Often on Shabbat afternoon, Rachel and Sam would go for walks along the beach and catch up on their previous week. The conversations were usually light, about work and family and the monotony of life. But one week, Sam became angry with Rachel and began to scream at her. Rachel had never seen him act this way, and she did not know what to say. She picked up a stick and wrote in the sand “you hurt my feelings.” Then Rachel stood up and continued walking. Sam, feeling awful for allowing his frustration to get the better of him, caught up with Rachel and tried to apologize. They continued walking, and eventually began talking again.
As the sun rose the day grew hotter, so Sam and Rachel went for a swim. At first they were having fun, but without warning a wave came up and it took Rachel down with the undertow. Sam saw what happened and knew he had to act quickly. He swam under grabbed Rachel and managed to pull her safely to shore.
Once Rachel caught her breath, she stood up and began walking around the beach. Sam watched as she picked up a small sharp stone, and a wide flat stone. With the sharp stone, Rachel carved “you saved my life” into the flat stone. Then she walked over to Sam and gave it to him.
Sam, a bit confused said to Rachel, “I don’t understand, earlier when you were upset with me, you wrote in the sand ‘you hurt my feelings,’ and now you have carved on a stone ‘you saved my life,’ first in the sand, now on a stone...but why?” Rachel smiled and replied, “you see, when someone makes us feel bad we should write it down in a place like the sand, where the waves can wash it away. But when someone does something good for us, we should engrave it in stone where nothing can ever erase it.”
Tonight we enter Shabbat Shuva, the sabbath of return, sitting directly in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Since Taschlich, we have been working on repairing broken relationships, asking for forgiveness, and accepting apologies. Owning our mistakes and flaws is an important part of our reflection during the High Holy days, but it is also worthwhile to reflect on our actions which created a positive impact.
Pirke Avot teaches that our lives should be centered on three things: the study of the Torah, the worship of God, and g’milutchasadim or acts of loving kindness. Tradition suggests that these three things allow us to enter the World to Come, but also are indicative of our living full and complete lives.
The sages of the Talmud teach that g’milut chasadim is more important than tzedakah, or charity. While charity is often seen as an act of goodwill and a sign of generosity, Jewish tradition understands tzedakah as a moral obligation to do what is right and just. The sages outline three distinct reasons showing that g’milut chasadim is the higher of the two values:
First, they point out that tzedakah can only be carried out by giving money, whereas g’milut chasadim involves giving of one’s person, for example by holding the door open, or by offering words of comfort and consolation.
Second, tzedakah is directed only to the needy, whereas g’milut chasadim involves the expression of goodwill to all, rich or poor, healthy or sick, to the successful as well as to those who fall short of success.
Finally we learn that tzedakah can only be given to the living, but g’milut chasadim can be extended to the dead by attending the burial and going to the funeral.
The sages, go on to teach that our acts of g’milut chasadim are what helps us to be tzadikim, or righteous people. While tzadik, comes from the same Hebrew root as tzedakah, true righteousness does not come from giving tzedakah, but from what we do to touch people’s lives.
There is a story of a young boy who lost his temper often, and one day was sent home from school for his bad behavior. When he arrived home and his grandfather asked him why he was not in school, the boy explained that he had been rude to his teacher. His grandfather gave him a bucket of nails and told him to put one in the fence each time he lost his temper over the next week.
The boy followed the instruction, and over the course of the week put one nail in the fence for each of his bad actions. When he yelled at his sister because he didn’t want to share, he put a nail in the fence. When he refused to clean his room like his parents asked, he put another nail in the fence. After just two days the bucket was half empty, and by the end of the week, all of the nails had been hammered into the fence.
The boy went to his grandfather to find out what he should do next. The grandfather instructed him to pull one nail out of the fence each time he controlled his temper, or did something nice over the next week. The boy did as he was told… When he walked his elderly neighbors dog, he took out one nail. When he brought tzedakah to the synagogue, he took our another. When he helped his sister with her homework, another nail came out. One by one, at the end of the week, each of the nails had come out of the fence and gone back into the bucket.
He returned to his grandfather to tell him that every nail had been removed. Together they looked at the fence and the grandfather asked his grandson, “what do you see?” The boy replied, “The fence is full of holes now.” His grandfather look at him and said, “exactly, no matter how many good acts you may do to repair the bad ones, the wound remains like a hole in the fence. We should hold our temper in and do good things rather than lose it and try to atone.”
We can not go through life acting as if our actions have no consequences… doing as we please, and expecting Yom Kippur to absolve us for our wrongdoings, year after year. Jewish tradition teaches that forgiveness does not repair the wound, it is merely an act of mercy. While our sins may be washed away by the waves, their path of destruction remains. Like the holes in the fence, our actions leave marks on everyone we come in contact with.
May we spend the coming year centering our lives, as Pirke Avot teaches, on the study of the Torah, the worship of God, and g’milut chasadim, performing acts of loving kindness.
Delivered Shabbat Shuva 5780
Podcast: Stories We Tell, Reformjudaism.org, Ep. "What is Permanent", and Ep. "Learning About What Matters"
Freeman, Susan. Teaching Jewish Virtues: Sacred Sources and Arts Activities. Chapter 12, Nedivut: Generosity.