There is a popular bumper sticker which reads, “Perform Random Acts of Kindness.” The sentiment sounds promising, but leaves me wondering: is kindness something random? In Judaism, the concept of “chesed” refers to kindness that is offered without being asked for. Does this make chesed a ‘random’ act? The biblical character most often associated with chesed is Rivka. In this week’s parsha — Parshat Chayyei Sarah — we learn how Rivka offered water to Eliezer, the tired and thirsty messenger Avraham urged to find a wife for his son Yitzhak.
Eliezer prayed to God saying, “Please be kind to my master, Avraham. Let it be that the young woman to whom I say, ‘please tip over your jug so I may drink,’ will be designated to Yitzhak for a wife.” Before Eliezer had the chance to say these words out loud, Rivka had already run towards him, offering water for himself and even his camels too. Rivka’s unprompted act of kindness affirms for Eliezer that she is a fitting partner for Yitzhak.
So in reflection, Rivka’s kindness isn’t exactly unasked for. Eliezer asked God to be kind to Avraham; and that resulted in Rivka being kind to him and his camels.
The trajectory of kindness, which may appear to be random, turns out to be more a matter of cause and effect: kindness leads to kindness, though not necessarily in a direct way. This demonstrates the other aspect of chesed. Acts of chesed are acts of kindness done without expectation of being reciprocated. Nevertheless, when chesed is done, it sends a ripple of kindness through the moral fabric of the universe. We don’t know quite whom the waves will touch. Kindness may at times feel or seem random; at other times, we might feel as though it comes very directly from a particular person.
The relationship of kindness among Eliezer, Rivka, God, and Avraham teaches us that chesed derives from a network of relationships that is neither random on the one hand, nor readily attributable to a single source on the other.
This Shabbat may each of us perform an act of kindness that contributes to and enhances the networks of chesed in the world.