January 6, 2023
For many of us, January marks an opportunity for making headway on our New Year’s resolutions – tackling new projects, or revisiting previous ones that have been left by the wayside, or getting more involved in communities or activities we care about.
Just as the new year begins, the book of Genesis comes to a close with parshat Vayechi. Though the portion’s title translates to “And he lived,” the parsha is a prolonged scene at Jacob’s deathbed, beginning with the following interaction: Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt.
These opening lines of this week’s parsha provide us with the foundational elements of what would become the Jewish rituals of mourning, including shiva, the week-long concentrated mourning period after the loss of an immediate family member. The phrase, “steadfast loyalty,” describing the pledge that Jacob is asking of his son, in the original Hebrew is חסד ואמת (chesed v’emet) or, translated more directly, “mercy and truth,” and understood to be an act of “true kindness”. According to Rashi, in his interpretation on Genesis Rabbah, “The mercy (chesed) shown to the dead” – that is, the acts we do on their behalf, such as preparing and burying the body and attending to the loved ones of the deceased, “is “mercy of truth” – or a “true kindness” – “since one cannot hope for any reward.”
And, according to the Siftei Chakhamim, a 17th century “super-commentary” on Rashi’s biblical commentary, Rashi does not mean to imply that such acts can only be done for the dead: “Rather, whenever kindness is done without the anticipation of remuneration, even if the recipient of the kindness is alive, it is considered “kind and truthful,” or chesed v’emet, an act of true kindness. There are numerous examples throughout the biblical text of people doing acts of “true kindness” for one another, and these are also foundational for later-developed customs and laws around acts of chesed, which have become, for many of us, culturally engrained, such as visiting the sick, and generally caring for the most vulnerable in our community.
This also serves as a foundational notion for why so many Jewish communities have chesed committees, or caring committees, responsible for keeping their finger on the pulse of the needs of the community, and responding. Chesed committees often orchestrate meal trains for families welcoming new babies, and for those recovering from surgery, coordinate rides to doctor’s appointments, or simply pick up the phone to check on those who are home-bound and otherwise isolated. Jews do this, not only because the Torah tells us so, but because this is what it means to be part of and to sustain a community – doing what we can to support one another in times of need, without the expectation of reward, but with the notion that if (and when!) we could use support (as eventually, inevitably, we all will), we know our community will show up for us.
At TOS, our chesed committee is known as Kayla’s Caring Community, named in memory of Kayla Maya Soderblom (November 11, 2010-July 2, 2012). KCC was founded to help members of TOS support one another in many ways, in times of greatest need, and succeeded in doing so for many years. However, since the Pandemic, as with many direct-service efforts, KCC’s activities have largely fallen by the wayside… As we know too well, for the first year or so of COVID, no one knew how to continue the work KCC did best, like providing food… Now that we have moved into a new phase of living with COVID, it’s time to bring KCC back, so that we as a Temple community can continue living our values, showing up for one another when we need it most, and offering the invaluable acts of true kindness that are core to so many of our Jewish identities.
So, as we welcome in the New Year, I invite you to join me and KCC (and take a step toward your New Years’ resolution of trying something new, or being more involved at Temple!) on Thursday January 26th at 7pm (and on Friday January 27th at 9am for TCEE families) to re-jump-start KCC’s “Team Ziti”! We will gather in Penn-Spero kitchen to prepare many batches of baked ziti, which will be frozen until they are needed for families with new babies, folks recovering from illness, or those sitting shiva, etc. This opportunity is open to the entire TOS community and will be followed by snacks (wine and cheese for 21+ on Thursday, coffee and bagels on Friday) and schmoozing. This is an amazing, fun and easy way to give back and get to know others in the TOS community.
Want more information on getting involved in KCC or other opportunities at TOS? Please reach out to me anytime. Want to submit a request for a meal, a ride, a check-in phone call to KCC? Email KCC@ohabei.org and I or one of our volunteers will get back to you as soon as we are able.
Looking forward to baking ziti with you, and helping us all do more acts of kindness in the coming year!
Rabbi Jennifer Queen