By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10–25)
In Parasha Ki Teitzei, we read, “If you are hunting in the field, and if you see a bird’s nest, perhaps in a tree, maybe on the ground, with little baby birds, or maybe with just eggs. And the mother bird is sitting with the baby birds, or even the eggs, never take the babies in front of the mother. Even if your family is hungry. Always let the mother bird go free.” At that time, people hunted to survive. There were no grocery stores. We had to hunt to survive. But even then, even if we needed food badly, we had to honor kindness before any other thing. We were not allowed to let the mother bird in any way see us remove her children. We were commanded to let the mother bird go free or take the eggs when the mother bird was not present.
The Biblical verse about the mother bird and her baby birds emphasizes that we Jewish people venerate so strongly– rachmanis in Yiddish—kindness or compassion. The soul of Judaism is Kindness.
Recently, my wife Peggy and I took our dog Charlie to the park for a walk, and I noticed that there was a little orange cat following me. Who is this cat? Where did he come from? Perhaps he smelled the can of cat food in my pocket. Or perhaps he smelled the rachmanis of my soul.
G-d has 72 Hebrew names. The name of G-d that symbolizes the soul of Judaism is Ha-Rachaman. That’s where we get the Yiddish word rachmanis. Again and again, we are told to show rachmanis in our life—whether it be to a mother bird, or an orange cat.
Recently Peggy and I went to see a movie. When we left the theater, we saw a man in a wheelchair. He had a gumball machine affixed to the front of his chair, and he would ask people for money and offer them a gumball. Sadly, most people ignored him and walked past him quickly. When I gave him some money, he said to me, “You’re the rabbi, aren’t you?” He thanked me for stopping to talk with him. He told me that nobody ever looks at him. They stare at him, but they don’t look at him.
I asked him how he knew me. He told me that he was at a funeral I officiated at for a friend of his. But Arthur told me that even though he has a fancy wheelchair, people just don’t look at him. His loneliness, his isolation is intense.
When I saw Arthur in his wheelchair, I worried that someone could easily steal his money. And how would he fight them back? But then I noticed that there were a few men standing near Arthur, making sure no one stole or did any harm to him. I saw the rachmanis in those men’s souls.
And then I remembered a most wonderful story that I heard about a paralyzed man who has no possessions, no stuff – but he is blessed with wonderful friends, and they bring him to Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Yochanan was among the greatest healers during the Talmudic era. All different people who were ill would visit Rabbi Dr. Yochanan. He was also very good looking. He was so good looking that pregnant women would line up in front of the door of his home, hoping that if he looked at them, their babies would be born beautiful.
The paralyzed man in our story was around 23 years old, a quadrapalegic. And he lived his whole life on a mat, 4’ wide and 6’ long. Someone had to feed him, carry him, clothe him, and move him so he wouldn’t get bed sores. And clean him when he soiled himself. This man in the story will never know the sense of independence we prize so dearly.
He was dependent on people dropping coins by his side, so he could live one more day. He was dependent on the rachmanis of people, so he could live one more day.
And at the end of each day, his friends would lift him up on the mat and they bring him to his one room house. Just like I’m sure the friends of Arthur, whom we met outside the movie theatre, make sure he is taken home safely every night. Sometimes our Talmudic man dreams at night that he has a healthy body. He walks and runs. He works. Maybe he dreams he is married and he plays with his children. And then in the morning he wakes up. And he looks at the ceiling of a room he can never walk out of , he looks at the body that holds him prisoner. He looks at the mat that comprises his world, and he knows that he will never be free.
But, he has amazing friends. It’s his friends who bring him every day on his mat from his one room hut, to the street where he begs. At the end of the day they bring him back. Four amazing friends who every day, feed him and carry him, change his clothes, move him on his mat so he won’t get bed sores.
I mention this story because this is a theme of the High Holidays, of Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, when we are supposed to become AT ONE with MEN. We ask G-d to show us rachmanis, for the sins we have committed and we promise to do rachmanis for others, as we enter the New Year.
These able bodied men in our story saw a brother suffering and they chose to break his fall. They chose to be at ONE with him.
However, the story doesn’t end there. These men want to do one better. They heard that Rabbi Yochanan the great healer was coming to town, and they decided to bring their friend on the mat to see him. And, Rabbi Yochann healed the man on the mat. The crippled man—he stands up himself. He bends down and lifts his mat off the ground. He folds it up. He spent his life on that thing, and suddenly—never again! His world has changed from 4’ by 6’ to as far as his feet can carry him. His body and his soul haves been healed. . And what healed him? It was the rachmanis of the four friends that healed him. And this kindness healed.
Make kindness part of your life. It has so much power, that it can inspire the paralyzed to walk.
I don’t know anything more important than to be kind—whether it be kindness shown to a mother bird or a little orange cat or someone on a mat. Be kind , be kind, be kind. It would be so moving to Hashem if each one of us made a covenant of KINDNESS with the Lord this Rosh Hashanah.
Let each one of us make a bris chesed, a covenant of kindness with Hashem, and promise and give Hashem our word that, we will do everything we can this year to show rachmanis, to be kind.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is the senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism of Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.