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October 4, 2022

The World is Built on Kindness (Yom Kippur 5783)

Angela W. Buchdahl

The World is Built on Kindness
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Yom Kippur 5783

Yom Kippur used to be a very bloody affair.
Imagine the smoke and smell,
the entrails on the Temple altar as the High Priest
entered the Holy of Holies–
a place so sacred that he stepped inside only once a year–on Yom Kippur.
And then sprinkled blood from the slaughtered lambs, bulls and goats
onto the altar to atone for our sins.
It was such a dramatic ritual,
they tied a rope around the High Priest’s ankle, in case he fainted–
or worse–
and couldn’t walk out of there on his own two feet.

Our Yom Kippur looks a little different today.
Thank God! I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I would have signed up for that.
But when the Romans torched our Temple in Jerusalem,
and the Holy of Holies was destroyed–
it was earth shattering for our ancestors.
Their Judaism–their world–was gone forever.
They sat in ashes and sackcloth.
They cried and mourned.
And then–the finger pointing started.

True, it was the Romans who sacked our Temple,
but the rabbis of the 1st Century put the blame squarely on us.
Tractate Yoma, which is an entire section of the Talmud about Yom Kippur,
describes the horrible infighting at the time
between the two major political parties, the Pharisees and Sadducees
who distrusted and hated each other so much
they could barely speak to one another.
When one side gained power, the other refused to recognize their authority.
Extremist groups flourished. Civility was dead.
Sound familiar?

After the dust cleared, the rabbis took stock
and attributed the fall of the Temple to sinat chinam
"baseless hatred" between Jews,
which they describe in this curious story from the Talmud:
A wealthy man of the 1st century had a friend named Kamtza,
and an enemy named Bar Kamtza.
Apparently, in the 1st century there weren’t a lot of names to go around.
He planned a dinner party and asked his servant "Go and bring Kamtza."
But the servant accidentally brought over Bar Kamtza.
Upon seeing his loathsome enemy at the party, the host accosted him:
"What are you doing here? Get out!"
Bar Kamtza replied, "You invited me. It may have been a mistake,
but I’m already here, please let me stay."
The host refused. Even after Bar Kamtza offered to pay for his own dinner,
for half the party,
for the entire party,
he was still kicked out.

It sounds like an ugly encounter between two people–
but it was more than that.
Bar Kamtza’s humiliation played out in front of a room full of guests,
including rabbis,who did nothing to intervene.
Could things have been different if even one of them stepped up?
I think the rabbis use this strange story to teach
that you never know when your entire future might turn on a single action – or inaction.
Sinat chinam–baseless hate–
is not just about conflict between political parties or religious groups.
It starts small.
Each one of us is responsible.

The destruction of the Temple was in 70 CE, almost 2000 years ago,
but it feels like we’re in a similar moment.
Just this week, I experienced firsthand
the incivility within our own Jewish community.
After the Jerusalem Post included me on a list of 50 Influential Jews,
their Facebook page erupted with comments like:
"She’s a Fraud! She’s a non-Jew who leads people AWAY from Judaism."
"Judaism in America is Doomed. This woman is less Jewish than pork pie."
"Wow. How Convenient! This lady falls into a job
where she can have Chinese food every night." 

There were over a thousand comments.
It was ironic–and painful–to work on a sermon
about how sinat chinam once destroyed our community
while reading this outpouring of hate,
posted by hundreds of Jews during the Days of Awe.

The sages warn us from the grave: sinat chinam will not just divide us,
but destroy us.
Destroy our society. Our democracy. Our world.

Now the fall of the Temple could have spelled the end of Yom Kippur–
or even the end of Judaism altogether.
Until then, we had only ever atoned, or communicated with God, through sacrifices.
But the rabbis of the first century radically re-envisioned Judaism,
replacing offerings on the altar with prayers of the heart.
They re-imagined what Yom Kippur could be.

