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Peter J. Rubinstein
Intentional Kindness (Yom Kippur 5773)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 25, 2012

There’s an old story that I like to retell again and again. Some of you may have heard it.

Mendel, the schlemiel couldn’t keep a job. So as an act of charity, the town’s elders paid him a very small salary to sit on a rock at the entrance of the town and wait for the Messiah. When it happened Mendel’s responsibility was to run to town and announce the Messiah’s coming so the townspeople could prepare.

One day, a fearsome looking Cossack galloped towards Mendel. Looking down from his massive stallion, the Cossack shouted to Mendel,  “Jew, what are you doing?” Mendel nervously answered “Well, I’m watching for the Messiah so I can alert the people when the Messiah comes.” Quizzically, the Cossack with a blaring voice sneered,  “So Jew, do you like your job?” To which Mendel replied,  “Not really, but I think it’s permanent.”

Waiting for the Messiah is steady business. We human beings yearn for unreasonable responses to our prayers, quick cures, a miraculous turn of improbable events, even world peace. And in our traditional framework, that is what the ”anointed one”, the Mashiach, the Messiah is supposed to bring.

Most acculturated Jews don’t remember that the idea of the Messiah was a firm integral part of our tradition. It teaches that there would be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction that “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the lion will lie down with the kid.”

The coming of the Messiah was pivotal in Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith:


I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.

Jews fervently clung to these words for hope for the future and for humankind. These words were sung by Jews during the Holocaust, even as they entered the gas chambers. They were scribbled on cellar walls where Jews hid from the Nazis. They will be sung today as part of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

Our tradition affirms that the Mashiach would be an anointed descendant of King David who would gather Jews from the four concerns of the earth, return us to Israel, reinstitute strict enforcement of Torah Law, initiate the rebuilding of the Third Temple on the site where the first two were destroyed and where the Dome of the Rock now stands. Our worship would revert to animal sacrifice as prescribed in the Torah and the Kohanim and Levites would be in charge.

Above all, the Mashiach would usher in the end of days and world peace.

And, if learning of our traditional belief in the Mashiach is not unsettling enough, the Mashiach’s arrival would also launch bodily resurrection.

We would like to disown these beliefs. After all, many of us were taught easy distinctions between Judaism and Christianity: Christians believe in a Messiah; we don’t. Christians believe in resurrection; we don’t.

But that delineation does not comport with reality. Jews believed, and many still do, that there will be a Messiah. It’s just that for us, Jesus isn’t it. The absence of world peace is our proof.

Some within the Lubavitch Hasidic sect believe their deceased Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is the Messiah. They explain that world peace will come when he returns or when the world, or at least the Jewish people, is ready for him.

Not only Lubavitch Hasidm but many other Jews believe in resurrection, which is the last of Maimonides’ articles of faith. Prayers for resurrection are in the traditional daily Jewish liturgy. And of some personal consternation and surprise to me, the blessings for resurrection have crept back as alternative readings in our newest Reform prayer book Mishkan T’ filah. (Ask us on a Shabbat and we’ll show you.)

Further indication of Jewish belief in resurrection is that Jews yearned to be buried on the Mount of Olives. The tradition predicts that the Messiah will arrive through the Old City of Jerusalem’s Lion’s Gate immediately across the valley from the Mount of Olives, so those who are buried on that Mount will be close-up witnesses to the Messiah’s arrival and will have priority for resurrection.

The Messiah and resurrection, two illogical and possibly embarrassing concepts, are traditional Jewish axioms. From the beginning, Reform Judaism affirmed immortality of the soul as our variation of resurrection. And anticipation of a personal Messiah morphed into an aspiration for the messianic era, when there would be universal justice, truth, and peace as the result of our collective efforts in cooperation with all other peoples.

In our own time, the newest iteration of our Messianic objective is tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Tikkun olam has become a prevailing mantra. It is a fundamental aspect of religious school curricula. Our social justice programs, the advocacy of our movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, the mitzvah projects of our students, almost every piece of mail, certainly from the Reform Movement, is plastered with the call to tikkun olam. We would be hard pressed to find a synagogue mission statement without tikkun olam as a priority. It is a well-intentioned messianic agenda. But is it possible?

I suspect that the goal of tikkun olam will not be attained because it depends on a fundamental change in human nature which is beyond our reach. Though we try, we will not obliterate bigotry, reverse hatred, or curb xenophobia. We will not alter human lust, bad inclination, or self-interest.

Further, I wonder if the collective aspiration of tikkun olam, so beyond our reach, takes each of us as individuals off the hook, as we look to our organizations, agencies, synagogues to repair the debris of human misconduct.

