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Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of Jewish Values
One of the hallmarks of Judaism is the emphasis it places on gemilut chasadim, acts of loving-kindness. From the very beginning of Jewish history, there has always been a role model and a system of laws regulating how Jews were to treat their neighbors and themselves in an ethical and moral way, starting with the burial of Moses by God (Deut. 43:6) and continuing down through the ages with the prophets of Israel crying out against social injustice.
The performance of gemilut chasadim is a mitzvah without measure. No earthly reward is promised, but the more acts are performed, the better the world seems to be.
Some examples of this commandment, or mitzvah, are: Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, burying the dead and visiting the sick. The rabbis considered gemilut chasadim to be an even greater mitzvah that tzedakah, charity, because in gemilut chasadim, the person is actually giving not only money but also of themselves and assistance to the person in need.
The rabbis also felt that this was a very important mitzvah because charity can only be given to the poor, but gemilut chasadim can be extended to the rich and the poor, wherever the need is felt. And while charity is given to the living, attending a funeral service is considered a true act of gemilut chasadim, because the deceased can never repay the person attending the funeral.
Acts of gemilut chasadim are acts of true altruism and are done to make the world a better place and to honor the dignity and worth of each individual. Because God clothed the naked — in the Garden of Eden, the Creator gave Adam and Eve animal skins to cover themselves — so too do Jews give assistance to organizations that provide clothing to those in need. By imitating the works of God, Jews feel they are following in a holy and righteous path.
To this extent, many Jewish congregations volunteer their time to man food pantries and soup kitchens in their communities.
Others help out in shelters for battered women and the homeless , as well as acting as advocates for children in our court system through the guardian ad litem program. Many Jews also volunteer in nursing homes and retirement communities, working with the elderly in many lay capacities.
In the larger Jewish communities, there is the chevra kadisha, holy society, a group of individuals concerned with the burial of the dead. Volunteers from the synagogue wash, wrap, and guard the body until burial. In traditional Judaism, the body is wrapped in a shroud and buried in a wooden coffin so that body may return to the dust. There is much respect paid to the dead, because the person has a soul and was made in the image of God. It is believed that the neshama, soul, stays near the body until burial and then returns to God.
In recent times, in the more liberal communities, the chevra kadisha has taken on the traditions of Jewish burial, instituting new rituals and reinterpreting the older ones. And like many rituals in the Jewish faith, burial and mourning practices continue to evolve over the years.
In response to the recent attacks at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the congregation I belong to, Congregation Beth Israel of Ocala, has taken on the mitzvah of gemilut chasadim by performing 26 acts of random kindness. We are answering violence not with more violence or with complete pacifism, but with social action. Our acts of kindness include driving members who are undergoing chemo treatments to appointments, baking cookies for our firefighters, collecting paperbacks for our troops abroad and bringing in canned goods for our local food pantry. Individuals can do these mitzvot or others as they are able.
May we all perform acts of loving- kindness whatever our faith, thus making our world a better place to be.
Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Ocala with her husband, Phil. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.