I want to recount some of the acts of loving kindness, gemilut hasadim, which I have witnessed over the past few weeks. They may seem nothing much compared to the great actions in the world. They can’t put the heads back on the shoulders of the poor people whose last lonely moments fill the front pages. They usually can’t even prevent heartache, though I regularly find myself wishing they could. But acts of kindness, small as they may seem, may be the only reliable materials we have for creating places of sanctuary in the world, as our ancestors once did symbolically with cedar planks and goatskins, spaces where God is somehow more deeply felt and the spirit finds comfort and inspiration.
‘Would you like some time alone with her?’ says the nurse to the two young women who sit in the hospital bay with their grandmother. The doctor has been and they’ve agreed that it’s time to end the life support; it is only prolonging the dying. The nurse slips quietly out through the curtains surrounding the bed. She returns and puts a hand on the shoulder of each of the granddaughters, saying nothing. She goes to the bed and touches the grandmother’s head, strokes her grey hair, as if it were in blessing. Only then does she turn to the machines.
Outside, the man at the fruit and vegetable stall takes another brown paper bag. ‘How are you today?’ he says with an easy cheer. ‘It’s the apples you’re after again, isn’t it. The coxes are pretty good, and there’s a real flavour to those russets. I’d go for them if I were you. How many d’you like?’ A moment ago it felt like a cold winter day; all of a sudden it feels like a bright winter day.
The vet has come to put the man’s dog to sleep. The gentleman himself must be every bit of eighty-five; the dog’s fifteen. She lays the animal on his favourite rug. ‘You give him a biscuit and hold his head’, she says. Tears land on the dog’s nose. ‘I’m so sorry’, the old man says; after all, men don’t cry, especially old men. The injection goes into the vein and the animal’s legs fold gently; now he lies still on the blanket. ‘This little fellow kept me going when my wife died’; more tears run down his face and drop into his dog’s open eyes. ‘You hold his head for a little longer’, says the vet, ‘Then we’ll carry him together.’ At that moment the cleaner walks in. For a second she just observes, then she crosses the room and takes the old man’s hand.
How often I’ve wished there were some means, of word or deed or silence or prayer, to enter the places which hurt in people’s hearts and take away the pain. But only God can do that, and life, God’s gift of life.
In the street I notice a woman, evidently a carer, helping a frail and very elderly lady on her daily walk. They stop by a camellia in a hedge. ‘Look’, she says, ‘Aren’t they beautiful!’ They stand together for a long time, just looking.
Of the ten sephirot or centres of spiritual energy of which the Kabballah speaks, two are located just beneath the heart: hesed, loving kindness, on the right, and gevurah, strength, on the left. The art of living is to deepen and then balance these two faculties. Without loving kindness there would only be the remorseless battle to survive. Without fortitude we would not have the capacity to bear sorrow and hurts with forgiveness, or to dare to love and care. Where they meet is called tiferet, the place of beauty and truth, where appreciation of life’s beauty, and awareness of life’s depths and sorrows merge, in humility and wonder.