There is a well-known story from the midrash
where Yochanan ben Zakkai, the patriarch of rabbinic Judaism
was walking through the rubble of the destroyed Temple
with his student, Rabbi Yehoshua.
"Woe is us!" Yehoshua cried out,
"the altar where we atoned for our sins is in ruins!"
Yochanan comforts him: "Don’t grieve, my son.
God has given us another path to atonement,
rather than animal sacrifices, through acts of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness."1
And then, because rabbis like to have a proof-text,
Yochanan goes on to quote the prophet Hosea who says:
"For God desires chesed, kindness, not sacrifice."2

What a radical claim by Rabbi Yochanan and the rabbis of the time:
That animal sacrifice could be replaced by acts of lovingkindness.
No longer would a High Priest
mediate our atonement through burnt offerings.
Now every Jew would be responsible directly to God
for absolving their own wrongs, through gemilut chasadim.
The rabbis understood: a world destroyed by senseless hate
could only be rebuilt with acts of love.
And because your rabbi also loves a proof text, I offer these words of Psalm 89:
Olam Chesed Yibaneh,
"The world is built on Kindness."

Now the Psalmist could have said the world was built on Knowledge.
Or Justice.
The world is built on KINDNESS? Really?
What do you imagine when you hear that phrase?
A teddy bear hugging a globe?
So often when we think of kindness we think of it as the soft,
fluffy stuff of inspirational posters:
"Kindness is free. Sprinkle it everywhere!"
But our ancient ancestors understood that building the world with Kindness
was no Hallmark card.

They knew that performing acts of gemilut chasadim was actually a heavy lift–
especially in a time of polarization, trauma and unrest.
Kindness requires us to give something up:
Our comfort. Our convenience. Our insularity. Our certainty.

Do you know the difference between tzedakah and gemilut chasadim?
Tzedakah is gift of resources,
whereas gemilut chasadim are gifts of oneself.
Giving of one’s person.
That’s a lot to ask. Which is precisely the point.
True kindnesses ARE sacrifices!
But they have the power to build a bridge,
lift someone from despair, heal a wound.
Gemilut chasadim became the rabbinic blueprint for rebuilding a world
that had been demolished by hate.
Our ancestors took Kindness very seriously.
And so should we.

When our founding patriarch Abraham, in his old age,
sends his servant Eliezar to find a wife for Isaac,
Eliezar panics: how will I find THE ONE?
Soon after, Rebecca appears at the well.
She not only offers Eliezer a drink, but draws up gallons of water
for his ten camels as well.
You want a sign from God that someone is THE ONE?
Find the person who is exceptionally kind.
And yet why is it that when someone describes a potential date
as "really nice" we think it’s a death knell?

This calls to mind a famous quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that has been
ringing in my ears as I turned fifty this year:
"When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."

When we are young, it’s easier to feel invincible.
Acts of kindness can seem too earnest. Even unnecessary.
We don’t fully appreciate kindness until we’ve been broken open:
experienced loss, felt truly lonely, been ill.
Or injured by a spouse;
Betrayed by a friend;
Undermined by a colleague.
You don’t fully appreciate a kindness until you’ve been
the Mom in the airport alone with a crying infant and toddler,
a diaper bag and double stroller trying to get through the security line.
In a time of vulnerability, an act of kindness can mean everything.
It can renew your faith in humanity.
It can be transformative.

So why don’t we do more acts of loving kindness for others?
If you guessed that it was because of time–
I’m too busy. It’s inconvenient.
you’d be right.
But it turns out–that is only the second most common reason.
According to the recent University of Sussex Kindness study,
which surveyed over 60,000 people from 144 countries,
the most common response, by far, as to why people
don’t perform acts of kindness was the fear of misinterpretation.
We are afraid!
That our act of kindness might be taken the wrong way.
Someone might be insulted by our offer of help,
Or they could ascribe ulterior motives to our random gift or kind act.3
I hear it all the time–congregants ask:
-Is it strange to show up for my colleague’s shiva if we’re not close?
-Should I reach out to my friend who lost his job
or will that embarrass him?

-My son recently asked:
Is it weird to offer our doorman a cup of coffee
when I go out to get myself one?

