There is a great word in Hebrew: chesed (ch, like in chanuka), חסד. Often it’s translated as “acts of kindness”. I believe it’s much more than that but practically it means doing nice things for others. And yes, smiling at someone is considered chesed.
Today of all days (considering the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India) has been a day of chesed for me. It all started with a program that I ran at L’Chaim where I work. L’Chaim is an adult day centre for the Jewish community. I talked with them about Israeli authors. This included Aharon Appelfeld who was a child holocaust survivor.
He is quoted as saying:
“Within the horror, I wanted to illustrate the humane sides of the Holocaust, great love, generosity, compassion. Even though a great deluge swept away all, and the Devil celebrated, there were nobility and compassion in the midst of it all. Apparently, selfishness is good for survival, but in fact, generosity is more useful. If you smiled at someone, a bystander saw your smile as well, and benefited from it indirectly. Every person who survived the Holocaust was saved by someone who, at some point, reached out or said a kind word.
“The moment you weakened and someone said to you, ‘Your eyes have the most unique colour’, that would have been enough to make you happy that he noticed your eyes, and that pulled you through another day. This is how I was saved, thanks to people who spoke to me, smiled at me, or gave me a sugar cube or a quarter of a slice of sausage. It was unusual behavior at that time, as if one gave you a quarter of his own house.”
(Quoted from Close Encounters with Twenty Israeli Writers by Eilat Negev, Vallentine Mitchell, 2003)
It amazes me to hear what power chesed can have on others. I might think that when things are so bad, as they were in the Holocaust, then it’s too bad and small things can’t help. But he says that it was the small (or big) acts of kindness that saved his life.
On the way home from work today, I got on the bus and suddenly heard a commotion. It looked like a young woman was being kicked off the bus. And I heard the driver say, “It’s not my fault that you don’t have enough money.”
As the girl turned to get off, quickly another young woman stepped forward and said, “Wait. How much is missing?” “Fifty cents,” said the driver. The girl already had her wallet open, quickly took out two quarters and dropped them in the slot.
The two women kept talking once they moved into the bus.
The first young woman was so appreciative yet embarrassed by what had happened. The girl who helped her assured her that these things happen, it’s not a big deal, and that she herself is always worried she’ll get on the bus one day and realize she doesn’t have enough change. And as she arrived at her stop, she gave the young woman a warm smile and said, “Have a good day.” The young woman replied, “Thank you. You too. And thank you so much for your help.” “My pleasure,” was the answer.
My pleasure. That is one way to do things. With pleasure.
A few weeks ago my parents had a woman over for Shabbat with her kids while her husband was out of town. Now, a couple of days ago, my mother went to this girl’s mother’s hat store where she says she finds the nicest hats in Jerusalem.
She told the woman that she really enjoyed having the daughter for Shabbat. The woman got very excited, “It’s you that she went to?!”
After my mother chose the hat she wanted, she asked the woman for the price and the woman said, “It’s on us. As a token of appreciation for having our daughter.” My mother was quick to tell her that this was too big a token but the woman said, “My daughter had such a wonderful time at your place. You were very good to her. And so I want to thank you in this way.”
Do good… And remember that even a smile counts. It does make a difference.