There is a very sweet story told in the Reader’s Digest. A lady is doing her shopping and was in the process of unloading a full trolley to pay. Once the shop assistant tallied up the groceries, the total bill came to £12 over what she had on her.
The lady began to remove items from the trolley, when another shopper handed the cashier a £20 note to the cashier. The lady was embarrassed and said, “Please don’t put yourself out,” The man as adamant. “It’s a pleasure”.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “My mother is in the hospital with cancer. I visit her every day and bring her flowers. I went this morning, and she got angry at me for spending my money on more flowers.
She demanded that I do something else with that money to benefit others. So, here, please accept this. It is my mother’s flowers.”
This is certainly a Jewish concept… yes in a certain sense “charity starts at home” but the reality is, doing kindness is not just for those close to us or that people that we know. Chesed (kindness) extends beyond ourselves.
In Parshat Shemini we are reminded of this, through the laws of Kashrut. We learn about the Chasidah bird, the stork. Maimonides adds to our understanding of why the Torah forbids the eating of non-kosher birds when he teaches that when one eats non-kosher birds, the negative and cruel character traits they possess can become part of our own personalities.
In other words, more than the physical characteristic there are also behavioural or personality characteristics that are absorbed by the person who consumes the non-kosher item. If the Chasidah, the stork, is non-kosher, why bestow her with a name of such noble heritage? It seems strange! The Chasidah – comes from the word CHESSED!! It is known to be a kind and generous bird!!
If this bird truly earned its connection to charity and piety, then certainly we would want to eat it so that, as Maimonides suggests, we too may gain those very same qualities! Clearly, that cannot be the entire picture. And it is not.
Rashi considered the case of the Chasidah and based upon a Talmudic passage in Chulin, explains the limitation in the quality of the Chasidah that, despite its connection to charity and kindness, keeps it from being kosher. You see, the Chasidah does share the Chasid’s kindness and piety. However, the Chasidah is kind, but only to her own kind. She is charitable, but only to her own kind. She is caring, but only to her own kind.
Her goodness is real, but limited. She does not give any other bird a single thought. She ignores every other species. When it comes to a pious and kind perspective on life, there can be no more non-kosher approach than a narrow, restrictive application of that piety and kindness! If we only extend our kindness to our own kind, we are extending a kind of impurity.
Long ago, a group of neighbours in a Jewish community sought to form a Charitable Society amongst themselves. They wanted to provide Shabbat meals, clothes, shelter and financial assistance to the needy. So they went to the Rebbe to get his blessing. Before conferring his blessing on the enterprise, the Rebbe asked, “What if someone outside the neighbourhood needs your help?” The group who had come for the blessing looked at one another. Then, one of them spoke up. “We would politely refuse,” he said. “We have limited resources and so we are committed to limiting our activities to those in the neighbourhood.” The Rebbe shook his head, and told them that he was withholding his blessing. “Real kindness is caring about others. What you are proposing reflects directly on you. In essence, you are caring only for yourself.”
This then is the essential nature of the Chasidah. Her name would deceive us into thinking that she is kind and caring, generous and giving. But when such noble qualities are shared only with one’s own kind, they are not noble at all.
The lesson for our own times is clear. Our definition of “our own kind” should not be narrow – we should look outward to the way in which we can make a positive impact to the wider community. We too should merit to take the positive lessons from the Chasidah and be reminded that our role as Jews is to be a light unto the nations and make a wider impact beyond ourselves.