On Kindness

snail tracks 2I once met a woman who called herself ‘Snail Tracks.’ She attributed her curious choice of nomenclature to a medieval belief that those shiny lines left behind by land snails were a sign that an angel had passed that way. Her mission in life was to leave such hints of angelic passage everywhere she went.
I met Snail Tracks at a summer camp for specially abled individuals, where we both worked as counselors. It was a hard, 25 hour-a-day job in which we daily participated in such quiet miracles as enabling a paraplegic to experience swimming and canoeing for the first time. The camp, guarded by a fully occupied eagle’s nest, was a magical place. It was like a little village where kindness reigned supreme for everyone who lived there. Indeed, in spite of the constant stressors and abysmal pay, we counselors returned year after year. Just as much as the campers for whom we cared, we also needed this summer month of kindness, a gentle respite from our regular lives.
This is one of the truths about real kindness: the roles of ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’ are blurred, and often reversed. The boundaries of kindness are also nebulous: to be kind is to transform the world around you into a kinder place in which both the so-called ‘giver’ and the ‘receiver’—as well as casual bystanders—then get to live.
The other night we had an early, intergenerational service celebrating Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees. I asked the following question: What other things are like trees, that you plant and then see the fruit for decades to come?
Though I meant the question for the adults, it was a child who answered first. “Kindness.” She said.
Even though I was astonished at the reply, I know this to be true. The fruit of a single kindness may ripen year after year for decades to come. For example, I know a rabbi who once told me that, when he was a depressed teen, a friend took him one day to a garden and had him help plant bulbs. He still remembers the cool of the soil in his hands and the heat of the sun on his back. And, though he planted the bulbs upside down and had to dig them up again, he remembers that ‘work’ as a life changing event. He moved from being a teen who hated the world to a teen who was ready to live and plant again. His congregation reaps the fruit of that kindness—that gift of bulbs and a spade—year after year.
To paraphrase an ancient rabbinic saying: Kindness towards a single person is kindness towards an entire world. (And, conversely: To withhold kindness from a single individual—well, you see where that is going….)
Finally, speaking of one who has left so many shiny tracks across our spiritual lives, as a congregation we come together spiritually and musically to mourn the death and celebrate the life of singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman. She took a life of challenges and made it be for a richness of blessings for everyone. May we forever contribute to her memory, living with kindness and singing with spirit.

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