Sermon – The Spirituality of Kindness
In Hebrew, the word for kindness is chesed. Chesed also means benevolence, affection, goodness, love. It is perhaps best translated as loving-kindness. According to Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins in The Wisdom of Judaism , chesed, or loving-kindness, could be considered the mission of the Jewish people. He quotes the Talmud: “The Jewish people is recognized by three qualities: They are compassionate, they are modest, and they perform acts of loving kindness.”
Elkins points out that compassion is a feeling of love and empathy, of caring for others. Modesty is living with integrity, dignity, and humility. The modest person is decent and acts from his or her values. And loving-kindness is chesed, that thing that is the beginning and ending of the Torah. In the beginning, God gives clothes to Adam; in the end, God buries Moses.
So God acts with chesed. It isn’t saying God has a loving heart or thinks kind thoughts. No, God acts. God does. We, too, should do acts of kindness, offer service to others. Good Jew that he was, Jesus enjoined people to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, and perform other actions that showed kindness. And he didn’t mean just to your friends, but to your enemies, also.
A Jewish parable repeated by Zalman Posner, called “Un-Kosher Kindness,” explains this. Posner notes that according to Jewish kosher laws, the birds that are forbidden for Jews to eat are birds of prey. Except the stork. The stork is on the forbidden list, but it’s not a bird of prey. So what’s it doing there?
Well, you see, the stork is nice. Its name in Hebrew is chasida, which means kindly, because the stork helps its friends and shares its food with them. And that’s great. Except, it’s not great enough. The Hassidic rabbi, the Gerrer Rebbe, explains that you shouldn’t only be kind to your friends. You’ve got to be kind to strangers and enemies, too. Like Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”
And it’s Jesus who passed on one of the most famous stories told of someone who did acts of kindness to an enemy, “The Good Samaritan.” While traveling on the dangerous, windy, deserted road to Jericho, the Samaritan discovered a Jewish merchant who had been attacked by robbers. And he helped him. He picked him up, took him to an inn, paid for his lodging, and made sure the man would recover before he himself went home to his family. And then the Samaritan disappears before the man can wake up enough to give him thanks. Well, earlier, a rabbi had passed by and crossed to the other side, without helping the poor merchant. A Levite had done the same. Yet here was this Samaritan, reviled by Jews, doing a kindness beyond what even a holy person would do. That is chesed. That is loving-kindness.
Now, acts of chesed do not have to be grand, earth-shaking acts. Loving-kindness is showing concern for others, being generous of spirit, being thoughtful. Assisting your neighbor, serving food to the hungry, helping out at a wedding or a funeral or a birth, taking care of the sick, negotiating peace between two people. These are kindly acts that, in Judaism, mark one as a religious person.
This fits for Unitarian Universalists, as well. We talk a lot about principles of respect, compassion, peace, and justice. Like Jews, we focus on making this world a better place, rather than worrying about the next world. In the Talmud, God tells us that it is better to treat other humans well than to treat God well. Think more about one another and what is good and right than about God. God tells us to do this.
Unitarian Universalists can agree with this. We believe in acting to take care of others, and to offer support so others can take care of themselves. We believe in dignity, in living by our morals, in being honest, and showing integrity. Kindness is a big part of our tradition and our faith.
Yet if kindness is a duty, is it truly kindness? According to the ideal of chesed, it is not. If we do kind deeds because we want rewards, or because we think we should, or because we’d feel guilty if we didn’t, and yet we do not have compassion or gentleness in our hearts, the kindness may look like other acts of kindness, but it will not feel kind – it will feel cold and hard. This difference can be seen in a story about three daughters and the Siberian Lord of the Wind.
In the Kotura story, three daughters go to the Lord of the Winds, one after the other, to save their village from being destroyed in a winter storm. The two elder daughters were perhaps acting out of duty; they were probably acting out of greed. They wanted to be the wife of some rich and powerful lord, but they had no love or kindness. So they cut corners, they disobeyed orders when out of sight, they showed no integrity or dignity. The youngest daughter acted out of love for her father and for her people. When Kotura asked her why she was there, she did not, as her sisters had, said she was there to be Kotura’s wife. Rather, she said she was there to save her clan from the storm. She acted with modesty, compassion, and kindness throughout. We might not approve of a father sacrificing his daughters to the gods; we might not like that kind of reward for obedience. Yet the one who acts with compassion and kindness is the one who knows how to be in relationship, the one who will make a good wife, as the youngest daughter became Kotura’s wife, unlike his sisters who died in the snow.
So how did the youngest daughter learn chesed when the older daughters did not? We can’t know for sure. We are all born with a certain personality. And that personality will be formed and informed by our experiences.
And as Naomi Shihab Nye points out, to really know kindness, “[y]ou must lose things . . . .“ You must experience desolation, boredom, inner death, and must recognize that you, too, can end up motionless on the side of the road. She explains that before kindness can dwell deep within you, sorrow must be “the other deepest thing.”  When everything is gone, you are left with nothing but kindness. In the midst of the harsh wind and snow, when you are cold and hungry, frightened by the dark, lonely, confused, then nothing but kindness makes sense.
