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Building Our World

Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve

October 8, 2019 • 10 Tishrei 5779

Rabbi Bridget Wynne


Our tradition teaches that the world was created on Rosh Hashanah, the day that begins the High Holiday season we are now in. Besides being a time to look at our lives, at the kind of people we want to be, and how we can come closer to living in these ways, this is also a time to celebrate the birthday of the world.

This teaching about the creation of the world is not meant to be literal, but instead to remind us that we make choices, each day, about the sort of world we are creating. Our tradition has something quite profound to say about this. That is, the world will be built through kindness, "olam chesed y’ba’neh." (Psalm 89:3)

“Kindness,” you might say, “that’s very sweet, but haven’t you noticed that things are falling apart? What is kindness in the face of climate change, the resurgence of hatreds of all sorts, gun violence, and much more?”


Yes, we are in the midst of many crises. One of them, perhaps more subtle but still devasting, is the message that bombards us daily that kindness is weakness, life is about winning, we must be the best, the strongest. Anyone who gets In our way is a fool, a loser, to be ridiculed and disparaged. It’s everyone for themselves. Don’t tell me to help those who are vulnerable. Don’t tell me that we need each other.


These lies which are being pounded into us are core to the policies and politics that are wreaking havoc on our world. The kindness our tradition talks about is not cute, naive, or insipid. It is powerful. It is core to the world we want to build. It is how we find the strength to work for that world.


I have experienced that power, and perhaps you have, too. Often, when we choose to act with kindness, we create a nourishing sense of joy and connection. We touch a reality far different from the false messages that surround us – the reality of how good it can be to make the effort to treat another with warmth and compassion.

There are two powerful sorts of kindness I want to talk about this evening. The first has to do with systematically seeking opportunities. Think about being in a long checkout line with incredibly slow people in front of you. You’re late. You’re tired. You’re hungry. And these people in your way: why didn’t they notice that box of cereal was open before they got in line; why can’t they find the credit card; why do they have to talk so loudly on their cell phones right next to you?


Yes, it is annoying. But it is also an opportunity to be kind. This sounds Pollyanna-ish, but I’m not suggesting that we seek opportunities to be in long lines when we’re hungry and tired. As long as it’s happening – and it will – we can use this chance to practice being kind, to find someone to be friendly to, and do it, even though we’re full of irritation.


Over the past year I have seen the power of these seemingly small actions when they are done systematically. I’ve led, and participated in, a group that is learning about a Jewish form of spiritual and ethical growth called Mussar. It is truly transformative. We explore Jewish values, such as kindness, and practice ways to bring them into our daily lives. This is challenging, but sharing the challenge with others makes it easier.


One small example. The Wifi in my home was out. When a man finally came to fix it I wanted to snap at him. I decided to take a moment to try being kind. Soon he was showing me on his phone the beautiful drawings he does. When our conversation ended, the world around me literally looked brighter. I’ve heard similar stories from others who practice Mussar.


When we repeatedly seek opportunities to replace irritation, avoidance, and the narrow focus on ourselves with human connection, it changes the fabric of our lives. Envisioning the world we want to live in, and working for it in whatever ways we can, seems less difficult, less daunting.


The second sort of kindness I want to talk about is one that practitioners draw on in places of violence and trauma, like Kosovo, Darfur, and especially today, refugee camps. It is called compassionate witnessing. That may sound far from our daily lives, but it is relevant.


Compassionate witnessing means being present for another’s suffering, and doing what we can to relieve that suffering. This can be difficult since it calls on us not to follow some very human urges, such as to turn away from another’s pain, to express our distress about their situation rather than focusing on theirs, or to avoid them altogether if the problem cannot be “fixed.”

Situations that call for compassionate witnessing are all around. Think about how painful it is to be with a friend whose illness seems to have no cure, or about times of difficulty in your life when some of those you thought you could count on disappeared because they found your situation too upsetting. We’ve probably all felt the pull to look away from people experiencing homelessness, precisely because the problem is so overwhelming.

I draw from the writings of psychologist Kaethe Weingarten, a pioneer in compassionate witnessing, to offer a simpler way to describe this sort of kindness. That is to continue to "care even if we cannot cure." (Kaethe Weingarten, “Making sense of illness narratives: Braiding theory, practice and the embodied life”)

Think again about the lies that surround us. If life is about being the strongest, and getting what’s ours, it’s only natural to turn away from people who are in pain and situations we find distressing. There is so much that we cannot cure, in our lives, in the lives of those we love, in the problems our world faces. Kindness, though, means staying present, still caring. There is great power in that choice.


Our son was born under 3 pounds, and had to stay in neonatal intensive care for a month. It was terrifying to see him hooked up to tubes and not to know what the medical outcome would be. I clearly remember one person who visited in those first days who was also scared, and expressed it freely. I had to help calm this person down, which I could barely find energy to do. I remember others, who also saw the nurses rushing around and heard the alarms going off, but looked at our son and me calmly and with love.


Their focus on care, without regard to cure, sustained me through the worst situation I have ever faced. It changed the fabric of my life and that of my family.


In this season of the birthday of the world, we are reminded: the world is built through kindness, "olam chesed y'ba'neh."


Through seeking opportunities for kindness: what chances might you find to put aside your irritation, your focus on yourself, in order to create a different reality right there, in that moment?


Through caring even when a “cure” may not be possible: what pain and distress faced by others in your life do you long to turn away from, because it is too upsetting, because you’re not sure it can be fixed? Consider that offering your care, your compassionate witnessing, may sometimes be the cure that is needed.


No one is always a winner. All of us are weak at times. We need each other. None of us deserves to ridicule or be ridiculed. These are the deep truths by which we must be guided.


In this new year, let us build the world, build our world, through kindness.

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