G’milut Chasadim and The CJC Caring Committee

by Steve Kramer, CJC Co-President

G’milut Chasadim

According to a story told by Jewish mystics, when G-d desired to create the world G-d was everywhere, with the divine light filling up all of existence. So G-d withdrew some of the light to make a space for the universe—and then breathed the light back into the universe so that G-d’s presence could be in creation. Originally, the light was supposed to be in special vessels, but there was a cosmic accident: the vessels shattered, and little sparks of divine light, mixed up with these vessels, were scattered into every piece of creation. But the world isn’t perfect: the broken shards of vessels obscure the light. Every time we do a mitzvah with any object or for any person, we clean up and free one spark of that light so that it can shine freely and the spirit of G-d can be stronger in the world. According to this story, Jews are tasked with doing mitzvot so that we can clean up and free the sparks of light. Each mitzvah contributes to Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world.

Tzedakah (translated both as “charity” and as “justice”) and G’milut Chasasdim (“acts of loving-kindness”) are two of the primary ways we Jews work to accomplish Tikkun Olam. Tzedakah involves giving money to help those in need; in contrast, G’milut Chasadim requires your time or personal involvement. According to one Talmudic saying, while both are wonderful, G’milut Chasadim can sometimes be even more important than Tzedakah, for three reasons:

  1. Charity can only be carried out by giving money, whereas benevolence involves giving of one’s person, for example by a kindly word or a pat on the shoulder or by generally offering words of comfort and consolation.
  2. Charity is directed to the poor, whereas benevolence involves the expression of goodwill to all, rich or poor, healthy or sick.
  3. Charity is given to the living. Benevolence can be extended to the dead by attending to the burial and going to the funeral.

The root words behind G’milut Chasadim provide important spiritual insight. According to the My Jewish Learning website the root of G’milut, g-m-l, usually refers to reciprocal acts. G’milut signals that these are acts done in the context of a relationship with a built-in notion of benefit or compensation in return for the act. Our tradition differs from those that emphasize selflessness in service. A Jew does not engage in G’milut Chasidim in a spirit of self-denial: feeling joy in connecting with another person, or feeling pride in doing a good act, are part of the Mitzvah. In addressing the similar mitzvah of Tzedakah, my wife Risa once explained to me that she whenever she goes to Baltimore or a similar city she carries dollars to give to beggars—and doesn’t worry if they are “really” going to use the money for food. “I don’t do it for them,” she said, “I do it for me.” The Talmud supports this, stating that the reward for service is in this world, not in the world to come (Shabbat 127a). Service can and should be valuable in some way to the person engaged in it.

Chesed, the root of Chasadim in the phrase “G’milut Chasadim ,” is along with Ahava, one of two Hebrew words for love. Chesed is a kind of overflowing love that breaks down boundaries—and sometimes even occurs in the Torah in situations where individuals break boundaries inappropriately (e.g. Leviticus chapter 20). The word “Hassid” is derived from Chesed in this sense of love and going-beyond-boundaries. In classic Rabbinic literature the term “Hassid” differs from “Tzadik”-“righteous”, by instead denoting the Hassid as one who goes beyond the legal requirements of ritual and ethical Jewish observance in daily life. This idea, of going beyond, doing the extra step, and doing it out of love is what the Hassidic movement is reaching for when they choose to call themselves “Hassidim”.

Chesed is used to describe G-d’s love for the Jewish people and for humanity. According to the Talmud: The Torah begins with an act of chesed, as it is written: ‘And the Lord G-d made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them’ (Breisheet 3:21); and it ends with an act of kindness, as it is written: ‘And He buried him in the valley.” The sayings of the fathers (Pirkei Avot) tell us that the world stands on three things: on Torah, on Worship (Avodah) and on Acts of Lovingkindness (G’milut Chasadim).

CJC’s Caring Committee

With G’milut Chasadim we are emulating G-d, helping to repair G-d’s world, acting in love, breaking down barriers, and making connections that help us as well as those we are helping. CJC’s Caring Committee is one important way we CJC members can perform G’milut Chasadim.

The Caring Committee provides meals to CJC families who are recently bereaved and sitting Shiva, and to members who are ill. We call and visit congregants who are temporarily or permanently home-bound; provide rides to CJC events and services and offer assistance for CJC members who need help with grocery shopping.

I recently joined the Caring committee because I think it is a great opportunity to contribute to Tikkun Olam while helping people I care about and strengthening our CJC community. In practical terms, I’m on a list of people notified by email when help is needed. I don’t need to attend any meetings and I get to determine if I am able to step up and assist for a particular need. Robin in the office coordinates all the work. Some folks like cooking as needed; others cook in advance; still others pick up things at the store. (If the family isn’t vegetarian and doesn’t keep kosher, a grocery store rotisserie chicken makes a great meal.) I keep a home-made veggie lasagna in my freezer that I can pull out when needed! Because I work from home, I’ve also been able to provide some needed rides or to visit with someone—and when I have been able to do that, I’ve probably gotten as much out of it as the person I visited. The visits have been fun. Even when, as sometimes happens, a Caring Committee member brings food to a bereaved person who is too wrapped in their own grief to express appreciation, the feeling of having contributed to Tikkun Olam can be an important reward.

This year’s theme for CJC is building our Tree of Life. To nurture the tree, my co-President Fred Thomsen and I are encouraging each member to pledge not only money, but also their time and hearts as volunteers to do at least one small thing to build and strengthen the community Joining the network of congregants in the Caring Committee is a great way to contribute. If you want to join, just contact Robin, 410-730-6044. With a large network, we can accomplish more.

Another thing we each can do: communicate with the staff when we or someone we know has a need. There is no automatic way for Rabbi Starr, Cantor Kintisch or Robin to know when someone has fallen ill or is sitting Shiva, and our staff can help only if we tell them about the need.

CJC provides many opportunities to serve Tikkun Olam. A few examples are: participating in the Mitzvah of worship, giving blood, joining one of the many projects listed under Tikkun Olam on our website (e.g., working on the Green Team, providing meals to the needy through Grassroots), working with Dave Zinner on the Chevra Kadisha, and joining the Caring Committee. I encourage each of you to participate in one or more of these. I have found it very rewarding to do so, and I hope you will too.