Go to the shiva.
Make the call.
Get the cup of coffee.
Don’t overthink it.
The Sussex study shows that 99% of recipients of kindness
not only appreciate it, they’re changed by it.
Remember: Acts of Kindness are a replacement for sacrifices.
We might endure some awkwardness, or inconvenience,
even rejection.
But that’s the sacrifice.

Judaism sets an expectation of gemilut chasadim
in which we are obligated to do acts of loving kindness
not just on Yom Kippur, but every day.
And not just random acts of kindness, but intentional ones.
Judaism has organized itself so that gemilut chasadim
becomes part of a regular spiritual practice
and part of the fabric of a community.
For example, traditionally, we don’t ‘invite’ people to a bris;
it’s simply announced, and it’s a given that the community will show up.
Jewish law requires a minyan to say Kaddish when a loved one dies.
Mourners are not supposed to ‘ask’ people to their house for shiva.
Instead the community is obligated to come to fulfill a mitzvah.

In a society that values privacy and individual autonomy,
feeling obligated to show up and do acts of kindness,
or receiving help or comfort from people you barely know
feels counter-cultural.
But for Jews, it’s an imperative.
And I am always moved when our Central community lives up to that call,
like we did last Fall.

Aaron and Ashely had enrolled in our Center for Exploring Judaism–
a program filled mostly with interfaith couples where one partner is considering conversion.
Just two months into the online class,
Aaron was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The class took on new meaning as Aaron felt driven
to become a Jew before it was too late.
His classmates helped him; reading him the materials out loud each week
when he no longer could focus himself.

But the group did so much more, Ashley told me:
"I have never seen people jump in and give so freely with such force.
I never expected it, nor felt deserving of it.
But all of a sudden, I had 40 people and their families,
who have only known us through a Zoom box,
sending Shabbat dinner and challah every week,
bringing a full seder meal to our hospital room for our first Passover.
Offering to babysit our four-year-old Jack.
Coming and organizing my whole house.
A classmate who is a home health aid, actually moved in for months."

One week when Aaron and Ashley missed class,
their teacher, Rabbi Lisa Rubin apologized to the group:
with the focus on Aaron’s care they were way behind on the syllabus.
A non-Jewish student responded,
"If this is the only thing I ever learn about Judaism–
it’s enough."

Aaron died this past July. May his memory be a blessing.
Ashley shared: I am only still standing, still radiating love–
because you all filled me with yours.

Olam Chesed Yibaneh.
The world is built on kindness.

Perhaps you are thinking: in this circumstance,
I would have done the same.
Aaron’s grave prognosis galvanized an urgency for kindness.
But isn’t Aaron’s story an acute, condensed snapshot
of the human condition?
None of us truly knows the inner battles anyone is fighting,
the burdens each one of us carries,
or how many days we have on this earth.
And so–choose kindness.

Here we are, on another Yom Kippur,
one that would have been unrecognizable to our ancestors,
but was set in motion by them.
As we sit here in services and take stock of how we have hurt others
or transgressed in the last year, ask yourself:
Did I contribute to the meanness in our world?
Was I a bystander to sinat chinam?
Who did I fail in their moment of crisis?

If you need to atone–
and who amongst us does not
step into that Holy of Holies
and imagine making a sacrifice that is worthy of your atonement.
You’ll need to open a piece of yourself you normally keep closed–
for these acts of loving kindness require something of us.

We no longer have a High Priest.
We are now a Kingdom of Priests–all of us.
That means each one of you is responsible
And the state of our world depends on you.
Our tradition expects a daily sacrifice.
Could you commit in this new year–
to do one intentional act of gemilut chasadim each day?
Accept the inconvenience. Brave the discomfort. Take the risk.
And know: Your acts of lovingkindness have the power to rebuild someone’s world.
Including your very own.

1 Avot d’Rabbi Natan 11a
Hosea 6:6

Ideas in this sermon were deeply inspired by these two profound poems on Kindness:
- Peter Cole: “Every single Person” from Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations
- Naomi Shihab Nye: “Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.