One day a man hears a knock at his door. He opens the door and finds a homeless man standing there. "Can I have a pound for some food?" he asks. So he does what any good man would do: Hurries to find his wallet, rushes to give the beggar the pound, and quickly sends him on his way.
The homeless man is already halfway down the street when he hears someone calling after him, "Wait, wait!" He turns around to see the man waving, who then hands the beggar another pound.
Upon returning home, the man’s wife is standing in the doorway astonished.
"I'll explain," he says. "When I first opened the door and saw a smelly and dirty man standing in front of me, I felt uncomfortable. I ran to get the pound because I wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible. But after he'd left, I realized that I didn't give him the pound for him, I gave him the pound for me – because I felt uncomfortable. So I wanted to give another pound – this time for him!”
Rabbi and Mrs Hackenbroch, family and friends, Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Woodside Park Shul. Thank you so much for coming here to celebrate with me on this special day of my Bat Mitzvah.
If the truth be told, I am not the biggest lover of Jewish Studies so I wasn’t exactly racing to my Bat Mitzvah lessons. However, when looking at my Bat Mitzvah Parsha, I was shocked at how much of it related to my life, and also to your life. I thought the Torah was full of commandments that had nothing to do with me. So, you can imagine my surprise when I found a Parsha full of interesting ideas on how to live life. Parsha Shemini is overflowing with commandments and it was hard for me to choose one to focus on, but after much thought, I decided that I wanted to use this opportunity to talk to you all about Kindness.
“Olam chesed yi-baneh” – The world is built on kindness.
Love and kindness are the pillars of Judaism. Kindness is a concept that we are all familiar with. We all want to be kind and we all strive to be kind. Moreover, we want others to be kind to us. And we are happy when people are kind to us. So, I ask you, friends and family, what is kindness? Do we need the Torah to tell us how to be kind? Isn’t kindness obvious?
If there is a choice between doing evil and doing good, would we not all choose to do good? Why does the Torah command us to be kind? The Torah may need give us instructions on how to keep Shabbat or build a Succah but do I really need instructions telling me how to be kind?
The truth is, we all want to be good, but being good isn’t always easy. We need only look at the world around us. We have all seen bullying in our schools, violence on our streets, homeless people everywhere, family feuds that last years, friends arguing, cruelty to animals, cruelty to children, multiple wars, terrorists and so much more…
Clearly achieving kindness is not as easy as it looks.
Here’s an interesting thought: If you ask an evil person and a good person the same question: "Are you a good person?" who do you think is more likely to say, "I'm good?" – the good one or the evil one?
If I asked Hitler and Mother Theresa that same question, I’m pretty sure that Hitler would say he was a good person because, as he saw it, he was doing the world a favour by ridding it of vermin. Mother Theresa on the other hand, would most likely answer in the negative, knowing that she could always do better.
Do you see the difference? The evil person always says that he's right. He doesn't bother trying to be good, so he never feels a struggle. He just assumes that he's good. By contrast, the person who really tries to be good knows how tough a job it is. And he's always striving for a higher level of kindness.
I think that deep down we all wantto be good. We all wantto be kind and loving. Just look at a baby, it is full of love and joy. No baby is ever born filled with hatred or racism. But as we grow up, life throws us different circumstances, and many times this includes suffering. When we suffer there is a danger of becoming angry, bitter and mad at the world around you. We are also emotional being’s so feelings are part of our lives. Some feelings make us feel good but others such as jealousy, anger and hatred make us feel bad. Our minds are bombarded with feelings that influence the way we behave.
I know that I want to be a good person but how can I be sure that I will be one? And what if I think I am good, but I still manage to upset someone? How many times in life have you been hurt by someone who didn’t even realise they hurt you? If we all want to be good, deep down, then how is it we end up being bad?
I think it is safe for me to say that no-one wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves: Today, I am going to be evil. Nobody says: When I grow-up I want to be a thief or a back-stabber.
Do any of you wake up in the morning and think to yourself:
Today, I am going to hurt someone’s feelings.
Today, I am going to be mean to my best friend
Today, I can’t wait to punish my child.
Is it anybody’s goal to “do” bad? Probably not, yet we all know, that good and kind-hearted people end up doing bad things.
The Torah understands this dilemma and is trying to guide us. The struggle to do good, stems from two opposing desires in every human being. It is almost as if a person has two hearts: one that loves to do the right thing, and one that prefers to be selfish. The choice is ours. It is our gift. We all have two hearts that we can choose to function through. We are blessed with this ability. Animals cannot choose between good and bad, they are biologically programmed this way. They have no measure of morality. As humans, we can listen to our two hearts and choose which one to follow.
It’s a tug of war. Whether you win or lose depends on which heart you choose to listen to. Therefore, being good is a CHOICE we all make.
Not long ago at school, I saw a girl that needed help with something, but I didn’t know her well and I was busy laughing with my friends during break. I didn’t help her. I turned my face away and carried on with my day. Later that evening, I thought to myself, why didn’t I help her? It would have taken me just a few moments and meant nothing to me but so much to her. What was so exciting about my friends that stopped me helping another girl? Why didn’t I help her?
What should we do when we see someone who needs our help, but we don't really feel like helping or worse still, we don’t like them or know them?
And we find our answer in Shemini. This week's Parsha lists all the all the laws of keeping kosher. These laws are long and just a little mind-numbing for a 12 year-old girl, so you can imagine my surprise, when I learnt a very interesting life lesson from one of the non-Kosher birds. The Torah lists all birds that are considered non-kosher to us – amongst the non-kosher birds that we may not eat is a very, very kind bird called a Chasida. The Talmud says it's called "chasida" because it does chesed. Chesed is a Hebrew word which means performing acts of kindness. So, this bird and the word for kindness share the same root word, chesed. The Chasida bird is known for performing acts of kindness.
Interestingly, we are told that kosher animals all have noble traits, and that’s why we are allowed to eat them. For example, we are not allowed to eat seafood because they are scavengers of the sea and as Jews, we should not eat those animals because we may take on their traits. And we should not eat pig because a pig is a greedy animal and has no stop off point.
So why is the Chasida considered an unkosher bird if it is so kind? Surely, it should be listed amongst the kosher ones?
When we look closer at this bird, we see that yes indeed, it is very kind but ONLY to members of its own species, to others it is downright cruel. And therefore, it is considered unkosher. The Chasida bird comes to teach us a valuable lesson: that kindness should be extended to everyone, whether they are like us or not. If I am only being nice to my own kind yet ignoring others or even worse, being mean, then this is not called kindness in the Torah. This is not the Jewish way.
We all know how easy it is to be kind to those that are part of 'our crowd' – if my best friend needs something, I won’t think twice. I may even enjoy helping her. But the real test of kindness is if we can extend that same treatment to those who are different from us or who we don’t like.
As we stand here on Shabbat, the day of my Bat Mitzvah, my blessing to you all is that we stop and take a moment to look at our lives. Where are we being kind? Can we be kinder? And more importantly, where can I extend my kindness too? Think of the people in your life. Remind yourself that being kind is a choice that we are blessed to make. Think of a person in your life that you haven’t been that kind too and make a choice to be kind to them. If we can create a world of kindness then imagine what our world would look like. Instead of complaining about how many bad things happen, let us look at ourselves and ask: Where can I be better? Because the truth is, your greatness is not what you have, it’s what you give.
Shabbat Shalom to you all.