The mitzvot of kindness

The mitzvot of kindness

Ki Tzeitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

The world is built through kindness …

— Psalm 89:3

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

 — Plato

When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Lady Macbeth disdains the qualities of kindness and compassion. She expresses the idea that no real man has a use for these qualities. Only someone ruthless can achieve the ambitious goals that he (or she) has set out to achieve.  If that includes murdering the king, so be it.

Most of us would hardly be as cold as Lady Macbeth. We would say that we highly value kindness, but our words often ring hollow.  Too often, we judge people and things based on their economic value or social status. Unfortunately, it is uncommon to find organizations that honor people for their kindness.

This week’s Torah portion contains many mitzvot, a large number of which relate to the laws of kindness.

For example, we are commanded not to plow with an ox and a mule together. The commentators explain that since an ox chews its cud and a mule does not, that this will cause the mule to be “jealous” and think that he is being treated differently than the ox. If we have to take into consideration the feelings of an animal, how much more so (kal v’chomer) should we be sensitive to the feelings of our fellow human beings.

In another passage, we are commanded to send away the mother bird when we take eggs out of the nest. The commentators explain that this would cause the mother bird anguish. While we are allowed to take the eggs, we must feel compassion for the mother bird and spare her the sight of taking away her young.

Again, the lesson is that if we have to take into consideration the feelings of a bird, how much more so (kal v’chomer) should we be sensitive to the feelings of a human being.

There are many opportunities for us to practice acts of kindness, large or small, in our daily lives. They include visiting the elderly, the sick, giving charity or just putting our own interests second to the interests of our neighbor. We should not pass up any opportunity to do chesed (kindness). The Torah tells us that we must actively pursue these acts of kindness.

The mitzvot of the Torah portion of Ki Tzeitzei seem, at first, to be disjointed and disconnected.  Perhaps they are meant to show us that every act of kindness has repercussions. Each act leads us to another and another. And they all contribute to making us more compassionate people and to making our society a more compassionate one as well.

We are now in the month of Elul, the period of spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This Torah portion asks us to consider what we can do to become kinder people, and to be aware that every day presents us with numerous small but significant opportunities.

Shabbat shalom.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)