We had been living in Israel for about a year without the benefit of even one member of our extended family, but it was soon after the birth of our son that we realized our neighborhood had a built-in support system for people like us. This was our introduction to the free loan services and veritable network of kindness that exists in Jerusalem.
For the circumcision, the baby carriage that carried him to the synagogue, the beautiful white outfit that he wore, and the decorative pillow on which he was carried, were all lent to us free-of-charge. Much of the food that was served at the festive meal in our son's honor was brought by neighbors and people we had never even met.
The day after the circumcision, we received a delivery of a mini-layette of clothing for the baby and a package of disposable diapers (which at the time was a luxury item in Israel). It was a present from some organization we had never heard of that was established specifically to benefit families with newborns.
Then we received a phone call saying that a woman would be coming to help, free-of-charge, three times a week for the next month for several hours each time. She could do whatever we needed, from peeling vegetables to hanging the laundry. When we asked how they had gotten our name and number and was this a government agency, the lady on the phone replied it was not a government agency but rather a service rendered by a private individual who just wanted to help out new mothers. Some anonymous person had given in my name and phone number.
Frankly, we couldn't believe it. It seemed too good to be true. But it was true, and we didn't even know the half of it. In the back of one of the Jerusalem phone books, there is a listing of over 1,000 free loans benefiting people who need everything from an eyeglass screw to a computer. And the list is growing daily.
In Tzfat, there is a free loan for musical instruments for children. In Bnei Brak, there's a family that does laundry for people whose washing machine has broken down.
TO THE SOURCE
The Hebrew word for free loan, gemach, is really an acronym for the Hebrew words gemilut chesed. This translates as "the giving of kindness" and is an umbrella term for all acts of kindness, of which free loaning is just one. Other members of this family of kindness are giving charity, burying the dead, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, and more.
The closest thing to free loaning is the barter system which became popular in the late ‘60s, and still flourishes. In this system, people decide they want to reduce their reliance on money through bartering goods and services. If you need something and I need something, we might be able to make a switch.
But free loaning is something else entirely. It's when you don't take anything for what you give. You just give.
This idea of free loaning is totally counter-culture. It blows down the icons of society, because, if one thinks about it, a lot of those icons have to do with money and its conventions. But here we're talking about a society that doesn't have competitive or materialistic goals as its root value system. It's simply about people helping people.
In Jerusalem, there is a free loan for mother's milk -- a milk bank to aid babies whose mothers cannot nurse them for some reason. Nursing mothers donate extra milk, which is then frozen until it is needed. There are even volunteers who undertake certain dietary restrictions in order to produce milk that can be given to babies suffering from allergies.
STOREHOUSE OF KINDNESS
Aside from all the practical and communal benefits of free loans, there is a deeper spiritual element as well.
Who is the Master of Kindness? God Himself is constantly engaged in sustaining all of Creation through His infinite acts of kindness. The Sages say that the world came into being so that God could bestow His goodness on others. We are the recipients of that goodness, and when we act in a like manner by doing kindness for each other, then we are emulating God.
One of the first steps we take on entering the world of kindness is to recognize that everything we have is a gift. We appreciate every movement, every breath of air, and every bite of food. We become filled with infinite gratitude to the Creator.
There is no place for pride or feelings of superiority in the world of kindness because the giver is taking from the infinite storehouse of kindness that is owned by God. We are merely the middlemen in this process of moving goods and services. And the pleasure comes from holding that delivery in our hands. What we are giving is from God, and as we facilitate the process of getting it to its rightful owners, we have the pleasure of a closeness with our Creator. If there is any payment for doing a kindness, it is this pleasure that we feel as we experience our proximity to God.
INTEREST OR CARRYING CHARGES
Imagine a department store unlike any you have ever encountered. It's the store of your wildest dreams, where there are no cash registers and no price tags. Suppose you're making an engagement party in your house for 60 people. You walk into the store with a shopping list in your mind of everything you need.
You: Hello, can you help me? I need a set of dishes for 60 people, but I don't want to buy them. I don't need to own all those dishes, and also I've got no place for them in my apartment.
Clerk: No problem. You can have the dishes for the night, and you have to pay absolutely nothing. In fact, you can choose from one of several patterns. Now, what else do you need?
You: Tables and chairs.
Clerk: Again, no problem. They'll be delivered and later picked up by a free delivery service. What else do you need?
Clerk: That's our specialty! You can have $500, $1,000, and even larger sums, with easy, long-term repayment plans. And there's no interest charged!
Free loaning is not a matter of a haughty, "Look what we have that you need." It is rather the quiet satisfaction of knowing that one’s own foresight and planning have contributed to someone else's well being.
Rabbi Simcha Wasserman explains that the greatest happiness in life is that achieved by giving to another. Can yet another chicken consumed, or even another car bought, compare to the satisfaction a person can receive seeing his wealth being used to feed and clothe others and pull them out of their troubles? Can anything compare to seeing someone's anxiousness replaced by unexpected happiness?
In the Mattersdorf neighborhood of Jerusalem, a bag of baby's pacifiers hangs on the fence that runs along a well-traveled road. Next to the bag is a small sign saying that anyone is welcome to take a pacifier and asked to please return a new one to the bag when convenient. Lost pacifiers can be a problem, especially if the baby wakes up in the middle of the night, as so often happens. This self-service gemach operates on its own all day and all night.
------ Excerpted from "The Hidden World -- Challenge, Adventure, and Pleasure In Giving." Available by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or via snail-mail: Branfman, 68 Pri Chadash Street, Jerusalem Israel. Phone: (972) 58-752-808. Price: $8 USD for overseas orders, 20 shekels in Israel, including airmail postage.