Monday, 31 March 2008

To Be a Chassid - a Person of Lovingkindness

Each of us wishes and has the obligation to improve himself, to become someone greater than he already is. To what degree should we strive and how do we keep in balance while still advancing to higher levels?

Externalities and physical appearance is just the start! One of the heights to which each of us can aspire towards, is to become a Chassid.

A Chassid, from the Hebrew word Chessed – kindness – is one who is himself filled with kindness. Whereas a judge (in Hebrew – a Dayan) is focussed on Din (judgment,) it is through Chessed (kindness) that one becomes a Chassid.

The Torah was given to bring goodness into the world. It was not given for one to become an ascetic on a mountain peak – perhaps the Himayalas – in the hope of experiencing Divinity and G-dliness! It was given for the individual to learn, to improve himself, so that he will affect a change for the good in everything in the world. This becomes the purpose of a person’s life in this world, to be able to bestow more and so turn this world into a G-dly world.[1]

The Talmud[2] gives three opinions defining what a true Chassid is. In fact, in a short discussion before its definition, the Talmud gives us a taste of what it means. “Thorns, which could be dangerous to others should be disposed of appropriately” – states the Talmud. The first “Chassidim” would hide dangerous thorns and broken glass in the ground. Realising the harm these items could cause, and being super-sensitive to other people’s lives, they would hide the dangerous items a hand’s-breadth (about 8 – 10 centimetres) into the ground. These “Chassidim” took into account not only the danger these items could cause others, but also the possible danger these items could cause a plough passing through the field! It wasn’t enough that no person come to harm, but that a machine, belonging to someone – who purchased it for money – should also not break as a result of going over the hard items.

While the first “Chassidim” would bury the dangerous items – albeit with due care, Rav Sheshet would throw the thorns into a fire – and thus destroy them completely! Rava would throw them into the river. All these sages were aware of the dangers these items could present to others and so did their best to remove the danger absolutely and completely from any harm! All this, in order to teach us the correct way to behave. To be sensitive to another and to his property too.

Kindness, or being a Chassid, is all about super-sensitivities. It’s about going above the letter of the law. Perhaps, as the Hebrew expression states, it is in fact about fulfilling one’s obligations within the letter of the law[3]. A Chassid does no more than required of him, simply fulfilling what is mandatory. After all, is it too much to dispose of one’s dangerous items – that no other person come to harm from them? Is it too much to be aware of the possible danger they could be to another’s personal assets?! This is simply being a decent and caring human being.

For a person to be a Chassid – one filled with kindness, is nothing more than doing the right thing – that which the Torah teaches!

According to Rabbi Yehuda, if one wishes to be a Chassid, one should fulfil all those laws written in the tractates of Torah dealing with the Laws of Damages (Nezikin). Rava says that one should fulfil the moral principles as enumerated in the Mishna text entitled Pirkei Avot – Ethics of our Fathers. A third opinion cites that fulfilling the laws of Blessings is all that is necessary.

Why all the differences of opinion? Which is it?! Is a Chassid the first, second or last of the above categories? Why list three such different ideas, when only one would surely have sufficed?!

The Maharsha teaches that in fact, the Talmud does not argue. Instead it brings into full circle what being a Chassid is really all about. There are three relationships in life that a person needs to work on constantly – if he wishes to be a Chassid.

Firstly, he needs to work on himself. He needs to see to it that his relationship with his own self is a healthy one. In a sense – he needs to love himself and be balanced within himself. He also needs to work on his relationship with others. Our interactions with each other need to be in balance, filled with true kindness, without constant judgment. Here too, there is a much needed love – but in this case, as it applies to another. Finally, one needs to have a harmonious relationship with the Creator of the world – G-d Himself! Without a love for G-d, one is bound to lose track of having love for anybody else. Further, one will certainly not appreciate how to love oneself and another correctly, since it is only through the Torah that we learn how to love properly.

Hence the necessity for the mentioning of all three areas. One who learns the Ethics of our Fathers, will come to understand what developing and improving oneself is all about. One who learns well the Laws of Damages, will come to excel in behaving correctly with his fellow man. One who learns and puts into practise the laws of Blessings, will become constantly aware of G-d, creating a healthy relationship with Him. In addition to this, he will come to acknowledge and realise the presence of G-d in all his doings and actions.

How can we be better people? How can we be kind? What is true kindness – and how can we distance ourselves from the opposite side of the coin – that of judging another? The Talmud answers clearly.

There are 3 areas to perfect. Improve yourself and feel great about being you! Love your fellow, doing him no harm and keeping danger as far from him as possible. One more thing, don’t forget the most important area – remember the Creator of the world. It is He who has given you your own life. It is He who has given you your fellow man and friends for life – and it is He who has given you of every single thing in this world. Acknowledge Him for it.

A word of thanks to G-d. A kind deed to another. A kind word to oneself. It is these three relationships and loves that turn each one of us into a true Chassid – a person filled with loving kindness, on the path to bringing more goodness into the world.

[1] Midrash Tanchuma (Buber) Parshat Nasso, chapter 24. “When G-d created the world, He desired that there would be a dwelling place below, just as there is for Him above.”
[2] Bava Kama 30a
[3] Pirkei Avot 2:8 – See Rabbi Ovadia Mi’Bartenora: “חסיד: שעושה לפנים משורת הדין”

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