So I would suggest a more personal objective for us. Rather than tikkun olam (repairing the world), let us pursue tikkun ha-nefesh, the healing of a soul in a time of need. We can make one other person’s life better, even for an instant, through our intentional kindness. We can be the Messiah for them. We can save the moment for them.

I have personally been thinking about this a great deal and found myself lacking.

I’ve reflected how often I have passed a person on the street who is asking for money without so much as a nod, a word of recognition, or a coin. I have my reasons for walking by. I suspect many of us do. They are well constituted, informed, and well-meaning. They go like this: if I give to one person, wouldn’t I need to give to everyone and I can’t do that? How would I make distinctions between people asking for money? Why should I support someone who might use the money I give for drugs, or cigarettes, or alcohol?

And if I’m giving money to a street-person, am I a co-dependent in their addiction to street life, keeping them from seeking social service programs that could help them?

Oh, we have the reasons—logical, intelligent, well-intentioned—or so we think.

And yet, I wonder: would my few coins addict someone to street life and to begging if they had the emotional, mental, physical, or social capabilities to get off the street? Is the indignity of begging, the attraction of homelessness, the comfort of sleeping on sidewalks so compelling that it would seduce anyone to continue that life style?

I’ve concluded that it’s okay that my money in their hand will be used for alcohol and cigarettes or some other self-medication to help them reduce the terror of their reality, to cope with their emotional and mental illness, to do illegally what many of us do legally with prescribed medication to reduce our anxiety or buy for ourselves a few hours of restful sleep. And I also know that what I give to a person on the street is not going to seduce them into begging if they have the capacity to do otherwise.

For those who are hungry or homeless or emotionally or mentally troubled, any of us can be the messiah with a bit of intentional kindness, at least for that moment on that street corner where our paths cross.

Then there are considerations which have been more personal and painful for me. I have thought about instances when I have been unintentionally impatient, even harsh with people who matter the most to me, thinking that I can improve them.

For instance, we want to raise our children with values, to teach them tools for success. We want them to pursue excellence and yearn to achieve.

So for us, every one of their set-backs is a teaching occasion. When, from our adult perspective, they do what we judge to be detrimental, wrong, something they should (or could) have done better, we let them know it.

So we correct them. We sit them down. We have serious conversations with them. We let them know the ramifications of their behavior, the price for their mistakes, the result of their errors.

But sometimes we could be kinder. There are times, perhaps much of the time, when they did the best they could under the circumstances at that moment. Our expressed displeasure and self-righteous finger pointing might not be what they need at that moment.

There are occasions when a deep breath, a pause for reflection and reconsideration, an arm around our child, a smile or just the whisper— “It’s okay!”—would be for them a gesture of immeasurable kindness and for us a way to nourish their soul.

And then there are our spouses, siblings, parents, partners, our friends, when in the heat of our upset with them we become rabid preachers of righteousness and, to our mind, the essential arbiter of the one right way.

When we lambast others beginning “You always…”—you can fill in the blanks, or when we presume that we’re always right and they’re always wrong, we have lost control. We are arrogant and self-righteous and a bit vicious.

We know it has happened when they avert their eyes, cry, walk away, and seek a haven from our anger. In the fury of our upset, we will have missed the opportunity to make that moment kinder, to allow ourselves an instant of reflection.

We might have redeemed that instant of conflict and transformed it into an occasion for healing and an expression of love for them, and for ourselves.

I plead guilty to it all: short temper with colleagues, disappointment with children, upset at my wife, times when I’ve lost control and lapsed into timeworn patterns of “needing to be right.”

In keeping with the urgings of this Yom Kippur, I confess that I have missed the mark. I could do better. I think we might all do better by healing the soul of the homeless person we meet on the street, the colleague at work, the person we call friend, and above all those we love as our family.

Intentional kindness will make us the messiah for the moment, saving one person who is front of us from the depth of their distress.

Many of you good people have taught me so much this past year. Along with you I have learned about intentional kindness from people I am calling heroes in my life and whose stories I tell. Like the lamed-vavniks, the thirty-six righteous people, my heroes do not know that they are.

The youngest is in the eighth grade. For two years now, she has schlepped her mother to our Breakfast Program every Thursday morning at 6 a.m. Just showing up would have been a great blessing to those who come off the streets for breakfast in our building twice a week. But just showing up isn’t good enough for this young woman.

