our prayer is heard by someone outside of ourselves who has the power to effect change for us. Our core texts all assume this to be true, even while our lived experience shows no real evidence. And we continue, despite everything, to pray to God as if such prayer is heard, as if it matters, as if God will be impacted by our words and the world will be different.

The later books of the Hebrew bible record many prayers uttered in desperate times. The book of Psalms can be read as a liturgical resource bank, and it is no coincidence that so many verses from this book are the building blocks of our liturgy and prayers. Prayer is seen as a natural and human response, and Maimonides reminds us in the Laws of Prayer that “It is a positive commandment to pray each day as it is stated, “And you shall serve the Eternal your God (Ex. 23:25) … They taught that “serve,” means prayer, as it is stated, “And you shall serve God with all your heart” (Deut. 11:13). The Sages asked, “What is the service of the heart? This is prayer” (Ta’anit 2a).”

Prayer is understood in tradition as being rooted in the behaviour of our founding Patriarchs, has the status of being a mitzvah, a commandment, and is one of the spiritual pillars upon which the world stands, taking the place of the sacrificial system of Temple worship that brought God closer to our world.

Right up to current responsa, prayer is seen as being the obvious and most basic demonstration of belief in God. R. Moshe Feinstein wrote that “The essence of belief in God is that only God can ultimately guarantee our livelihood or cure our diseases. And when a person does not trust in God and does not pray to God, it is as if he is denying belief in God for the sake of belief in something else…” (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. II, Chapter 24)

Yet if asked, many people of faith, who pray regularly and with kavannah (focus/intention) will still hesitate to sign up to such an idea that it God has such activity within our daily lives so that our livelihoods and our health are entirely at the mercy of the divine. How can we live with a God who can capriciously save some and condemn others? How can we live with a God who sees the righteous suffer, when by an act of will they would not have to do so? How can we live with a God who demands praise even while the world is in pain?

Like so much of Jewish experience, we seem able to live with two contradictory ideas both being true, to be comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of both/and, of eilu v’eilu – that many ways of being can be ways to live a righteous and blessed life. We pray because we have to pray, it is hard wired in our souls. We call to a God we don’t always believe in, a God we are sometimes uncertain might be there. We act ‘kiv’yachol’ – as if our prayer will be heard and answered, and yet at the same time we call it the act of le’hitpallel, of judging ourselves, of working upon ourselves.

Does our prayer change God’s mind? In many ways it is simply the wrong question. Our prayer is essentially the internal dialogue that keeps us true and keeps us aware of the direction our moral compass must direct us towards. Whether God hears and responds, hears and takes note, hears and ignores, or does IMG_1791not hear – who can tell? It is enough that we believe ourselves to be in God’s presence when we judge ourselves and we work to change ourselves. And sometimes, rarely, we suddenly have the encounter, we recognise the presence of God and hear the voice of slender silence resonating in our soul and we know that God is listening, that God is there. And we have the strength to go on.