IT IS Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Jewish year 5759, and I am thinking about a message I keep spotting on bumper stickers and T-shirts: "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty."
At first glance, it seems a warm, uplifting sentiment. In a world filled with random cruelty, what could be more welcome than some unexpected kindness? With all the senseless violence human beings inflict on each other, we can all use a little more beauty in our lives. Who wouldn't welcome anything that can inspire deeds of kindness and beauty -- even if only an expression on a bumper sticker?
Yet the more I see this expression, the more it bothers me. The words are sweet. But taken literally, they convey a troubling message.
For what our society needs more of is not random kindness, but sustained and dependable kindness; not senseless acts of beauty, but beautiful behavior that is deliberately cultivated. Of course a random kindness is better than no kindness at all. But it is the ethical equivalent of sitting down at the piano to bang out "Chopsticks": quick, easy, and not very serious.
The meaning that lurks in the interstices of "Practice random kindness" is that treating others with compassion and decency is something to be done as a lark. That is not a philosophy that promotes kindness as an essential element of good character. It is a philosophy that promotes kindness as a fun activity for a slow weekend. This attitude suffuses the recent spate of "kindness" books. Guerrilla Kindness, for example, recommends burying nickels in sandboxes for children to find when they play. Random Acts of Kindness suggests buying coffee for strangers in a diner or secretly washing a neighbor's car. Something called The Kindness Society offers this on its Web site:
"Random acts of kindness are those sweet or lovely things we do for no reason except that, momentarily, the best of our humanity has sprung into full bloom. When you spontaneously give an old woman the bouquet of red carnations you had meant to take home to your own dinner table, when you give your lunch to the guitar-playing homeless person who makes music at the corner . . . when you anonymously put coins in someone else's parking meter . . . you are doing not what life requires of you, but what the best of your human soul invites you to do."
I am all for spontaneously giving bouquets to old women. Any good deed is to be encouraged, even those done on a whim. But if kindness is merely spur-of-the-moment gestures, if it is "not what life requires of you," why bother? Because it feels good? Then what happens when it doesn't feel good? What happens when it takes a real effort of will -- or a financial sacrifice -- or a significant commitment of time -- to treat someone with kindness and charity?
How different is the understanding of kindness conveyed by the Rosh Hashana liturgy.
Today and tomorrow, Jews will revisit the story of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. Each of the three Biblical patriarchs is regarded as the exemplar of a particular trait, and Abraham is remembered above all for his acts of loving-kindness. (Isaac's trait is self-sacrifice; Jacob is the paradigm of scholarliness.)
The Bible portrays Abraham as a man intensely concerned with the comfort and well-being of others. He leaves his sickbed when he sees strangers in the distance, ignoring his pain in order to show them hospitality. He pleads with God to spare the cruel sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah. So thoroughly does he inculcate the habit of kindness in the members of his household that when his servant Eliezer journeys to find a wife for Isaac, the litmus test he applies is one of compassion: He looks for a girl who is willing not only to offer him a drink of water, but to draw water for his camels as well -- a backbreaking chore.
This is kindness of a far higher order than dropping nickels in a playground or handing out carnations in the street.
"Jews are the compassionate children of compassionate parents," the Talmud teaches. "One who is merciless toward his fellow creatures is no descendant of our father Abraham." Jewish tradition teaches that kindness is what life requires of you -- and even that it is required for life. On Rosh Hashana, God sits in judgment, deciding who will live and who will die, whose days will be peaceful, whose tormented. But His decisions are not unalterable. At the climactic moment of the service, in the famous prayer of Rabbi Amnon, Jews remind themselves that "repentance, prayer, and acts of charity can dissolve a bitter decree."
The sages taught that God himself is the original model of kindness: He clothed Adam and Eve when they were naked, visited Abraham when he was sick, comforted Isaac in his grief, buried Moses after he died. We, who are commanded to follow in God's ways (Deuteronomy 13:5), must likewise clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, bury the dead. We pray on Rosh Hashana for God to treat us with charity and kindness -- asei imanu tzedaka va'chesed -- not randomly but daily, not on a whim but constantly. He wants the same from us. "For I desire kindness, not sacrifices," said the prophet Hosea 2,700 years ago.
My resolution for the coming year is to practice consistent kindness and thoughtful acts of beauty. May 5759 be for all of us a year of compassion, charity, and goodwill.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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