This past December, at the 47th Annual Governor’s Carolighting event in Columbia, South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley issued a challenge to everyone in her state: “I want to challenge each and every family to do one random act of kindness. Whether it’s having a soldier for dinner because they don’t have a family nearby to go to, visiting a nursing home, or baking cookies for an elderly neighbor, each act of kindness can help affect our state for the better… If every family in South Carolina commits to doing this, we would have 5 million kind acts across our state. How special would that be?” (www.wspa.com/story/24125906/gov-haley-issues-challenge-for-random-acts-of-kindness)
When I read about Governor Haley’s Christmas Challenge, I was drawn to the power of her idea. The impact of acts of kindness are impossible to measure; the potential ripple effects of our actions are infinite. How often are we amazed to learn that an encouraging word or small gesture of thoughtfulness we made years ago had a significant, long term impact upon the life of a friend, student or acquaintance?
Through every individual act of kindness, and every individual Mitzvah fulfilled, we acquire eternal life; in that moment, we are connected to eternity itself. A rebellious Jew once mockingly said to Rav Yizchak Meir of Gur (author of the Chiddushei ha-Rim): “Explain this to me Rebbe. It is written in the Shema that if a person sins, the clouds will not give their rain, the earth will not give tis fruit, and he will quickly disappear from the earth. But I have been committing sins my entire life and I don’t perform any commandments – yet my land is fruitful, I am wealthy and honored, and I lack nothing!” Rav Yitzchak Meir responded: “It is clear from our question that you have recited the Shema at least once in your life. You should be aware that all of the good in this world is not enough to reward you for that one time that you recited the Shema. As for your sins, however, that will be subject to a different reckoning.” Reciting the Shema just one time is an act of eternal significance! Without question, an act of kindness towards others carries similar importance.
Certainly, random acts of kindness are inherently valuable. But as Barton Swaim writes, they may also be something of a cop out: “A random act of kindness is a one-off. It requires minimal effort and no change of habit and disposition. Take some cookies to an elderly neighbor or help clean a local park, and you’ve done the self-sacrifice thing. You’re good.” (‘Giving Back’ to Our Sanctimonious Selves, Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2013). If our acts of kindness never progress past the “random” variety, their impact upon our long term spiritual growth will be limited.
The Rabbis said: “Even the emptiest of them [the Jewish people] are filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate” (Berachot 57a). But why are these Jews considered “empty” if their mitzvot are as numerous as the seeds of a pomegranate? Rav Dovid Povarsky, zt”l, explained that it is possible to perform many Mitzvot, and yet still be considered “empty.” How so? A pomegranate has many seeds, but each one is distinct from the others. It is not like an apple or pear that is one unit; rather, each seed stands alone. Similarly, a person can learn Torah and perform acts of kindness, but still be considered empty, because his deeds are separate from each other, with nothing unifying them. If our mitzvot and good deeds are not part of a broader, consciously developed framework, their value and impact is less than the sum of their parts. When acts of kindness are “random,” disconnected acts, they play no part in building one’s inner spiritual edifice. Random good deeds may help others, but they effect little lasting impact upon ourselves.
Next year, perhaps Governor Haley should challenge her constituents to incorporate acts of kindness into their daily routines. Step by step.