The Definition of True Kindness

Yael Eckstein  |  March 24, 2022

Yael Eckstein smiling with an elderly Jewish woman while holding an IFCJ food box.

…the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat. — Leviticus 11:19

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Shemini, which means “eighth,” from Leviticus 9:1–11:47.

Rabbi Akiva, who lived around two thousand years ago, was once aboard a ship and witnessed another ship going down. He knew a great Torah scholar who was on the sinking ship and assumed that he had drowned. Later on, Akiva came across that scholar and was astounded that he was alive.

“How did you survive?” Akiva asked him. The man replied, “It must have been your prayers. I was tossed from wave to wave until I found myself on the shore.” Unsatisfied with the answer, Akiva pressed: “Was there some great deed that you did before you boarded the ship?”

The man thought about it for a moment and then said, “There was a beggar who approached me as I was boarding the ship and I gave him my loaf of bread. He thanked me and said, ‘Just as you have saved my life, may God save yours.’” At once, Rabbi Akiva understood that the man’s selfless act of kindness to a stranger ended up saving his own life! 

The Definition of True Kindness

Once again, we find the value of being kind to strangers in need hinted at in this week’s Torah portion, defining the animals that are considered kosher and those that are not. This particular list deals with all the birds which are not kosher and considered unclean.

While the Bible does not state explicit characteristics that make these birds unclean, the Jewish sages pointed out that most of the unclean birds are cruel birds of prey — vultures, hawks, ravens, eagles. The Bible forbids them to teach us to avoid their character traits.

With this in mind, there is one bird that seems strange to be on the list of unclean birds. It is called the chassida, “the stork.” The name chassida stems from the Hebrew word chessed, which means “kindness.” The ancient sages even explained that this bird had this name because she was very kind and nurturing to her offspring. So why is the chassida considered unclean?

The Jewish sages explained that the chassida bird was indeed a kind bird, but kind only to her offspring. When it came to those outside her family, she was no longer kind. That is not kosher! And that hints at the definition of true kindness.

True kindness demands that we are kind to all kinds of people — people we like, and people we don’t love, people who we know, and people that we have never met before.

Your Turn:

Are there needy strangers in your community? What can you do to help those who are in need?