Jewish traditions aren't just about matzo ball soup and ancient prayers. Many Jewish traditions exist to make us better people, better parents, and a better community. I was recently reminded of one that feels like it was written for the Pioneer Valley.
As part of my role as PJ Library coordinator, I was bringing a *gift bag from PJ Library in Western Mass to a new mom in Northampton. As I often do for new parents, I asked her if I could ever hold her child while she took a shower/did some work/read a book/or just sat and talked with me. As a parent of two myself, I know how helpful and important this sort of social interaction and assistance can be in the early days of babyhood. I also know how difficult it can be to make "the ask" to a friend.
To my surprise she said that she had an hour long appointment that was 25 minutes away and what she could really use was someone to hold her baby for the duration. This request shocked me. Not because I felt she was asking too much of me. I found it shocking because she really went for it. She unabashedly asked me for exactly what she needed that day. I had offered, after all, to provide her a bit of a respite. She truly took me up on the offer. I realized that as a mom I've never had the guts to make this sort of ask.
How many times each day do you hear the phrase "how are you?" But when you answer the question, how often do you give an honest response? When we know a friend is in need and say "let me know how I can help," are we really willing to make ourselves available to help them?
It turns out this is one of Judaism’s primary ethical values – the act of caring for others (Gemilut Chasadim). The word Chesed doesn’t translate perfectly to English, but it roughly means loving kindness, courage, and imagination.
Beyond being “the helper,” we must also allow others the honor of coming to our aid in times of need. I feel so lucky to have learned this lesson from this parent. Helping is certainly a mitzvah (good deed), but so is asking. By asking for what we need, we are giving others the opportunity to fulfill their own duty of loving kindness.
Jewish tradition shows it isn’t just being kind that is important, but we need to do acts of kindness that require us to give of ourselves. And by doing so, we in turn are changed for the better. The proof of this is how good we feel when we help others.
Of course, I had an impact on this mother’s day by helping her in just the way she needed. But she helped me too. I felt happy to have done something good for another person. Her act of “asking” inspired me to write this blog post and to ask for help the next time I really needed it. It’s an ongoing cycle. If there are “askers” then there are “helpers,” and if there are helpers, the world is made that much better.
Lean on your Pioneer Valley neighbors when you need them, and keep the circle of “good deeds” going.
*Have you recently welcomed a new baby into your home or know someone who has? We'd love to deliver a gift to you and lend a helping hand. Reach out at PJLibrary@JewishWesternMass.org.