We would all benefit from understanding what it means to do acts of kindness in a thoughtful manner that takes into account the specific needs of the recipient and not, as is so often the case, the needs and desires of the giver.
We had a trivial example of this recently. We invited guests for a Shabbos meal and when they arrived, they unexpectedly brought a beautiful fruit tart from the kosher French bakery. It is definitely a lovely gift, and you may think I'm just a grouch, but I had already made dessert. I had already purchased the ingredients and spent time and effort in baking a cake and cookies for this meal. Now I would probably have leftover dessert lying around my house, unfairly tempting the dieters or just going to waste.
I'm sure they felt like they were fulfilling their obligation as good guests by bringing me this tart, but it was actually not a kindness. It was something I didn't need or really want.
On the other hand, if they had called earlier in the week and offered to bring dessert, it would have been thoughtful. It would have saved me time and energy, literally taking one thing off my plate!!
Thoughtful acts of kindness are always focused on the beneficiary. What does he or she need?
Visiting the sick is certainly a mitzvah but perhaps this particular patient would just like be alone or only with immediate family members. You may buy balloons and flowers and come bouncing into the room -- and interrupt a quiet family scene. It's better to call (or email) first and ask what works for them. When, if at all, would they like company?
I recently spoke to a friend who was recuperating from painful abdominal surgery. "I know you're home from the hospital; do you want visitors?" She explained that her husband had taken the week off work to tend to her and they were actually enjoying having the time together. Could I please come next week when he goes back? I was glad I called because I knew that when I did go I would be a desired visitor and not a resented intruder.
It is wonderful to bring meals to women who have just given birth. It is such a relief at that time not to have to worry about making dinner. It's particularly thoughtful if the cook provides paper plates and silverware and presents the food in foil serving pieces so the new mom doesn't have to worry about washing dishes or (even worse) returning everyone's pans!
It's also nice to think about what they have probably been receiving until now -- chicken and potatoes, chicken and rice -- and try to add some different touches, fresh vegetables, salad, fruit.
Thoughtfully evaluate the needs of the recipient and don't think about what you feel like doing or giving.
Even generosity can be misplaced. Depending on your relationship with the recipient, it may not be kind to give extravagant gifts. They may then feel obliged to respond in kind -- and may not be able to. It may actually be a hardship for them and not a kindness at all.
The situations and needs are as varied as the people involved. The general principle is to thoughtfully evaluate the needs of the recipient and not think about what you feel like doing or giving.
When someone is sitting shiva, friends are frequently at a loss over how to help. So they send food -- platters and platters of it. None of the visitors want to eat and hundreds of dollars worth of food frequently goes to waste. Or the mourner is forced to spend her time trying to organize her refrigerator so that everything can fit in! The impulse is kind, the action is not.
We need to operate with our minds and perform acts of kindness in an intelligent and truly selfless fashion.
There are only so many clothes that infants need, especially ones with older siblings. Get the new mom something for her (a spa certificate?), something she'll appreciate.
The more individualized the gift (based on their interests, hobbies, goals), the better.
And one last tip: It is not a kindness to buy anybody any more candles!