"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." — Mister Rogers
The words of Mister Rogers' mother resonated deeply with me the first time I heard them several years ago and I have tried to use this concept to help frame a perspective for my boys when they are confronted with things that are scary. When we pass a car wreck, I try to draw their attention to the the ambulance that rushed to the scene with medics eager to do whatever they could to help everyone feel better. When images of 9/11 confront them on the anniversary of that day, I try to balance the scene with stories of brave firefighters who rushed in to rescue people, and boat captains who dropped everything they were doing and rushed to Manhattan to get as many people as they could to safety.
Along with this, I try to instill an awareness that Hashem is the greatest Helper of all. And that when we see things that frighten or confuse us, that's a great moment to pause and talk to Hashem, to ask Him for help. But, to me, it's perhaps equally as important to draw attention to the capacity of humans to help each other.
Because - here's the truth - I want my children to grow up believing that it is an achievable ideal for people to rise to greatness and do amazing things for their fellows. I do not want them to think that mankind is destined to eventually self-destruct. I want them to be tuned in with how much beauty and goodness there is in this world. I want them to believe in the beauty and goodness that can exist within humanity.
I'll be honest: It's getting a little bit hard to keep believing this. I am beginning to dread Saturday nights. For 25 hours, I enjoy a protected life in my safe, loving bubble. I greet strangers on the street with a smile and they smile back. I chat with neighbors who may or may not share my religious viewpoint and we find mutual respect for each other. But when the havdalah candle is extinguished and I get online, I am confronted with all the evil that happened in the world while I was away. A rabbi shot on his way to shul in Miami. Christians beheaded by ISIS. More rockets fired at Israel, more diatribes of hatred against Jews by those claiming to want "peace" in the land. And suddenly, the goodwill I perceived all around me is shattered. In those moments when I fall prey to believing that the reported news actually represents the balance of worldwide good vs. evil, I become so overwhelmed with it all that I cannot see the good.
An idea has been rolling around in my head in the last few weeks: what would happen if I was to take Mister Rogers' mom's advice and look for the helpers. What would happen if, instead of banging my head over and over in frustration over the likes Penelope Cruz and her accusation that Israel is committing genocide, I chose to share Miss Iraq's statement of solidarity with Israel? What would happen if I passed up the chance to rehash the unfairness of the media in comparing the number of dead Palestinian children with the number of dead Israeli children and instead promoted the story of front-line Israeli medical workers who refuse to allow children to be pawns in a political game and and forge ahead in providing specialized care to Palestinian children?
In short, what if I perceived each instance of evil in the world as a chance to also see commensurate human greatness? What if I looked at events in the world as if the shadows proved the sunshine? What if I looked for the helpers?
This past week held the culmination of the three weeks of mourning: the tension, the haunting, the pain of tisha b'av, the saddest day in the Jewish year. We find ourselves in exile still because of the sin of sinat chinam - unearned hatred. Rabbi David Lapin postulates that the remedy for unearned hatred, and the path to a rectified world is unearned love.
Showing unearned love and kindness is a powerful force in the now popular idea of “the law of attraction,” or what we call chein. Chein is the charm and attractiveness that individuals radiate when they show unearned love to others. The word chein, comes from the word chinam (unearned, as in sin’at chinam – unearned hatred, matnat chinam – an unearned gift,) The charm of showing unearned love attracts not only the reciprocal love of others but also all manner of G-d’s abundant goodness. The chein that emanates from showing unearned love and kindness sets up an energy field around an individual that powerfully attracts the affection, generosity, empathy and blessing of other people and of Hashem.
The idea of chein is embedded in the title of the parsha this week and it’s opening phrase. Va’etchannan means “and I (Moshe) pleaded (to Hashem, to be allowed entrance into Eretz Yisrael).” The root of the word Va’etchannan is chein and chinam. One doesn’t plead for something one has earned or is entitled to. One pleads when one has exhausted all of ones entitlements and is asking for unearned kindness or sympathy.
This unearned love is what I see encapsulated in the "helpers". And deep down, I'm convinced of the truth of the phrase "Think good and it will be good." Choose to see the good around you, because when you do that, you encourage even more good to come into the world. Here is the action that Rabbi Lapin prescribes:
We have an opportunity to use the energy we generated these past weeks as we discarded sinat chinam in favor of ahavat chinam(unearned love). Instead of resenting those whose views, affiliations or dress are different from ours, we have embraced one another as different parts of a single organism. If we have observed disfunctionality here and there, we have shown sympathy not hate, care and help not distance and accusation. These weeks the world has seen us at our greatest, but parts of it have detested us for the weakness that this very greatness has exposed in contemporary civilization. We cannot be distracted by their hatred. We dare not mimic them with hatred of our own.
Ahavat chinam, unearned love, is something every person can do right away, all the time, to disrupt the insane pattern of wishing for redemption but living by the values of exile. It is the easiest and most rewarding thing to do, it costs nothing and it is fun. Try it now in small ways: smile lovingly at a stranger and watch their reaction. Greet a stranger with warm (always genuine) enthusiasm. Look for opportunities around you to offer help to another person even in small ways: helping them with a package or luggage, holding a door open for them, keeping an elevator waiting while they rush towards it. Do it in the street, at work, while traveling. Do it on line and and by correspondence. Encourage people. Appreciate people. Uplift people. We all need encouragement and uplifting, we all appreciate being recognized and honored. The chein you radiate will attract beracha to you and to the other parts of the organism of which you are a part, to Klal Yisrael.
This was Shabbat Nachamu - the sabbath of consolation. After the three weeks of mourning, we enter seven weeks of focusing on messages of comfort from the prophets. Maybe we can only truly internalize that comfort when we acknowledge that it disproportionately exceeds the weeks of mourning. Of course each of us must purpose for ourselves to practice unearned love. And maybe we can make our own efforts exponentially more powerful by shining our limelight on examples of that love as it hovers on the edges of all the stories of fear and sadness and injustice that face us every day...
Maybe, when even we sophisticated and cynical adults chose to "look for the helpers" we actually empower the forces of goodness in the world.