That is where the youngest daughter was, in that place of cold and hunger and confusion. Of course, the elder daughters were there, as well, and yet they refused to stay there. They refused to accept the harshness of life. They tried to make things easier for themselves, but trying to make them easier only made them harder.
Pema Chodron, in her book The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, writes: “We are always trying to get out of the boiling pot and into some kind of coolness, always trying to escape and therefore never truly settling down and appreciating.”
Who in their right minds could appreciate suffering? Who could appreciate numbing cold, blinding snow, howling winds?
And yet that is, ultimately, what the youngest daughter must do in order to keep climbing that hill in spite of her suffering. She must simply stay in the experience, allowing it to be part of her and wash over her at the same time. The eldest daughters were unable to stay in that place, unable to accept what was. They fought against their experience, and because of that, they were unable to perform any of the tasks required of them. As soon as they entered the cabin, they insisted on eating and getting warm. As soon as the journey became difficult, they threw aside the meat they were to bring to Kotura’s neighbor. And although they worked very hard on making the hides, it was not with kindness and compassion, but with anger and anxiety.
Clearly, suffering does not always bring out the best in us. We do not always grow from suffering. But if what Chodron says is true, this may be because the elder daughters did not allow themselves to experience their suffering. They refused to stay with the suffering long enough to understand. The poet Rumi writes of our wounds, of our pains: “Let a teacher wave away the flies and put a plaster on the wound. Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” If we can continue to look at our suffering, without denying our suffering or trying to run away from it, we might, someday, be filled with light. We might someday gain the wisdom and compassion that lead to chesed or loving-kindness.
So what if we aren’t there yet? What if we still flee from our pain or act out of duty rather than compassion? Is it hopeless?
There is a paradox that change occurs best when we accept things as they are. This does not mean we should indulge our cravings and excesses or act with no regard for anyone else. However, it does mean, as Tara Brach points out in her book Radical Acceptance, that kindness toward others starts with kindness toward ourselves.
Chodron points this out, as well. Wondering what it would be like for us to watch a video of ourselves, she writes: “You would wince quite often and say ‘Ugh!’ You probably would see that you do all those things for which you criticize all those people you don’t like in your life, all those people that you judge. Basically, making friends with yourself is making friends with all those people too, because when you come to have this kind of honesty, gentleness, and goodheartedness, combined with clarity about yourself, there’s no obstacle to feeling loving-kindness for others as well.”
So, as always, we start with ourselves. We pay attention to ourselves, learn who we are, accept our foibles and our desires, stop avoiding difficulties or pain, and stop clinging to pleasure or even to chaos. We notice, we let go, and that opens the door to compassion, to integrity and honesty, and to the practice of loving-kindness.
I know we sometimes think of kindness as “niceness,” as being “good.” I am not advocating sacrifice of self, although sometimes kindness means inconvenience or even pain. The youngest daughter didn’t sacrifice herself. She didn’t get sick or die, she didn’t give up her life. She understood pain enough to care about others; she was willing to accept hardship to reach a goal; she coped with hardship to do a kindness for someone else. Yet, she also found a gift in caressing the bird. She sat with patience and composure in Kotura’s tent. This was a way of taking care of herself, to accept and appreciate what is rather than to clamor and cling and grasp for something that isn’t.
Paradoxically, though in acts of chesed we don’t look for reward, we often find it. In the doing, we find acceptance and calm within ourselves. If there is resentment and bitterness in the action, it is not chesed. And so often, when we act with true kindness, we are blessed with kindness in return. We tend to be friends with those who are kind; we tend to live in a world where kindness is the norm. Thus did the youngest sister marry into Kotura’s family, a family that was generous and compassionate, offering the gift of tools she needed and the kindness of help to complete a task she couldn’t have done on her own.
Of course, we don’t always get something back for our kindnesses, which is why we should not look for reward for what we do. Because if we look for reward and don’t find it, like the elder sisters, we will become bitter, angry, cold and hard inside. Essentially, we will freeze to death.
The hope, of course, is that we avoid the death of resentment and bitterness. The hope is that we find our way to that place where all that makes sense anymore is kindness, when, as Nye writes, kindness ties our shoes and sends us into the world to do the small, everyday things. May you be blessed with the capacity for chesed and may kindness go everywhere with you, “like a shadow or a friend.”
First presented at the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship in Vashon Island, Washington in 2009. Permission granted to use quotes from this sermon for non-commercial purposes, as long as proper attribution is made. Copyright 2009 Barbara E. Stevens.
- Elkins, Dov Peretz, The Wisdom of Judaism, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2007.
- Talmud, Y’vamot 79a.
- Nye, Naomi, Shihab, “Kindness,” Kindness, Eugene, OR: Knight Library, 2003.
- Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, Boston: Shambhala, 1991, 75.
- Rumi, “Childhood Friends,” http://www.tantra-sculpture.com/RUMI%20&%20MADRON.html.
- Chodron 5.