Author Archives: Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow

About Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow

Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow was ordained at JTS, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She served as the National Program Director of Spark: Partnership for Service, is the American founder of the Bavli-Yerushalmi Project, and worked as a Program Officer/Educator at the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. She is currently the Rabbi/Director of Religious Services at Hebrew SeniorLife, a multi-faceted organization serving seniors in the Boston area.

Acts of Loving-Kindness

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Education News (Spring 2001), published by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Very often the term gemilut hasadim is translated as acts of loving-kindness. It is used to describe everything from the work done by synagogue bikur holim committees [that visit the sick] to service projects designed for high school students to lessons on how to treat a homeless person you pass on the street. The words gemilut and hasadim actually communicate some very specific ideas as well.

History of an Idea

In one of the first adult education classes I was teaching on Judaism and service, a woman asked, “What does gemilut mean?” The dictionary meaning of the root g-m-l that is most supported by Talmudic usage is reciprocal acts. Gemilut signals that these are acts done in the context of a relationship with a built-in notion of benefit or compensation in return for the act. This immediately differentiates our tradition from those that emphasize the selflessness of service. The Talmud supports this, stating that the reward for service is in this world, not in the world to come (Shabbat 127a). Service can and should be valuable in some way to the person engaged in it.helping hands

Hesed appears in the Torah to communicate God’s kindness and love toward humanity as well as human kindness and love toward each other. Hesed emerges as one of the essential ways humans engage with God to sustain creation. For example, in the story of Sodom and Gemorrah (Genesis 18:17), the 15th century Italian commentator, Seforno, notes that the reason that God decides to engage with Abraham in discussion is based on the hesed that Abraham showed to the angels who visited him just prior to this in the text (Genesis 18:2). Consequently, Lot and his family are rescued by God after Lot has tried to show hesed, in the form of hospitality, to his guests. Human hesed here results in evoking God’s hesed.

The Talmud further establishes hesed as one of the core pillars of human behavior. (“The world rests upon three things, Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim.” Pirkei Avot 1:2) The term gemilut hasadim is distinctly post-biblical and occurs for the first time in the Mishnah. In the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkot 49b, a discussion is related defining hesed by contrasting it with the other fundamental Jewish value of tzedakah. Hesed is laid out as the broader value because it can be done not only with money, but also with one’s person. It can be given to the rich and the poor, the living and the dead. It furthermore states that, “The reward for charity depends entirely upon the extent of the kindness in it.”

Using Our Contributions To Create The Sacred

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"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (yidvenu libo)…And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."

(Exodus, 25:1,2,8)

The Israelite people is commanded to build a sanctuary (mishkan) for God. God gives Moses this command during the period of forty days that Moses is on the mountain top. Simultaneously, the people, waiting for his return, lose hope and go to Aaron, his brother and the High Priest, for reassurance.

The Golden Calf

While Moses is receiving the command to collect materials from the people for the building of the Mishkan and the detailed plan for the Mishkan, Aaron aids the people in circumventing this process. He collects gold from the people for the building of the Golden Calf. The people willingly give up their gold for the calf and then worship before it. There are no values or commitments connected with this worship. They worship their own gold in the form of an idol–an egocentric and self indulgent act. The people later flock to give the requested supplies for the building of the Mishkan, which will house the tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written–including the commandment against idolatry.

In both cases the people give willingly. In the case of the Golden Calf, Aaron takes their gold and casts it into a Golden Calf; in the case of the Mishkan, all the skilled artisans among the people are called forth to do the work of building. The Mishkan will serve as a reminder and a physical presence for a God who has communicated a vast code of ethics and behavioral norms. The building of the Mishkan is an effort by people to reach beyond themselves toward communal good.

The Mishkan is built from our free will offerings and the labor of our hands. This is our creation story, in which we imitate God’s creation of the world and create a vessel for the presence of God in our midst. The function of the Mishkan is to make tangible God’s presence in the camp of Israel such that people can direct themselves, their actions and their hearts, toward the contents of the ark, the Ten Commandments. This building is a communal effort to create a spiritual and moral environment.

And yet the people also rallied to give their gold to build the Golden Calf, and their time to worship it. How do we know the difference in our lives between the times when we are creating our own idols and those when we are truly making space the sacred, fulfilling a moral and ethical tradition?

One of the ways we create a moral and spiritual environment is by volunteering our own time to come to the aid of other people, and to work for wider social change. We learn from these two experiences of the Israelite nation that the act of giving is not inherently good.

Volunteering Heart

The root of the word yidvenu is nadav, to volunteer; a literal translation of the phrase in Exodus 25:1 might yield "from every person according to the volunteering of his heart," or "according to the generous nature of his heart." The act of giving must be accompanied by a "volunteering heart," a heart that is reaching out to serve the other.

We can understand the phrase, "volunteering heart," to mean one who invests their time and energy in trying to understand and relate to the other person or people in need. When we act toward others with generosity of spirit, we create a place in our lives which is a mishkan, a place where God dwells with us.

Sforno, a 15th-century Italian commentator, writes about this verse that no items of monetary value could be given, but rather items that would themselves be used for the work of building the sanctuary. The Israelites did not contribute money; instead, they brought the thirteen materials actually needed for the building project and its accoutrements: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones.

Such is the case with community service: we must understand and be involved with those we are serving in such a way that we bring what is most needed and join together in the project of meeting communal needs. If we approach service like we came to the project of the Golden Calf, we will risk only furthering our own needs, giving our money and time for our own well being. With a "volunteering heart" and a true effort to reach beyond our selves, we create a true sanctuary for bringing God’s presence into our lives.