Olam Chessed Yibaneh – the world can be built through kindness”. This statement sums up the great potential inherent in acts of kindness.
We live in a community where many are deeply involved volunteer organizations of some sort or another. These activities fall under the category of chessed – acts of kindness that we do for others. Our tradition puts a high value on chessed. In fact, the well known rabbinic statement – “Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah – Good Character comes before Torah” teaches that before the Jewish people could receive the laws of the Torah, the importance on good character, including chessed, had to be taught. According to some, this is why the Torah starts with the stories of our foremother and forefathers, stories that, by example, teach right from wrong.
At the same time, chessed that we do for those outside our immediate circle may impede our ability to do chessed for those closest to us.
The following is a question posed to Rabbi Shlomo Aviner regarding the balance required between doing acts of chessed for the general community and one’s responsibilities towards ones family.
Question: “My husband devotes many hours each day to learning Torah, communal activities and spreading Judaism at stands. At home, he is spent. When I am speaking with him, he falls asleep… He does try to stay awake but without success. “
Answer: “Tell your dear husband in your name, in my name, in the Name of the Master of the Universe, and in the name of human conscience that “the poor of your house takes precedence.“ Even though you bring great benefit to humanity, and it is your glory, your wife takes precedence over the rest of humanity. Remember the story of King David, who refused to accept the kingship, as long as not everything was arranged with his wife Michal. All humanity is important, but it has other saviors. There were those who were concerned about it before you and there will be those who will be concerned about it after you. But your wife only has one savior: you. She therefore takes precedence. She relies on you. Do not betray her. All of this is written in the Ketubah, which is read under the chuppah, that you will cherish her and all sorts of other things. Before we add stringencies, one must fulfill his basic obligations. This is the general rule: your wife takes precedence. And, of course, I also say to you: your husband takes precedence.”
The examples given in this particular instance are simply those that relevant to the questioner. There are other family related responsibilities that should take precedence over our communal action. Making spending time with children a priority over communal responsibilities is one that comes to mind very easily.
There are many good reasons to be involved in communal affairs. In fact, if our community did not have so many dedicated volunteers we would simply not be able to function. This is why it is so important to find the proper balance to make sure that while we do volunteer our time for our community; our family is not being neglected. It goes without saying that communal responsibilities should never be taken on or extended as a way to avoid family obligations.
The Torah does not wish our love for those in the wider circles of our life to be built up at the expense of our omission of our obligation to those nearer to us. Nechama Leibowitz, writing about the biblical commandment to give Tzedakah, teaches: One who goes beyond his natural circle, into which he was born (family, birthplace, nation) and flies to distant climes to heal the misfortunes of humanity, the downtrodden and wretched of remote communities, whilst his own home, neighborhood, city and homeland cry out for assistance, ignoring them in the conviction that their plight is too circumscribed and petty for him to bother about… – charity begins at home.”