Several months ago, I had the unique opportunity of traveling with Kids of Courage, an organization that helps extremely ill children with severe diseases, such as Familial Dysautonomia, Muscular Dystrophy, Cancer, Cystic Fibrosis, Nemaline Myopathy, and paralysis with ventilator dependence – among others.
I’ve experienced great moments of inspiration in my life, but this trip was a foray into another stratosphere – the ultimate level of chesed. The 150 patients and 260 staff, which included five doctors, ten nurses, a group of paramedics and EMTs, went on an eight-day trip to give these children an opportunity enjoy fun and pleasure with others of similar and perhaps more serious illnesses.
As the rav of this outstanding organization, I was already well-acquainted with the serious medical issues that arise, primarily sheilos regarding how to deal with emergencies on Shabbos. Yet I could never have envisioned what the preparations for the charter flight from Newark Airport to San Francisco would actually look like. Terminal C was abuzz with wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, feeding tubes, and ventilators, resembling a hospital unit, yet the radiant smiles of these sick children exuded laughter, joy, and harmony. Chasidish, Yeshivish, and those from modern backgrounds all stood together with love to provide an uplifting experience for Hashem’s children. All barriers of political and sociological divides disappeared as we prepared for this eight day excursion of bonding and sharing.
As I boarded the flight and had a chance to talk with the cockpit crew and flight attendants, I learned that certain crew members specifically asked to be on this charter flight because they wanted to be part of what has been termed “the flying hospital.” Prominent pediatrician Dr. Stewart Ditchek, paramedic Howie Kafka, a member of Hatzalah of the Five Towns, and Ari Adlerstein, the co-founders of this organization, strode up and down the aisles throughout the flight checking on all the children.
At various points throughout the two days I was with the group, I found myself shedding tears of sorrow and joy simultaneously – sorrow for the peril that the future held for these children, but joy because just as Chazal teach us that Har Sinai, we were unified, Ke’ish echad beleiv echad, so too had all these staff members come together as one. At that moment, my heartfelt hope was we would merit – as Klal Yisroel did at the moment of unity – to have all cholim healed.
Rav Shimshon Pinkus ztz”l taught that the place of the greatest amount of Divine Presence nowadays is not in a shul or a beis medrash, but rather in a hospital, because Chazal teach that the Shechina rests at the head of a choleh. That extra measure of Divine Presence was nearly palpable during my stay with Kids of Courage.
Inspiration struck frequently as I watched young men and young women who could have enjoyed an exciting summer in a camp Upstate or out west, and opted to spend their time tending to unpleasant tasks associated with caring for near-adults who are essentially babies: assisting them in the washroom and getting dressed, carrying and feeding them, and ensuring that their medications were administered, to name just a few of the chores that these human malachim -- our teenagers -- were involved with 24/7, for eight days. I was in awe of these youngsters, wondering how many of us would be able to do the same.
A moment that will stay with me forever occurred after a show one night. One of the directors announced to the 400+ in the dining room that we were about to Skype with a girl named Rivky, whom many of the campers knew from previous trips. Unfortunately, her precarious medical condition did not allow her to join this excursion. Moments later, when the young girl’s face came onto the screen, 400 people shouted excitedly, “Hi Rivky. We miss you so much!”
That moment will be etched on my heart and mind forever because it represented something that I had never experienced previously: the purest and sincerest feelings of many hearts to a heart whose feelings they knew so well.
I was curious as to what motivates the teenaged counselors to forgo fun and pleasure in favor of eight days of grueling physical and emotional activity.
Some explained that they derive intense pleasure from seeing these kids happy and knowing that they are giving them an experience that they would never be able to have otherwise. One young man who went through his own difficulties when he went “off the derech” in his teenage years said, “I had a chance and I blew it. Thank G-d, I’m back. These kids unfortunately don’t have a chance.”
As I listened intently to their responses, a Rambam (end of Hilchos Megillah) came to mind. The Rambam writes that we are obligated to invest more into the mitzvah of matanos l’evyonim than we do for mishloach manos on Purim because there is no greater joy than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the downtrodden. In an uncharacteristic statement for his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam then explains why this is the greatest joy. When we gladden the hearts of the downtrodden, he writes, we are emulating Hashem Himself, upon Whom it is written, “lehachayos ruach shefalim ulehachayos lev nidka’im – He gives life to the spirit of the downtrodden and to the hearts of depressed.
