The Kindness Paradox - Pirkei Avot 1:5
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The Kindness Paradox - Pirkei Avot 1:5

The Kindness Paradox - Pirkei Avot 1:5

Genuine kindness occurs when our sole motivation is caring about the welfare of others.

by

Yossi ben Yochanon from Jerusalem said: "Let your home be open wide to the multitudes. Let the poor be like children of your home. And don't overemphasize light conversation with your spouse."

They said this about one's own spouse, how much more so about the spouse of your friend.

Thus said the scholars: "One who overindulges in light conversation with his spouse brings evil upon himself, nullifies the words of Torah, and in the end will inherit Gehenom."

This Mishnah focuses on the third of Shimon HaTzaddik's pillars of the universe: acts of loving-kindness.

Let us consider: Wouldn't the world be better off without kindness?

At first, this seems like a callous question. But imagine for a moment a world where all of your needs were fulfilled and you experienced no lack or emptiness. Picture a society where no one needed to depend on anyone else to provide for him; a community where everyone was completely self-sufficient and fulfilled. Where God instantly responded to your every act and choice with the exactly appropriate response. A perfect world.

Picture a society where everyone was completely self-sufficient and fulfilled.

This is much different than the world we know: a world where fundamental human needs go unmet without the active intervention of others. How inefficient! If God is perfect and all-powerful, why doesn't He meet all of our needs Himself? Why did He create a seemingly flawed world where people suffer and struggle desperate for the aid and comfort of others?

In short, why a world of kindness?

Obviously God could have created a world where kindness was unnecessary. If He merely wanted to see that our emotional, physical and spiritual needs were met, He could have arranged to do so Himself. That He chose instead to rely upon human kindness must therefore be one of His great gifts to mankind.

ABC's of Kindness

The essence of kindness is to focus on another soul, to desire completeness and consistency for him, and to strive to provide it. To be kind you have to learn to look at another human being. Understand where he is hurting, lacking or incomplete ― and endeavour to fill that hole.

Acts of kindness are the fundamental building blocks of human relationships. The Hebrew word ohev ― "to love" ― comes from the word hav ― "to give." We think that we love someone, and then give to them. Actually the opposite is true. The extent to which you give to someone is the extent to which you come to love. Because that's the extent to which you've invested yourself in the other.

One of the greatest challenges of a human being is to become other-centered. You must learn to see the needs, dreams and aspirations of others as real. The idea is to never become inured to the struggles and wishes of others. This opening of your heart, and identification with the souls of others, is the ultimate goal of kindness.

The Kindness Paradox

There is a paradox in kindness. Why do we have to help others? Because they are in need and we care about them. But the other side to kindness is that by helping others, we really help ourselves most of all. Kindness is a primary way to achieve self-perfection.

We are constantly faced with free will choices to be kind or callous. Choosing correctly is how we refine the character of our soul. But the paradox is that kindness is only genuine when we do it because we care about the welfare of others.

Please go home. I am not here as a prop for you to fulfill mitzvot.

There is a story of a great rabbi who became ill and was hospitalized. A community leader came to pay a visit and said, "Rabbi, I have come to fulfill the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim ― giving comfort and strength to the ill." The rabbi looked at him and said, "Please go home. I am not here as a prop for you to fulfill mitzvot."

Although the ultimate accomplishment of kindness is the elevation of your soul, in practice you must focus on the recipient, not on yourself.

The purpose of kindness is to allow you the opportunity to give to another fragile soul. In this light, the words of Yossi ben Yochanon becomes quite clear.

Let Your Home Be Open Wide

If the ultimate expression of kindness is one human helping another, then the home is the perfect setting. In our society we have divorced ourselves from looking after one another. By creating a bureaucratic "safety net," we have removed individuals from the process of helping the less fortunate. We tend to view the impoverished with fear, discomfort, apathy, annoyance, callousness or resentment. For most people, caring for the homeless and indigent is a function of government, of the same order as filling potholes and carting away the litter.

