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Vayeira(Genesis 18-22)

The Kindest Thing


We want to be kind. But it's not always so easy to figure out how. It can even happen that by acting in a way that seems kind to one person, we're really causing something even worse for somebody else. In this week's Torah portion, Abraham, the kindest man in the world, has to make the tough decision of sending his son Ishmael out of his home. Ishmael has been very jealous of his younger brother Isaac, trying to hurt him and even kill him. God explained to Abraham that rather than being kind, letting Ishmael stay would really mean being cruel to both Isaac and the whole world. The world needed Isaac to grow up safely and fulfill his mission of teaching everybody about God and becoming a forefather to the Jewish people. We learn from this the important lesson of trying to see the "whole picture" before deciding what's really the kindest way to act.

 


In our story, a boy learns the lesson that the kind thing to do isn't always what we assume it is.

"BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE"

Nugget was a frisky young dog. He would spend his days happily bounding up and down the Jacobson's big yard. When he would get tired, he'd stretch out his long legs and bask contentedly in the warm sun.

But Nugget would always spring up like a soldier when he heard Avi's school bus coming and run to meet the boy before he could even reach the driveway. Avi loved Nugget and enjoyed the greeting but lately he noticed that the dog had started jumping on him a bit too roughly and would bark fiercely at some of the neighborhood kids who got off the bus at the same time as he.

"That's just the way dogs are," thought Avi, putting it out of his mind.

But as time went on, Nugget became more and more wild in his greetings and behavior, until the day came that he bit Jimmy the paper boy on the leg. The poor boy had to go to the clinic and get stitches.

Since then, Avi's parents decided to keep Nugget in the house and when they did let him go out, it was only on a leash or tied to a rope.

"We don't have any choice," his father explained. Still it made Avi feel bad to see Nugget all cooped up like that. "It's so mean," he thought.

The new system worked for a while, but as time went on, the dog just kept getting harder to control. One day, he bit Rena, Avi's younger sister, as she was trying to feed him. That evening, while Avi was upstairs lying in bed, he could hear his parents having a conversation. Although they were speaking quietly, he was able to make out that they were planning to send Nugget away to their cousin's farm, upstate.

Avi grabbed his bathrobe and flew downstairs and into the den, where his parents were sitting. His mom and dad looked up in surprise. "Avi, why aren't you sleeping?" his dad asked. "It's way past your bedtime."

"Please don't send Nugget away!" Avi burst out, his eyes turning moist.

His mom looked at him sympathetically. "Oh, you heard us talking, didn't you?" she said.

Avi started crying.

"Come sit down," said his dad warmly, motioning the boy to sit down on the sofa next to him. "We had planned to speak with you tomorrow morning. But since you're awake, we'll talk about it now." He continued, "Avi, I know you love Nugget. We're all pretty attached to him. Do you know why we're planning to give him away?"

"It's because he started biting, I know," Avi mumbled.

His father nodded.

"But he's still a good dog," protested Avi. "Maybe we can teach him not to bite. Or maybe he'll stop. Can't we give him another chance?"

Mr. Jacobson shook his head. "We've tried everything we could, training him, tying him up, but he's just a biting dog and it's not safe to keep him here."

"But dad," said Avi "It's so mean to Nugget to send him away. Aren't we supposed to act nice?"

Avi's dad smiled. "You're right," he said. "Of course we're supposed to act nice. But let me ask you, is it being nice to the neighborhood kids to have a dangerous dog around? Is it nice for your brothers and sisters to feel afraid to be in their own house because of Nugget's biting?"

Avi looked down. "No, it's not nice for them," he said softly.

His mom came over to Avi and put her arm around his shoulder. "Avi," she said. "We're sending Nugget away for everybody's good. He'll be going to live on a farm where he can run around all day, and since there are hardly any people around, he won't be able to hurt anyone else either. I know it may seem cruel to send him away. But when you look at the whole picture, it's really the kindest thing that we could do. Do you understand?"

"I think so," said Avi. " I know that the kids are afraid to get off the bus because of Nugget. Some of the little ones even cry. It would sure be nicer for them if Nugget lived someplace else. But can't we go visit him sometimes in his new home?"

"Sure, of course we can," said his dad with a smile.

Avi's mom brought him in some hot cocoa before sending him back up to bed. Avi still felt like he was going to miss his dog, but knew in his heart that they were really doing the kindest thing.

 


Ages 3-5

Q. How did Avi feel when he found out that Nugget had to go away?
A. He felt sad and thought that it was mean to send the dog away.

Q. How did he feel after his parents explained why they had to do it?
A. Then he felt that it was the right thing to do and that it would be even meaner to other people if they let Nugget stay.

Q. Do you think it is right not to stop one person from hurting another just because you don't want to make the first person feel bad?
A. No, since he's hurting someone, we should try to stop him anyway.

Ages 6-9

Q. Suppose a kid wanted to go on a new diet consisting entirely of chocolate. Would it be kind or cruel of his parents if they let him?
A. At first glance it might seem that it would be kind to let him do as he pleases. But in reality it would be cruel. His parents know that a diet like that would only give their child bellyaches and dental cavities. In a case like this, the kind thing to do is to say "no."

Q. What is the difference between being "strict" and being "cruel?" Can you think of an example?
A. Being cruel means to hurt somebody without any good reason. Of course, this is not a proper way to act. Being strict, however, could involve the same actions but for a good reason, for the benefit of the other person and/or society as a whole. So, for example, if an older sister refuses to give her baby brother a cookie just because she wants to see him cry she is being "cruel." But if the older sister refuses to give her baby brother a cookie because it's almost time for dinner and it would spoil his appetite she is being "strict."

Q. Can you think of a time you thought your parent or teacher was being mean, but was in fact really doing something good for you?

Ages 10 and Up

Q. Our sages teach us that "he who acts kindly when he ought to be cruel will come to act cruelly when he ought to be kind." Why should this be so?
A. People choose how to behave. Proper values teach us that certain behavior calls for an appropriate response, be it merciful or strict. If we abandon these values by being inappropriately merciful, we lose our balance and sense of fairness and are likely at other times not to be merciful enough or even cruel.

Q. Can you think of an example where the very act of being "kind to the cruel" is being "cruel to the kind?"
A. One example could be that of a judge who decides to be extra-merciful and not send a dangerous criminal to jail. This type of "mercy" is bound to backfire since now the criminal is likely to return to the street and continue to harm innocent people. Releasing terrorists from prison is another example.

 

Published: November 8, 2000

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