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Selfish Kindness
Mom with a View

Selfish Kindness

Think before giving.


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!

May 16, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 33

(32) Tami Koletsky, June 7, 2016 3:59 AM

Beautiful article

Wonderful article!! Fit right into what we have been dealing with since the loss of my mother in law. Funny I Googled selfish acts of kindness hoping for a different definition. You know the ones who volunteer to help out, only so they look good doing it. Only offer things so they can be seen doing it. But I am glad I came across your article, a much better more elegant way of breaking it down. :)

(31) Gila, May 31, 2009 11:55 AM

Think out of the box for hostess gifts

I am always on the lookout for "out-of-the-box" "on-a-budget" hostess gifts. I find unique and fun coffee mugs (I also toivel them before gifting them)colorful dishtowels, fun notepads, smaller size hand lotions (great for the car!), inspirational pocket books inscribed with a brief note of gratefulness for your friendship(R.Plikin's books are terrific!)and anything else that many of us wouldn't necessarily get for ourselves but appreciate receiving. I like to get things that aren't perishable, so that the hostess can "remember our gratefulness" each time she uses the gift. I have received grateful remarks about the coffee mugs - that they think of me when they sit down in the morning with their cup of coffee! I keep a stash of these pre-purchased gifts in the garage so that I don't feel that last-minute rush to get a meaninful hostess gift. Hope this helps!

(30) Allie, May 29, 2009 11:28 AM

Just embarrassing

I would be horrified if I were one of Mrs. Braverman's guests - to see, in print, of how unwelcome my attempts at being a good guest were! I've hosted so many people in my home over the years, and often they bring food items after having been told to "just bring your appetite." Never once have I felt inconvenienced for this. I realise my guests are trying to lighten my load, and therefore I either incorporate their item into the meal or save it for a future meal. When I can't think of a way to incorporate it well into the meal I'm serving that day, I simply put the food up, express my thanks and tell the guest how perfect this item will go with a future meal I've planned. There is no reason, ever, to be disdainful of a person's attempt to be thoughtful. Even when the thoughtfulness is misplaced, the effort can always be put to use somewhere. And really? Who ever has enough candles?

Anonymous, June 10, 2013 12:43 PM


I am a gift giver and I learned from the article. However, many people are at a loss of what to bring (including myself at times) and any gift is special. Also, as a lady that has a lot and am blessed, I still love candles. You cant go wrong.

(29) SusanE, May 21, 2009 9:06 AM

Shoulda' Woulda' Coulda'

I agree that to bringing a main course dish to a dinner party is just not appropriate. If that should happen at my home, I would simply take it and thank the guest for bringing it. Then have it put away until after the dinner. I would never serve it to my guests that evening. The first reason is because it might not be Kosher. The second reason is that the guests have come to my home and are expecting my food. They are comfortable with my kitchen and my mode of cleanliness, and are comfortable that my food is fresh and clean. I wouldn't serve someone elses' food to my guests unless my guests knew in advance about it.. As for the tart from the Kosher Deli, it's already happened and showed up at your home. Whether you feel it is right or wrong is now a moot point. It's now up to you to make your guest feel comfortble about bringing it, no matter how you feel about it. It's always in good taste to be accommodating.

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