This chapter is excerpted from the book The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration, republished here with permission from the author and Toby Press.
“The world is built with acts of kindness,” Psalms 89:3
In Jewish thought, creating resilience rests not only on the individual but on the community. Most of our prayers are in the plural. We do not praise the rugged individual who cares only for himself. Instead, the individual is judged on his willingness to give to others, to protect the weak. More than a network or a neighborhood or an organization, community is a profound feeling of responsibility for others, a compassion that allows us to share a sense a sense of mission and destiny in healing the world.
The Prisoner Cannot Free Himself
Kindness can break through the boundaries between us, the isolation. When a person suffers, it can feel like solitary confinement, as if he or she were in prison. One summer at Camp Koby, the therapeutic sleepaway camp our foundation runs for four hundred bereaved children, that feeling of imprisonment was demonstrated when an art therapist asked the junior high school kids to draw comics, dividing the bereaved teenagers into groups. The kids were told to make up stories about a hero, drawing pictures and then writing captions about each hero’s journey.
After the session was over, the large poster papers with their colorful drawings were still hanging on the wall. When my husband and I entered the room and asked the therapist how he thought the session had gone, he seemed skeptical. But when my husband and I looked at the cartoons, he realized that every single one had a prison scene, with someone behind bars, or with their wrist tied in handcuffs, or trying to escape. In order to overcome the isolation of suffering, we need the presence of someone who cares. No matter how strong a person’s intellectual or spiritual beliefs, the experience of sorrow threatens one’s equilibrium and sometimes one’s sanity. Even the greatest Talmudic rabbis, who had tremendous faith in God and in the ultimate purifying power of pain, could not bear their suffering alone. When R. Hanina visited R. Yohanan, who was ill, he asked him, “Are these sufferings welcome to you?’ R. Yohanan answered, “Neither they nor their reward.” R. Hanina saw that R. Yohanan was in pain and said, “Give me your hand.” R. Yohanan reached out his hand and R. Hanina raised him up. Our sages ask, “Why could R. Yohanan not raise himself?” The text answers, “The prisoner cannot free himself from jail (Berakhot 5b).
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No matter how strong our faith, when suffering strikes, we need others to help us unlock the prison of our suffering. Furthermore, when people join together, pain is lessened. The Talmud states that when one visits the sick, the visitor takes away one sixtieth of the patient’s pain (Nedarim 39b). A study on friendship conducted at the University of Virginia confirms a similar phenomenon. When two friends climb a hill together, the hill seems less steep than when they climb it alone. In addition, the longer the pair have known each other the easier the climb appears.
Martin Buber quotes the Hasidic masters: “Wen a man is singing and cannot lift his voice, and comes and sings with him, another who can lift his voice, the first will be able to lift his voice. That is the secret of the bond between spirits.”
Time Doesn’t Heal – But Kindness Can
Most people aren’t aware of how crucial a role the community plays in protecting its members from the damage associated with trauma. It’s not only how we react to what happens to us, but how the community receives and shelters bus afterwards that defines our ability to heal. Recent studies have noted that the extent of a victim’s trauma may to a large degree rest on how he or she is nurtured by the community. In a study of 141 former child soldiers in Nepal (between the ages of five and fourteen years old), Dr. Brandon Kohrt, a global mental health expert and assistant professor at Duke University, found that the children’s postwar mental health was more dependent on how their families and villages welcomed, received, and supported them than on what atrocities the fighters had witnessed or experienced. American soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan report a similar phenomenon. It may well be the support of the community that defines our mental health.
Trauma and sorrow are too much of a burden for a family to carry by itself. I know that my family might well have collapsed if we had been left on our own after my son’s murder. On the first night after Koby was killed, when I went upstairs to my room, resting on my pillow was a little bunch of wildflowers from a friend, with a card. Just when I thought I would die, I smiled. Because my friend had entered my room to give me love. When my husband decided to go to America to speak five weeks after my son’s death, a sixteen-year-old girl from our community, Aviva, moved in with us. Neighbors continually brought us food and visited. Women from Efrat brought us Shabbat meals for well over six months. We felt supported, cradled, and embraced by the community.
During the summer of 2012, Lia, a thirteen-year-old girl, attended Camp Koby. Lia’s father was murdered during the second intifada by Arabs who worked with him at an industrial complex. The first day of camp, Lia’s counselor, Ronit, noticed Lia scratching at something under her watch. Later, when Ronit asked about it, the girls told her that she had been cutting herself. The camp therapist and director spoke to Lia’s mother, who asked us to keep her at camp. The staff agreed to keep close watch on her. By the end of camp, when the counselor and Lia were getting on the bus home, Lia unstrapped her watch and showed Ronit that her wounds had disappeared. “Time doesn’t heal,” she said. “Love does.” She hugged her counselor.
Loving-kindness can indeed heal. At Camp Koby, we do a lot of hugging. We also have art, drama, nature, and animal therapies. Last summer, one of our campers, a ten-year-old girl, Ma`ayan, whose father had died of cancer, had a terrible stutter. Her counselors could hardly understand her. By the end of camp, Ma`ayan had lost her stutter. When she returned home her mother couldn’t believe it, but her daughter could now speak freely.
Kindness and Responsibility
According to Jewish mysticism, God created the world so that He could bestow loving-kindness to His creation. If He were alone, there would be no one to receive the gift of creation.
We are made in God’s image and God’s primary impulse is kindness. Therefore, when we are kind, we act in the way of God. In practicing compassion and kindness, we come close to our most godly selves.
