October 17, 2019
18 Tishri 5780

Go your way, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already accepted your works [Ecclesiastes 9: 7]. *The Book of Ecclesiastes is read in the synagogue on the Shabbat of Succot.

Our tradition exhorts us to practice chesed (חסד), acts of grace, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Cited among those opportunities are visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, and acts of loving kindness that include aiding the stranger and providing alms for the poor. Acts of chesed are not optional; they are mandated. At times, chesed comes easy; it takes little or no time and is accomplished without making a dent in our standard of living. At other times, however, the opportunity for chesed arises in an inconvenient time or causes conflict with an existing agenda.

The verse from Ecclesiastes quoted above is the context for a beautiful story in the Midrash. Chasida was an itinerant merchant who traveled by foot from city to city carrying his inventory in a large backpack. One late Friday afternoon, on his way to his next stop, he came upon an ill man suffering from a horrible case of boils. The man pleaded with Chasida to take him to the nearest community where he could receive medical attention.

Chasida, who was exceedingly gentle, was conflicted. To help the invalid, he would have to leave his backpack behind and hopefully reach the city before the Sabbath began. His Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) reminded him that he might very well not find his backpack at the roadside when he returned, and should this happen, how would he support himself and his family? His Yetzer Hatov (good inclination) reminded him of his obligation to aid this ailing invalid who desperately needed help.

In this internal struggle, the good inclination won out. Chasida placed the backpack on the side of the road and, with effort, managed to reach the city some minutes before sunset and the start of the Sabbath. He then hurried back to retrieve the backpack and return to the city, but, alas, the sun was already beginning to set. He was pained that he would be violating the Sabbath, but the Midrash recounts that God stayed the setting of the sun, even as He did for Joshua in one of his battles with the Ammonites (Joshua 10: 12, 13). Chasida thus entered the city prior to the beginning of the Shabbat. This heavenly gift was God’s way of saying to Chasida, “eat your bread with joy and… with a merry heart, for God has accepted your works.”

This is reminiscent of the Yiddish assurance that was one of my grandmother’s favorite lines: Gutskeit (goodness) always pays off.

This delightful Midrash highlights the important truth about acts of chesed. Opportunities for active grace come before us in virtually any place and any time. Some are quite easy to perform and others are more complex, like the dilemma that confronted Chasida. I recall the many occasions when strangers approached Rae during her last years, when she needed a walker, with offers to be of help. Each request was an act of grace.

Making a hospital call is a chesed, but it’s not always easy or convenient. There is the trip to the hospital the time involved and, often, the difficulty of not being sure what to say. It’s easy to convince yourself to forego the visit, to make do with a phone call or even a get well card. In such a scenario, our two inclinations are obviously in conflict.

May we always find inspiration in Chasida and in the many like him, who are, thankfully, in our midst and serve as models for graciousness, and may we be numbered among them.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing and a joyful celebration of the last days of the Festival.

Rabbi Arnold M Goodman


October 4, 2019
5 Tishri 5780

God frustrates Jonah, the reluctant and resistant prophet, who believed that the sinful city of Nineveh deserved the fate of Sodom. He envisioned them as being totally consumed in the ensuing cataclysm. Jonah firmly believed this was the fit retribution for city mired down in indescribable iniquity. It is against his will that he issues God’s warning that the Ninevites had forty days to change their ways. Amazingly, Jonah’s words do penetrate their hearts. Their repentance is immediate and total, and true to His word, God spares the city.

While there was obviously great joy in Nineveh, a frustrated Jonah was furious. He actually berates God, by saying “that’s why I didn’t wish to bring this message to Nineveh” because I know “you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and renouncing punishment” (Jonah 4:2). The book concludes with God’s final words to Jonah, “should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty-thousand persons and many beasts as well?” (Ibid 4:13)

In essence, God was telling Jonah you have not internalized the significance of My being a compassionate and gracious God. Yes, I will exact punishment from the unrepentant sinners as justice demands, but you seem to have forgotten the other components of My being. I pride Myself in my capacity to be compassionate and My willingness to forgive. Nor do you realize that I am to be perceived as a model for human behavior, for your behavior. The Rabbinic tradition has framed it beautifully, “even as God is merciful and compassionate so must we strive to respond to others.”

The recital of God’s compassion is a refrain in the Selichot (penitential) prayers of this season. In many synagogues, this litany is recited in unison while standing. This ongoing affirmation of God’s character poses the challenge: are we prepared to accept this as a model in our relationship with others?

To be sure, there are standards of behavior that we are expected to honor. We want to live in a world committed to justice and morality, but, while the spirit may be willing, the flesh is often weak, and our behavior is not always acceptable to God. Yet, He reminds and castigates Jonah that, just as He is willing to embrace us when we engage in the sincere self-evaluation that is at the heart of true repentance, so must we do so in our dealings with one another.

There is a need for justice and retribution, but there’s no less a need for compassion and forgiveness. Creating the right balance is one of the fundamental challenges in establishing and maintaining a viable social contract in the large tent which we strive to survive and prosper at each other’s side.

Sadly, Jonah didn’t quite get it. He was put off by God’s capacity for compassion. A fundamental question before us is the extent to which we are, and should be, moved by compassion, given our commitment to righteous and morally correct behavior.

From the holy city of Jerusalem, my best wishes for a spiritually fulfilling Yom Kippur and the fulfillment of all our wishes for good.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman