I learned the significance of caring for others from a young mother beginning a long period of post-hospital convalescence. With an infant and toddler at home, she had suddenly found herself incapacitated, in the hospital and in great pain. I asked her about pain treatment, arrangements for her children and the reactions of others to her situation but I sensed that I was missing something. Eventually she taught me that being seriously ill imposes two very real but distinct tragedies.
First, of course, is the illness and the pain and their implications. Her family and doctors understood her suffering and offered treatment and sympathy. But there is also a second tragedy that no one seemed to appreciate. She is a wife, mother, daughter and friend. Whether at home or at work, addressing the needs of others is her essence. Her illness, however, deprived her of the strength and mobility to help, give and care for others. In fact, her own pain and anxiety are often so consuming, she is unable even to ask about others’ needs or challenges. We are familiar with the deprivation of dignity most people suffer when ill and hospitalized. But the loss she suffered most was being denied her greatest source of dignity, which is caring for others.
We are a giving community. We host kosher food pantries, poverty programs, and gemachs (free- loan societies) providing access to everything, from money to wedding gowns to home hospital beds. We fund myriad programs addressing the panoply of children’s needs, as well as programs for couples struggling with infertility, organizations to test dating couples for genetic incompatibility, and programs to introduce unaffiliated Jews to their heritage. We offer referral services directing people to appropriate physical and mental health professionals, and even introduce people to families who will share their Shabbos experience.
And yet, it seems to me that our community’s relationship to chesed has changed. Rather than actually performing chesed, we increasingly “outsource” the tasks. Even when we are invited to participate in a communal chesed project, frequently our financial support, not our active participation, is actually being solicited. And truth be told, when we realize that we are not being asked for our time, many of us are rather relieved and happily write a check. Community rabbis have confided in me that while their congregation is growing impressively, fewer and fewer shul members are prepared to give of their time and effort on behalf of the shul and the community.
But even if this perception is accurate, should we be troubled? After all, isn’t our goal to ensure that the needs of the community are met? Does it matter if we are personally involved in acts of chesed and community activism so long as our generosity ensures that the services are provided?
I believe it does matter. Chesed and activism are not just about providing a service or meeting a need. They are also about how we live and what occupies our time and behavior. Visiting the infirm, tutoring an underprivileged child or playing scrabble with a lonely neighbor conveys that you truly care about the other person. Similarly, communal activism conveys the value you place on being a member of the community, thereby increasing the commitment and bonding of others.
Equally significant is that personal participation in chesed and communal activism changes who we are. We become kinder, better people and far more connected to each other and to the Jewish people. Moreover, selfless behavior orients our minds in a manner essential to being a proper religious Jew.
Self or Other
As infants we perceive ourselves as being the entirety of reality. We then spend our childhood, adolescence and adulthood trying to unlearn that impression. The ability to recognize and care for the “other” is a sublime experience. In fact, it is a fundamental aspect of our obligation of “v’halachta b’drachav,” to emulate the character of God. The process of increasing our appreciation for, and respect of, others is called maturing.
Achieving this maturation, this outward focus, is essential to our religious experience. Judaism is theocentric, meaning that we strive to serve the Almighty and to recognize God in history, as well as in both the holy and the mundane aspects of our daily lives. Self-absorbed people are incapable of recognizing God’s presence and influence since they only focus on themselves. By observing mitzvos, by performing chesed and by dedicating time to the community, we hope to nurture an outward-focused mindset that will orient ourselves to engage in the search for God.
Unfortunately, aging does not necessarily translate into maturity, and the effort to shed our self-absorbed mindset is a lifelong struggle. Theoretically, commitment to Torah observance should infuse us with an authentic outward focus; alas, religious observance itself may be rather self-serving. Religious fervor should reflect piety, but it is often merely an expression of personal identity. While Torah should make us feel holy, too often it simply makes us feel “holier than thou.” In fact, we can even fall prey to using religious passion as a tool to impose our own will on others, rather than using it in deference to the will of God.
If, however, we develop a truly outward-focused Judaism, our observance, piety and passion are likely to be authentic. Communal volunteering and spending time on the needs of others will help fashion an outward-focused personality, allowing for a focus on God and the pursuit of God’s agenda rather than our own.
Once we commit to include chesed and activism in our lives, the next challenge is choosing the roles we assume. For some of us, communal involvement comes easily and for others caring for those who are troubled or needy is second nature. But for many of us neither is comfortable. Where do we begin and how do we gauge how much time and effort is appropriate?
Selecting a Role
The first challenge is considering what makes sense for you.
