Latest update: January 24th, 2013
How do we teach our children, and more importantly ourselves, the art of kindness and compassion? How do we become better people? Is there a university that teaches us kindness, sensitivity or consideration for one another?
As a Holocaust survivor I can testify to the fact that there is not one such university or other educational institution that does so. I saw the graduates of the most revered universities become lower then beasts – maiming, torturing and slaughtering without a pang of conscience, without ever losing sleep. They were the products of the enlightened 20th century. Among them were scientists, academics, attorneys and physicians. They so easily became ruthless murderers.
Some will protest that I’m drawing on an extreme example. The Nazis were an anomaly in history. Really? Just turn to our Torah and study the very genesis of our history and you will discover the first holocaust, in Egypt, the Jewish people had to endure. Even as Hitler did, Pharaoh forced us into slave labor. Even as Hitler, who herded children into gas chambers, Pharaoh bricked our little ones into the walls of Egypt and those walls cried. They cried with agony and the parents who heard the cries cried even louder.
Since that first holocaust the Jewish people have had no respite. “B’chol dor v’dor” – in every generation there were those who aimed to annihilate us but the Holy One saved us from their clutches.
No, there is nothing new about the brutality that saturates our culture today – and yet there is. Even as the Nazis were able to harness 20th century technology to kill millions, our new 21st century gadgets also render havoc. We have become indifferent to the cry and pain of others.
Who would have imagined that through the wonder of personal computers and the Internet, hatred and venom would spread and infect the world to the extent it has? We have new toys – iPhones, iPods, iPads – that render us blind and deaf to our fellow man. We are always busy, not only at work but even as we walk on the street or sit down to a family meal, as these gadgets never leave us. We have created a robotic, decadent society. We can no longer identify with traits such as kindness and commitment. Apathy and callousness have taken over our lives.
A painful question: How well are we doing in our Jewish communities, schools, and, more importantly, homes? Is chesed – loving kindness – the principal by which we live? Do our children see chesed in our schools, our homes?
The story of Joseph should be the guiding light of our lives. At the age of 17 he was the lone Jew in Egypt. Whether he was in bondage, prison or the palace of Pharaoh, he was never oblivious to the priorities a Jew must cherish and hold dear. How was he able to accomplish such a feat? The answer is easy – and yet for us so complex. We simply do not have the tools he had.
“Dyukno shel aviv – the image of his saintly father Jacob” never departed from his heart or his mind. It was that image that kept him anchored and it is that image that separates one man from another; the image of chesed that can render one a brute or an angel of kindness.
But the question still remains: How do we impart such lofty teachings? We have to recognize a simple teaching of our Torah: “Lev adam rah m’neurov – the heart of man is wicked from his inception.” Humans are not born good or kind, generous or compassionate. These are traits that must be learned. While our little ones are adorable and sweet, they can also be selfish and full of chutzpah. They must learn to say “thank you” and “please” and “excuse me.” They must learn how to share, how to give, how to be kind. No easy feat in our self-obsessed culture.
My revered husband, HaRav Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, would often tell me that in Europe even before morning davening the boys would learn mussar – teachings that focus on ethical conduct. Sadly, this is a subject that is hardly taught in our yeshivas these days.
I remember some years ago my encounter with a young man following one of my speaking engagements in London. “Rebbetzin,” he challenged, “I would truly like to be kinder and more considerate of others but I just don’t feel it. It’s not in my nature and I’m not a kid who can change, so if you give me a shortcut that could work me for I will take it on.”
I looked at him and saw he was sincere. “Let’s consider that for a minute,” I told him. “Have you ever analyzed exactly what constitutes your nature? Our sages provide us with profound insights into this subject. ‘A man is shaped by his deeds,’ they tell us, meaning that if you do something long enough, it becomes second nature and it is that which makes you ‘you.’ So, for example, if you become accustomed to nasty habits, you become a nasty person. If you become used to venting your feelings, you become an uncontrolled, angry individual. The converse is also true. If you act kindly, eventually you become kind. If you force yourself to give, in time, you become generous.
“The positive aspect of this teaching is reinforced in our Talmud: ‘Mitoch she’lo lishmah, ba lishmah’ – that which you initially do by rote, you will end up doing with sincerity if you persevere. The action will become so deeply imbedded in your psyche that it will actually transform your personality.”
He thought for a moment and responded, “But doing things by rote and without feeling or believing them sounds hypocritical to me.”
I then related a story written by the British author Max Beerbohm titled “The Happy Hypocrite.” It is about a gentleman named Lord George Hell, whose name mirrored his personality. His bad temper was reflected in his eyes, his face, his very demeanor. One day Lord George fell madly in love with a sweet, gentle, lovely maiden but she was so repelled by his appearance that she let him know that she could never entertain the thought of becoming involved with a man whose face was so cruel and angry.
So Lord George came up with a brilliant idea. He would commission a master artist to create a mask for him that would reflect a kind, benevolent, gentle person. Thus disguised, he called on the damsel, who immediately fell in love with him. They were married and lived happily together, until one day an old enemy came to visit and said to the woman, “You think that you are married to a kind, gentle man – I’ll show you who your husband really is!”
And with that he ripped the mask off Lord George’s face. But lo and behold, the face beneath the mask was identical to the mask.
Throughout their marriage Lord George had pretended to be gentle and generous so that his conduct would not belie his mask. This left a deep mark on his character and transformed him into the person he had pretended to be.
“A beautiful story,” said my new friend in London, “but it borders on the miraculous rather than on reality.”
“Miracles are our reality,” I replied – “if we so wish it.”
Do we not all become miracles when we change our nature? If you wish to find a shortcut to change yourself for the better, put on that “mask” and become the kind, compassionate person our Torah commanded all of us to be.
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