One of my professors in Rabbinic School used to say that Rabbis really give only one sermon in the course of their careers. I didn’t know it at the time but he was right.
I have pretty much given the same sermon over and over again for the last 40-some years. It seems that I have found a very large number of ways to tell my congregations to ‘Just Be Nice.’
There is no exact Hebrew translation for what we convey with the English phrase ‘Just Be Nice.’ The closest equivalent is a variant on the word chesed. In this week’s portion, servant Eliezer sets off to find a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac. He finds Rebecca standing at the well and woos her on behalf of his Master. He says to Rebecca’s father, “And now if you mean to treat my master with chesed v’emet tell me and if not I will look elsewhere.”
The word chesed is usually translated as loving kindness. We sing al sheloshah devareem On three things the world is sustained. On Torah, on worship v’al gemilut chasadeem – and on acts of loving kindness. But the word chesed can also be applied to God where and when it means something like grace. God acts with chesed, graciously, undeservedly so, with us and with the world. Chesed is understood to be one of the essential attributes or characteristics of God.
So important is this quality that the rabbis point out that the Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed. When Adam and Eve are forced to leave the Garden of Eden it is God who provides them with clothing and when Moses dies alone on the summit of Mount Nebo it is God who buries the prophet. I suppose you could say that God is at God’s best when God is acting graciously, with chesed, and by extension so are we when we perform acts of loving kindness for others.
When we perform gemilut chasadim, we mirror the behavior of the Most High and when we do so we are acting as God would act and have us act in any given situation.
So Just Being Nice, performing acts of loving kindness is actually no small thing. In Judaism, there is a direct and immediate connection between kindness and godliness. In our tradition kindness is a prerequisite to righteous living. So you see Being Nice isn’t nice, as in optional. It’s a mitzvah, a commandment, a holy obligation.
Judaism is bold to declare that “Before the Throne of Glory every wrong that is repented is forgiven and every kindness performed is unforgotten.” Small acts of kindness change and humanize the world.
I suppose the best part of gemilut chasadeem, acts of loving kindness, is that it doesn’t require any special talent on our part to perform them. Not everyone can be a scholar or a scientist. But kindness is an equal opportunity opportunity. It requires only our intentionality and an open heart.
So ‘Just Be Nice’ and Shabbat Shalom.