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how the world stands
middot loving-kindness stories how the world stands

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how the world stands

Written by  rebbetzin malkah

art-stoolA woman died and left no money to pay for her funeral. She was an inhabitant of one of the Lithuanian twin towns of Kovno and Slobodka, which were separated only by a small river. A dispute arose between the burial societies of both towns as to which town was responsible for her burial, and would therefore have to underwrite its costs. This dispute erupted during morning prayers, disrupting the recitation of the Shema, the declaration of God's unity.

Rabbi Salanter and his disciples were present at the time. Rabbi Salanter saw the debate dragging on, with the body consequently being left unattended, an unacceptable desecration of the dead according to Jewish law. Rabbi Salanter therefore declared that since no one was ready to bury the woman she fell under the category of met mitzvah, a person who has no one to attend to his or her burial; the obligation to bury such a person falls upon every Jew in the vicinity at the time of death. He then removed his prayer shawl and phylacteries and instructed his students to do the same. He and his students attended to the woman and buried her.

It would not have occurred to most people to interrupt their prayers in order to take upon themselves the arduous tasks of preparing the corpse of a total stranger for burial. Only someone with Salanter's highly developed ethical sensitivity would conclude that the normal obligation of prayer was superseded by the duty to provide someone with a proper burial when no one else was willing to do so. --Cited in Hillel Goldberg, The Fire Within: The Living Heritage of the Musar Movement (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1987), pp. 48-49.

In Judaism, chesed shel emet translates out to 'true kindness'.  Indeed it is, for the person you bury cannot thank you or repay your deed in any way.  The kindness that you do is truly selfless, as you benefit not in any way from performing the mitzvah.  This is how the world is able to stand.

There is a famous song that highlights this concept of loving-kindness, one of the legs that keeps the world standing and balanced.

Al shlosha d’varim, al shlosha d’varim
Al shlosha, shlosha d’varim, ha-olam, ha-olam omeid.

Al hatorah
V’al ha-avodah
V’al g’milut chassadim

Translation: There are three things upon which the world depends. On Torah, On work and study, On acts of loving-kindness.   --Pirkei Avot 1:2

Why then were these communities, separated by a river, squabbling about doing true kindness to this woman?  When it comes to performing a mitzvah, does it really come down to cost?  As Rabbi Salanter showed us, the obligation that is incumbent upon us all is what is at stake.  Whatever the price, whatever the effort, we must, and without further ado, stop what we are doing and do what is urgent and right. The world is like a three-legged stool and loving-kindness is a necessary leg.  If we all bind together and performs these acts of kindness, the burden is light and shared.  Love your neighbor as yourself and do it effortlessly.

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