Once she realized that the lives of these working poor and homeless guests could be better and their days begin brighter with some hot chocolate and homemade muffins, she set to work. She convinced the managers of our Breakfast Program to serve hot chocolate. And every Wednesday night she bakes one hundred muffins by herself to serve at breakfast. The muffins and chocolate are undoubtedly delicious, but our Breakfast Program clients are more fully nourished by the kindness of a thirtheen-year-old girl who cares enough to bake and serve them muffins at 6 a.m. every Thursday. Not only here, but every place she enters is beautified by her presence and concern for how to make it better. I have learned about intentional kindness from her.

Another story involves an old friend who was at one time the president of a significant corporation and the most philanthropic member of my former congregation. For a variety of reasons beyond his control, financial losses mandated that he reenter the work force just to subsist. He reached out to me to help him find a job. Given his significant past success and sensitive graciousness, I knew how uncomfortable and upsetting it must have been for him to be looking for help and work when he had given jobs to and helped others throughout his life.

Confidentially, I asked a member of our congregation who is well known in the Jewish and philanthropic communities if he could provide guidance to me as to whom I might contact to further this man’s job search. Our member didn’t give me names or telephone numbers or send me on my way.

To the contrary, and my surprise, over months he made numerous phone calls, sent e-mails, followed up, and copied me on all of them. And he kept at it. I was profoundly moved by his commitment to help a man he didn’t know at all. Eventually my friend finally received an offer which I hope gave him hope.

But along the way I was awed by both men: my long-time friend for the grace with which he confronted adversity and our member who with all the demands on his time and resources was, without hesitation, willing to take time to help someone he didn’t know who was in need. And he does that for so many. I learned about intentional compassion and caring from him.

And then there is my friend whom I’ve known a long time: not Jewish, not clergy, but one of the wisest and kindest people I know. She introduced me to Tom Scott, a very intelligent and a passionate sports fan who had played in the Negro baseball league and memorized every player’s statistics. At one time, Tom was very wealthy. Now he was homeless, a street dweller. I met Tom when he was living in a park across the street from City Hall. As normal as he seemed, Tom sometimes told his stories through the demons that haunted him.

My friend would seasonally buy him new clothes since he had no way to wash what he wore. She set up a line of credit for him at a corner kiosk which she would pay off when she passed by. One time she couldn’t find Tom in his normal place on the street, but found him in an isolated area where he sometimes rested. His eye was swollen shut and stitched. He had been assaulted and seriously beaten for the third time in a couple of months, the second time in two weeks. She said that homeless people are the victims of other people’s violent play. But Tom had had enough and wanted to go to San Francisco, in his words,  “to get a new start.” My friend pulled together the money and put him on the bus to San Francisco. As they said their goodbyes, Tom turned to my friend and said “Be as good to someone else as you have been to me.”

In fact, this woman is as good to everyone else as she was to Tom. She lives that way. She, my hero, has taught me to look beyond what I see and to appreciate the divinity of every soul. From her I learned about humanity and decency.

And my last hero, some of you know. She was in and out of the hospital for most of nine months beginning last December. She courageously weathered extreme medical treatments, brutal chemo and other therapies, searing pain, and the daily roller coaster of emotions. I was astounded by her courage. Just as her physicians compelled her to be physically quarantined for her own protection, she had undeniable reasons to withdraw from contact with friends and acquaintances. But she never did. She returned every phone call, responded to every e-mail, donated her hair so three other cancer patients could have wigs. She put photos of visitors on her wall, was abundantly and expressively grateful to doctors and nurses and equally so to the porters and maintenance staff who were concerned for her comfort.

She often supported those of us who did not know what to say to her. She never lost her laughter even when she may not have felt like smiling. She took care of us as much as, perhaps even more than, we could take care of her. She raised her eyes and her voice to a vision of health and wholeness and she loved us for everything we were, just the way we were. Fortunately she is with this congregation today. From her I learned selflessness and courage and about living one instant at a time, always with an eye on the future.

So this was a year of heroes for me, these and others, my heroes who each in their way guided me on the journey to learn about intentional kindness and compassion and healing of the soul.

The Messiah for me is no longer a theoretical fantasy, not the theological lusting of our ancestors. A Talmudic story sets us on our way. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked Elijah, the precursor of the Messiah,  “Where is the Messiah?” Elijah pointed,  “Over there. The Messiah is sitting there among those poor lepers. Look what he’s doing. He is treating each person’s sores, retying their bandages and comforting them all, but each of them one person at a time.”

That can be our mission as well. None of us is capable of tikkun olam, fixing the world on our own, but all of us are can be adept at tikkun ha-nefesh, healing a single soul, caring for one person just at the moment they need. We can save each of them with a measure of intentional kindness which may help redeem them, but will certainly redeem us. We can be the Messiah for them at the moment. I pray that each of us may heal many souls including our own in this New Year.

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