In addition, kindness allows us to practice justice. Tzedaka, charity, is derived from the Hebrew word for justice. When the world isn’t fair, people can step in to redress injustice, to give to others. Thus, the rabbis of the Talmud criticize a person who only studies and doesn’t perform acts of kindness. And a midrash tells us that the stork is not considered a kosher animal because it cares only for its own.
The injunction to be kind is so paramount that we are not only supposed to sympathize with another person’s pain but able to share in his or her distress as if it were our own suffering. We can learn this from the Torah’s description of Moses’s actions while the Children of Israel battled Amalek:
“But Moses’s hands were heavy; and they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it. The rabbis of the Talmud wondered, did Moses not have a cushion or a bolster to sit on? Rather, they answered, this is what Moses meant to convey: ‘As Israel is in distress I too will share with them. And whoever shares in the distress of the community will merit to behold its consolation.'” (Taanit 11a)
Feeling the pain of others can mobilize us to take initiative to alleviate it. Perhaps God chose Moses as a leader because, from the outset, he assumed responsibility for easing the suffering of other people. One of his first daring (and shocking) acts as a young man was to murder an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. He not only shared the pain of others, but acted to relieve it.
It’s significant that, in kabbalistic terms, another Hebrew word for kindness is gedula, which generally denotes greatness. As we expand our sense of self to serve others, we become more resilient people because we are less isolated and more interwoven with a community – more generous in spirit. You may find that with time, you become emotionally larger, more available, and a more compassionate and sensitive person. You change your center of gravity, extend your borders – your boundaries – to come closer to other people.
In fact, the ability to give and receive kindness may be the way that we best express our humanity. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, in his book Mikhtav MeEliyahu, says that what is most difficult for a prisoner in isolation is not the loneliness so much as the fact that he is unable to give. According to psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, a person’s deepest need is the need to overcome separateness, to leave the prison of one’s aloneness.
The Source of Kindness
What is it about giving and kindness that is so crucial? It’s not just “as you give so shall you receive,” a reciprocal relationship of getting back as a result of giving. Rather, giving is sacred because in order to perform kindness, we truly come closer to God. We must contract ourselves and our own preoccupations in a way that is similar to tzimzum, the mystical doctrine of divine contraction as a pre-condition to the creation of the world. Psychologist James Hillman says that “God had to create by withdrawal: He created the not-Him, the other, by self-concentration… On the human level, withdrawal of myself aids the other to come into being.” As God had to absent Himself in order to make a place available for humans, we, similarly, surrender our preoccupations in order to serve others. We participate in a greater good, fostering a feeling of unity with others and the Divine. In so doing, our identity is not erased or diminished, but enlarged. We relieve the isolation of suffering. We break the brittle boundaries that divide us. One might assume that the ability to relinquish one’s own preoccupations stems from a person’s strong sense of security feeling of wholeness. Yet in his book The Wounded Healer, Christian theologian Henri Nouwen states that a person who is a healing presence recognizes his own brokenness and loneliness – the depths of the human condition. As a result, he has the courage to deepen another person’s pain so that it can be shared. Then the pain does not paralyze and isolate, but mobilizes a liberating sense of hope, spurred by a shared sense of the loneliness and brokenness of being human. A community is formed.
I believe that the biblical figure of Abraham models an additional and important aspect of kindness. His story also begins with a stripping away of self. After all, this is the man who left his homeland and family in order to find himself, and to find God. Yet the emphasis in this paradigm of giving is on faith in God’s plenty. Rather than sharing loneliness and brokenness, we affirm and transmit bounty, the unlimited goodness that we intuit in our relationship with the Divine. Our giving is an offering sourced in a belief in Divine abundance.
Rabbi Avraham Twersky warned my husband and me not to further isolate ourselves after our loss because we would lose the joy of connection to other people. He urged us to continue to go to weddings and celebrations, to continue to live.
Yet many people feel very alone when there is no community for them in hard times. Yvonne, a forty-six-year-old fashion designer, was married for sixteen years, and after her divorce, nobody in the community invited her for the holidays, nor did they ask her to join them for Shabbat dinner. Nobody noticed that she felt abandoned, not just by her husband, but by the community as well.
Sometimes if there is a lack of community, you may be called upon to create one. And specifically because of what you have endured, you my be the person can best be of service to others. Like Queen Esther in the Purim story, you are summoned to action. Queen Esther enjoyed private access to the king at the same time that his minister, Haman, was advising him to annihilate the Jewish people. It was she who had to persuade the king to rescind his orders. “Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for such a time a time as this,” her uncle Mordekhai reminds her.
By allying yourself with others in a community, you may find that your pain becomes a source of resilience for you and those around you. You have built compassion that allows you to be with others in their pain and loneliness – but, even more, to create a shared sense of hope.
- What does the idea of community mean to you?
- Can you recognize a voice of inner kindness with you? What does that voice whisper to you?
- Describe a person or people who was/were kind to you. Who were they? How did they treat you? What did they say or do?
- Who have you been particularly kind to? How was that experience?
- What is a kindness you would like done for you? What is a kindness that you need?
- For what kindness can you thank your family?
- For what kindness can you thank God?
- What is your prayer for giving and receiving kindness?
Sherri Mandell is the author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart (Toby Press, 2003), The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press, 2015) and Writers of the Holocaust (Facts on File, 1997). She is co-director of the Koby Mandell Foundation and a certified pastoral counselor.