For example, should your role be to lend an ear to the lonely, teach the Jewishly unaffiliated, or pack food for the hungry? Is it better for you to be an organizer or a participant, a planner or an implementer? Should you initiate a new program or institution, or should you expend effort improving existing programs or institutions? Is it better to be a social entrepreneur or to work within larger communal institutions; should you be counter-cultural or work within the communal system? Should you aspire to be a visionary or a pragmatist; build bridges or fortresses; nurture the weakest or elevate the strongest; address critical needs of a few or effectuate more modest improvements for the many? And should you be guided by what is most enjoyable or by what is most needed? Should you assist a cause that you are passionate about because it addresses your own needs, or ensure objectivity by addressing needs that do not affect you or those with whom you have a special relationship?
It seems to me that our community’s relationship to chesed has changed. Rather than actually performing chesed, we increasingly outsource the tasks.
Several initial steps are helpful. Firstly, identify a role that you feel you can stick with and will not quickly abandon. Working with interesting, pleasant people, being able to observe tangible results, and receiving encouragement and positive reinforcement are all factors likely to keep you involved. Other factors are more individualized. For example, are you more comfortable as a follower or leader, taking risks or playing it safe? What is your tolerance for criticism or failure, or feeling under-appreciated? These considerations are all informative.
Secondly, it is important to select roles that play to your strengths. It is particularly satisfying when your efforts produce results unlikely to have been achieved without your involvement.
Ultimately, however, the most significant consideration may be the urgency of the need. A gifted artist, for example, can hardly justify focusing on beautifying a communal gathering spot if there are not enough volunteers to distribute medicine and food in the midst of an epidemic.
The Appropriate Degree of Commitment—the Circles Test
In light of our many responsibilities, where do chesed and volunteerism fit in? How do you determine when chesed and activism are the right things to do and when they are irresponsible? Every person is obligated to give charity, but the appropriate amount varies significantly among donors. Chesed is the same. In gauging how much time and energy to commit, I suggest employing the “circles test.”
Draw two circles of different sizes—a “capacity” circle and a “circumstances” circle. The first circle should reflect the size of your capacity, with the second circle reflecting the amount of demands and distractions imposed by your circumstances.
The size of the capacity circle reflects the extent of your capacity—an amalgamation of traits and characteristics that collectively indicate how much responsibility and focus a person can handle. Physical, intellectual and emotional strength all factor into capacity, as do stamina, intelligence, self-confidence and the ability to withstand stress, criticism and failure. Multi-tasking skills and attention span also contribute to the calculation.
Second is the circumstances circle, which reflects the aggregate amount of demands, distractions, impositions and external influences that consume your time, attention and energy. For many, parenting is the most significant circumstance, though its demands are often underestimated. Moreover, the space consumed by parenting is influenced by myriad other circumstances, such as the degree of a spouse’s commitment and availability, the number and ages of children, and each child’s unique needs and challenges. Other occasional game changers are an ill spouse and aging parents. Livelihood and personal well-being are also common, significant circumstances.
The degree that your capacity circle is larger than your circumstances circle reflects the amount of time, energy and attention that is available for chesed and volunteerism. If, however, your circumstances circle is larger than your capacity circle, the responsible choice is to defer assuming additional roles until your circumstances change.
Shifting Circles and Lost Opportunities
We often ignore changes in our circumstances that may significantly alter the balance between our capacity and circumstances. For example, our circumstances circle may shrink as we watch our children grow up, leave home and eventually mary. Similarly, we enjoy increased availability when our job commitments are reduced or eliminated, or when we can afford to choose to do so. Do we fully consider the impact of these changed circumstances on our availability for volunteerism and chesed? Though tragic, one’s availability to help others occasionally is increased by sad life events, like the passing of a parent.
Knowing ourselves and honestly assessing our capacity and circumstances are serious challenges but core Jewish responsibilities. In the best of good faith we may understandably err in either direction. What is not understandable is failing to reassess when changes occur in our circumstances. And what is truly unjustifiable is not even bothering to conduct an assessment of our personal availability to help others.
The Mishnah teaches that the world stands on three pillars—Torah, avodah and chesed. One without the others is hollow. Each is essential to our personal growth as Jews, and to the collective needs of our community. Our personal challenge is finding the correct balance and the proper expression of each.
Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.
Ask the President
The Orthodox Union is first and foremost a communal services organization. Your feedback and input about how the OU is doing in that role is critical to our success as a community. As president I want to hear from you.
Your input and views will certainly be studied, and will be considered in the context of the views of others.
If you pose questions that are appropriate for a public response, I will do so if you provide permission.
I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.
President, Orthodox Union