The Power of Small Acts of ‘Chessed’

Screen capture: The Office of Rabbi Sacks.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 27 – “Philanthropy and Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Haim Emil Dahan

Compassion, charity, kindness and concern for the weak are among the cornerstones of Jewish tradition. In this context, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel wrote: “The essence of a Jew is his involvement in the plight of others, as God is involved. The secret of our tradition is that God is in every human situation and man must be involved in it… According to our tradition, anyone who forgets one passage from the Torah performs a great sin. How great is his guilt if he remains apathetic to the sorrow of one person?”According to Rabbi Heschel, a Jew is not a specification of a person’s ethnic belonging, rather “he is a person who is not indifferent to the suffering of others,”therefore, as far as he is concerned “Worship without compassion is worse than self-deception; it is an abomination.”

Jewish tradition often deals with the commandments that are between one person and another and emphasizes them more than the commandments that are between man and God. This is why one of the most important rules in Judaism is “Derech Eretz (Proper behavior) precedes the Torah.” There are many commandments in the Torah on assistance that are backed by the spirit of the prophets that calls out: “It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him” (Isaiah 58.7) – these are the basic qualities of social solidarity. In Jewish tradition, the utopian economy is not a socialist economy in which absolute equality exists, and a capitalist policy does not contradict Judaism.

The Torah of Israel does not object to financial wellbeing, it even supports it. And it doesn’t prohibit a person from improving the quality of his life. The Torah allows a person to accumulate personal property, to trade and to make profits from his own money, and does not expect absolute economic equality and the abolition of economic gaps in society. Those in need of support are a fact that exists in society, as it is determined in the Torah: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (Deuteronomy 15.11). Actually, a capitalist policy, in which there are also class differences, is what enables a person to carry out his desire to do charity and acts of kindness. However, alongside the free economy, there is also a need for welfare policy. The duty of charity that is imposed on the individual, “open your hand to the poor and the needy kinsman in your land,” does not release the state from its responsibilities to care for the weak. The individual’s duty and opportunity to care for the weak does not come as a substitute for the general welfare system, but rather as a supplementary and softening addition. This addition is the compassionate, caring, caressing personal touch.

The fulfillment of the individual’s opportunity to care for the weak and to build a just society is done mainly through Chessed (charity). Maimonides counts eight different degrees of Chessed in descending hierarchical order. The highest level of Chessed, according to the Maimonides, is to help the poor or the weak, “in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.” Meaning, the aspiration is to give him a “fishing rod” and to teach him to “fish” independently so that he can get out of the cycle of poverty. The lowest level of Chessed, according to Maimonides, is to “give to him sorrowfully,” meaning to give charity – or to give fish – from a place of having no other choice or out of compulsion. Here, too lies the hope that the giver – even without a choice – will feel the positive energies and the ripples of the effect of his act of giving, and then the need and desire to climb up the “ladder of Chessed” will awaken in him, for “He who strives to do good and kind deeds attains life, success and honor” (Proverbs 21.21).

According to Jewish tradition, the act of Chessed is one of the main means for fulfilling the concept of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), which expresses the desire to make the world a better and more just place. In his speech to the participants of the JFN Conference in Tel Aviv, 2012, the ninth president of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres z”l, defined the concept of Tikkun Olam like this: “What is the Jewish people’s greatest contribution to the rest of the world? I would say that it is a lack of satisfaction. A real Jew cannot truly be satisfied. The moment he is satisfied, he begins to doubt his Judaism. A Jew who is never satisfied… not with himself and not with others… Generation after generation, the Jewish people stood at the forefront of changes, thought and revolutions. Why? Because we do not sleep, we are in constant search, constantly thinking about something new, something different. Something that we call Tikkun Olam.”

Tikkun Olam is not done through revolutions or large and grandiose acts, but through small, modest steps and through perseverance. For helping to repair the world of one person is a reparation of an entire world. Each one of us is capable through our actions – even the smallest of them – of repairing the world. Maimonides went even further and determined: “if he were to fulfill just one mitzvah he would incline himself and the entire world toward merit and bring about salvation and redemption.”

Through our acts of Chessed – even the smallest ones – we have the power to repair our world and the world of the weak and needy among us: the world of a child, of a youth, of an elderly person, of a Holocaust survivor, of a disabled person, and more. By joining the circle of social involvement, action and giving – in the individual acts of Tikkun Olam of each one of us – we can serve as a light that illuminates the darkness of the world of others. A light that has the power to do wonders. “The miracle of the light,” wrote Emmanuel Levinas, “is that it is richer than the energies feeding it… It is the daily marvel of the spirit… It is a flame that burns with its own fervor… the will that undertakes to do something despite the paralyzing obstacles in its way; the hope that lights up a life… It concerns the infinite resources of the spirit that, as a creator, surpasses the prudence of techniques; without calculation, without past, it joyfully pours forth its feelings in space, freely and prodigiously entering into the cause of the Other.”

As we have joined our small light of action into the torch of social action, with our joint power we are able to illuminate society as a whole, and to bring about fundamental and significant social changes, which today might seem to us to be but a distant dream. This belief doesn’t stem from naivety – although naivety is sometimes necessary in order to dream big – but from the recognition of the tremendous rewards that one little ‘Chessed’ can bring about.Dr. Haim E. Dahan is the author of “Touches of Grace – Philanthropy and Social Involvement in Israel” and the founder of Ofanim. Ofanim works to minimize the gaps in education through STEM enrichment activities for the children residing in small, weak and peripheral communities of Israel.

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.