Yossi ben Yochanon says that to make kindness "real," you have to bring it home. Merely writing a check to support community institutions is not sufficient. You'll help the poor, but it won't have nearly the same effect on you personally.

Take an active step and reach out. Make your home open to those who require help, assistance, or just companionship. Make yourself available to help people with their problems. Of course this does not mean giving up your own privacy. Find the healthy balance.

Let The Poor Be Like Your Children

Nobody enjoys being poor or needing help. There are serious issues of pride and self respect. Helping people retain their view of themselves as significant members of society is as critical a component of kindness as feeding them.

Your children certainly depend upon you for food, clothing, shelter, emotional support, companionship, education and more. Nevertheless, no parent would make a child feel ashamed or resented for being so dependent! Judaism says the poor should be treated the same.

A home is a powerful force ― providing comfort, refuge, calm and love. Part of the purpose of helping those in need is to bring them in and show them a healthy family lifestyle.

Don't Overemphasize Light Conversation

This Mishnah is often cited as evidence of a misogynist bent to rabbinic Judaism. If you look closely, nothing could be farther from the truth. Remember the context of our Mishnah is "building a relationship with another soul by understanding and meeting their needs."

Our Mishnah says not to overemphasize sicha ― light conversation. Sicha is conversation focused on making a connection between two people and creating intimacy. Sicha is two people getting to know each other, laughing, sharing, reminiscing and dreaming.

If our Mishnah thought that talking to one's spouse was destructive, it would have said: "Don't engage in conversation." Instead the Mishnah says: "Don't overemphasize conversation." The clear implication is that some degree of light conversation is a positive thing.

The most fundamental tool for establishing intimacy and connection is to talk to your spouse.

Ask any wife if she would like every conversation with her husband to be a lofty elevated discourse on philosophy, ethics or law. If every conversation is either a lecture or a business meeting, you will fail to build the emotional relationship, connection and intimacy so crucial for a marriage. Rabbi Yossi says: Don't forget the most fundamental tool for establishing intimacy and connection. Talk to your spouse.

Having said this, Rabbi Yossi goes one step further. Yes, it is important to spend sicha time establishing an intimate relationship with your wife. But don't overemphasize ― take it past that!

Rabbi Yossi teaches that not every conversation can be about the soft stuff. Talk to her about the weighty stuff. Unlike a Victorian Englishman, Rabbi Yossi suggests that a spouse is an intellectual equal and the majority of your interaction should be on a higher plane.

Sicha establishes the emotional connection that every person needs. But Rabbi Yossi says: Make your kindness elevating. Use it as a foundation to lift the relationship to higher dimensions.

Overindulging In Light Conversation Brings Evil

Now that we understand the power of speech to build emotional connection, the final lines of the Mishnah become clear. For a marriage to work, each spouse must understand each other. Without this, one will inevitably impair the other's development.

Like all other powerful tools in life, conversation aimed at building relationships can be used for good or evil. When you become too close with the wife of another, you pull her focus and commitment away from her husband. Most women who have affairs report that they were not seeking sex, but rather an emotional fulfillment and connection. This corrupts the world and eventually brings destruction and emotional ruin upon lives.

Published: May 25, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) David, November 8, 2010 11:21 PM

How do we explain the end part of this mishneh to 6 and 7 years

My 6 year old daughter (grade 1) is learning pirkai avot at her talmud torah girls' school from a cassette course. The whole chapter is present on the cassette except the last part of this mishneh (al tarbeh sicha im ha'isha..) which is omitted. I assume because it is too difficult to teach something like this to young children. What do you think? Do you think that your explanation (do you consider this understanding mainstream) could be taught to young children when this is not their immediate understanding as they tend to take the words literally.

(1) sylvie vogelgesang, May 27, 2002 12:00 AM

Good wisdom

thank-you for this commentary it is edifying and now I understand better the dynamique between wife and husband and others individuals.

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