This Rambam, I believe, is the true motivation for youngsters who want to connect with their Tzelem Elokim (Divine image) and follow in Hashem’s ways.
And that is what placed these youngsters on entire different level of chesed, as explained by Rav Shalom Schwadron ztz”l.
Avos d’Rav Nosson (Ch. 8) relates that Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai was once walking, and Rav Yehoshua was following behind him. Rav Yehoshua lamented, “Woe unto us that the Bais Hamikdash – a place where our sins were forgiven – is in such a state of ruin.”
“My son,” Rav Yochanan Ben Zackai replied, “Don’t be fearful, for there is another way to atone for our sins instead.”
“What is that?” Rav Yehoshua asked.
“Gemilus chesed,” said Rav Yochanan ben Zakai, “as the passuk states, ‘Ki chesed chafatzti velo zevach – for I desired kindness, not sacrifices’” (Hoshe’a 6:6).
Why is chesed so great that it can atone for our sins on the level of sacrifices in the Beis HaMikdash, wonders Rav Shalom Schwadron, especially since there’s no remorse for the sin or an acceptance not to sin in the future?
The truth, answers Rav Shalom, is that this Mishnah, does not refer to someone who merely executes an act of chesed every so often, but to a Baal Chesed – a person who makes chesed part of his essence.
A random act of chesed could be done for selfish purposes, such as the person doing the chesed finds it difficult to see someone in a miserable state and wants to free himself from that pain, or out of a need to reciprocate for a chesed previously received from the recipient so that he is no longer in debt. Such chesed does not a Baal Chesed make.
A Baal Chesed is a person who does chesed in order to emulate Hashem and His attribute of chesed. That type of chesed atones for sins because it transforms the person doing the chesed, making him into a “new” person, shedding his or her past iniquities and shortcomings.
The selfless chesed performed by the youngsters on that trip to San Francisco was the type that only a true Baal Chesed can do.
As I was awaiting my ride to the airport, the group was finishing an activity and heading to the buses. I took one last look at the glowing faces of these children, some with oxygen tanks, ventilators, or feeding tubes, as they were being wheeled by young human angels. I felt as though I was leaving Olam Haba to come back to This World, but I knew that after this -- albeit brief – experience, my life and perspective would be transformed forever.
The Baalei Mussar speak of chinuch hamussar which is to implement the ethical lessons taught in a mussar discourse into our lives. Young men and women who are involved in organizations that do chesed have taken the lessons they learned in school and incorporated them into their own lives. Those young people will go on to become not only sensitive and considerate spouses and parents, but true baalei chesed.
When we seek to create bnei Torah who not only learn, but are graced with the finest middos and maasim tovim, it is critical that we focus our attention towards implementation of the timeless lessons our boys learn in yeshiva. It seems that the girls’ schools place a much greater emphasis on chesed activities than our yeshivas do for the boys.
Chazal state “bitula zu hi kiyuma.” There are times when cessation of textual study is necessary in order to produce a true and everlasting ben Torah – a bochur who can complement his Toras chaim with ahavas chesed, as we say in Shemoneh Esrei.
I would not suggest that boys take off precious time from regular shiurim and sedarim of their yeshivos to participate in chesed activities. But there is plenty of free time that can be galvanized into structured and meaningful chesed programs – under the auspices of the yeshiva – which would help shape our young men into true bnei Torah and merit, along with the rest of us, to become Baalei Chesed, not just purveyors of chesed.
Rabbi Dovid Weinberger is the Rav of Congregation Shaaray Tefilla in Lawrence, NY. A graduate of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, he received semichah from Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l. Rabbi Weinberger is the halachic advisor for Hatzola in the Five Towns and for Shalom Task Force, a national organization dealing with spouse abuse in the Jewish community. He has authored many works, including Ohel Rochel, ArtScroll’s siddur for women, and he lectures on many halachic and hashkafah topics, with particular emphasis on chinuch, Hilchos Shabbos and medical halachah.