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04 February 2015

Real Kindness Comes Back to You

The year was 1917. America had finally entered World War I. Troops poured into Europe to put an end to the war. The war was in its final stages. American troops were dispatched throughout Germany.

A lone Jewish soldier from Duluth, Minnesota, Alex Lurye, found himself in a small German town called Seldes. It was Friday night. Being far away from home, he was lonely. Since the young Jewish soldier had some time on his hands, he decided to see what the local Jewish population was like. As he entered the local village synagogue, he must have created quite a stir: an American soldier, and one in uniform!

The Americans had fought the Germans in bitter combat. As the stares he received were skeptical or outright hostile, the lone soldier felt out of place. But then he was greeted by a kind German Jew by the name of Herr Rosenau who made him feel at home in the synagogue. After the services, Herr Rosenau invited the serviceman to his house for kiddush and the traditional Friday night meal.

He was a stranger, a foreigner, an enemy, yet because he was Jewish he was invited to another Jew's home, given a warm kosher home cooked meal, complete with wine and the traditional Shabbat songs. Herr Rosenau's family, together with his teenage daughter, gave the soldier the feeling that he was not alone, certainly not an enemy.

When he finally returned to Duluth, Minnesota, his home town, the soldier realized he would never able to go back to see this family again. So he took time to sit down and write a letter to Herr Rosenau, who had touched his life with such kindness. He waited and waited, but no answer was coming from Seldes, Germany.

The year is 1938. Ruth, the teenage daughter of the German Jew, has grown up and married a German Jew by the name of Eugen Wienberg. They have three small children. Hitler has taken hold upon Germany and anti Jewish proclamations are being contrived and enforced continually. Herr Rosenau is now a grandfather.

One day as Herr Rosenau is thinking and praying about the dark and dismal future ahead for him and his fellow Jews in Germany, it almost escapes him that his eleven year old grandson is rummaging through his desk.

Suddenly a foreign postage stamp catches the child's eye. He pulls out the envelope with the postage stamp from the United States. "Grandfather, can I have this?" Twenty one years have gone by since Herr Rosenau received the letter. "Yes, take it," he replies. The grandson is happy. He takes the letter home to his mother. "Look, look what grandfather has given me!" The mother and her husband, Herr Wienberg eye the envelope with curiosity. The letter is still inside. They remove the letter and read it.

It is the thank you letter from the American service man, from 1917. The mother remembers the young man. "Let's write to him! Maybe he will remember us and sponsor us, so we can immigrate to America". Even though they only have a name  (Alex  Lurye) and a town (Duluth, Minnesota), the letter gets delivered correctly, as Alex Lurye has become a wealthy businessman known all over Duluth. When Alex receives it, after a lapse of twenty one years, he quickly writes back and promises to help bring the Wienberg family to Duluth.

Alex kept his promise. The entire Wienberg family was brought over in that year and arrived in May of 1938.  Not much later, the Rosenau family came over to the US. In Duluth, the Wienberg family began working hard to make life bearable through the depression era. Yet the family made sure that the Shabbat would be joyously honored in Duluth, Minnesota -- just as they had done in Seldes, Germany.

Herr Rosenau and his family were spared the horrible fate of their fellow German Jews. The kindness that they had so warmly given to others without desiring a payment in return had come back to them with dividends. The entire family was saved.

The Lord takes delight in his faithful followers, / and in those who wait for his loyal love. (Psalm 147:11)

One of the themes in Psalm 147 is kindness, both of God and of humankind. "Those who wait for his loyal love" is one possible translation of המיחלימ לחסדו. The Hebrew word חֶ֫סֶד (chesed) buried in that phrase has such a wide range of meaning that some have found it "untranslatable".

Chesed can mean a number of things: kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, love, or acts of kindness. The Septuaginta (Greek translation of the Old Testament) translates chesed as έλεος
(mercy), while the Latin translations use misericordia (a mercy-filled heart).

One commentary summarizes, "Chesed means loyal devotion, faithful love and steadfast passion", and another says the best way to understand chesed is to think of "unfailing, faithful covenant love".

Psalm 136 seems like a natural place to start, as everyone of its twenty-six verses ends with the refrain כִּי לְעולָם חַסְדּו, "for his loyal love (chesed) is forever". In the Jewish tradition chesed is one of the fundamental characteristics of God.

Since we are made in the divine image and likeness, chesed is an essential human quality, too. "On three things the world rests," says a Jewish aphorism: "On Torah, and on avodah (service / prayer), and on gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness)."

This world would not function without acts of lovingkindness. Our daily news bring it home to us that suffering is all around us. We know how we cope by avoiding, but deep down we have always known that everyone and everything in the universe is mysteriously connected. We are all one:

If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26)

But by forgetting and avoiding we make our suffering worse. There's only one way to end suffering, and that is to see everyone and everything as part of us. Then it becomes clear: the solution is to do chasadim, acts of lovingkindness.

The Lord takes delight in his faithful followers, / and in those who wait for his loyal love.

As we count on God's chesed to be there for us, we are invited to do chesed, to live chesed in our daily lives. Real kindness always comes back to you, like that of Herr Rosenau came back to him in the story above. It really does.

Shalom and Amen.

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