Item description for Small Acts of Kindness: Striving for Derech Eretz in Everyday Life by Shalom Freedman...
In a society such as ours, when doing good is the stuff of legend and hagiography, Freedman's meticulous description of the constant struggle to be a good person and to do good for others is refreshing and bracing. It shows how good can triumph in spite of everything and should serve as an inspiration to all of us who would also wish to be good people and do good unto others.
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Shalom (Seymour) Freedman was born in Troy, New York, and received a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Cornell University. He moved to Israel in 1974 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. He studied Hebrew in the ulpan at Beit Ha'am and served in the civil defense unit of the Israeli Army over a period of twelve years. He works in Israel as a free-lance writer and translator, and has contributed to a variety of Jewish publications. For many years he has participated in traditional Jewish learning in houses of study in the holy city of Jerusalem. He has co-authored two works of interviews with teachers of Bible which center on the theme of devotion to God, In the Service of God and Learning in Jerusalem, and a book on the life and thought of Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Living in the Image of God.
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A year in the life... Dec 9, 2004
One sees in this journal of a year (1999-2000) in the life of a religious Jew in Israel the timeless struggle of a man to know the good, and to do it. For Shalom Freedman the essential moral question is how does one act in accordance with true "derech eretz"? That is, how does one go about treating others with respect, consideration and compassion in accordance with "the will of God"?
It would seem that the Golden Rule of doing unto others as one would wish be done unto oneself would be a necessary and sufficient guide. Indeed in the Talmud it is written: "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary." Freedman goes a bit beyond this; indeed his year-long "experiment" in derech eretz is that of a man seeking some kind of perfection of behavior toward his fellow human beings. Of course it can be said--and Freedman is well aware of this--that such an endeavor is itself a sign of something other than derech eretz. On the one hand, some people might find this an exercise in moral one-upmanship, while others might view it as delusive or even egocentric.
Yet the experiment, because it is published rather than private, takes on greater significance. To do good just for the sake of being good is perhaps just a gesture. But to do good with the intent of showing others what the struggle is all about, and to do this with real self-examination and then to share it with the world--such an intent lifts the entire enterprise to another level and justifies it.
The reader can ask (and I found it hard not to) "to what extent did Freedman succeed and to what extent does this publication itself further the cause of derech eretz?" Indeed, this is the question that I believe Shalom Freedman himself is asking. He writes, "I know that despite all my efforts in the past year, I have not helped people in any significant way." (p. 273)
This is perhaps too modest; and perhaps it is born of the terrible uncertainty that is the burden of Israelis, who live everyday knowing that the end of their struggle is nowhere in sight. While Freedman writes of his "intense concentration on the minor encounters of everyday life" (p. 273) all about him are momentous and violent events.
Again Freedman is well aware of this seeming disconnectedness. While he worries over whether he missed saying a kind word to a friend, or whether he gave enough to a beggar in the street, the state of Israel is in a life and death struggle for its survival. Yet--and this is the whole point of this venture--such things go hand in hand because the Jewish people cannot win the larger war and lose their soul (and neither can Americans, by the way), and derech eretz is at the very soul of any civilized society.
I must say however that I would not describe derech eretz as "doing the will of God" as Freedman does (p. 164). I am uneasy at being told what is the will of God, and I don't believe that other persons, regardless of how pious they may seem, can say what pleases or does not please God. But this is a complaint that I would register against any religion that imagines that God is personally involved in their daily lives. This is simply my belief. I wish Freedman and all the priests and preachers and other clerics would say instead that what is pleased is themselves and their view of life as taught in their traditions. To presume to speak for God grates on the ears and rankles the soul.
That point aside, I am in deep sympathy and in substantial accord with Freedman's beliefs. I believe, as many do, that charity not only begins at home, but that it is incumbent on us as human beings to treat those people around us with courtesy, consideration and compassion; and to fail in this is to fail in the most fundamental way as human beings. Indeed, if Freedman's example were universally followed, the world would overnight turn into something close to a heaven on earth. Alas, how far we are from such a world! And yet how little it would take from each and every human being to bring it about.
Freedman's moral struggle and self-examination make this a most interesting read, but I also gained from the insights into the daily lives of the religious Jews of Israel that Freedman provides. He steers a middle road between the ultra-Orthodox, who are largely out of tune with the modern world (in somewhat the same way that fundamentalist Christians and Muslims are), and the secular society that sometimes seems but an extension of the American mass culture.
Here are some examples of Freedman's fine spiritual insight:
"I know how it is when you are alone, and suddenly someone listens to you and makes you feel that you are a human being again." (p. 201)
"...[M]odesty, humility and walking humbly before God are the foundations of my faith." (p.206)
"Perhaps what I primarily mean by derech eretz is simple decency and kindness. In this sense, it is not something of which to make a big deal, but rather something that one does naturally and comes to expect of others, as basic civilized human behavior." (p. 51)
"...[T]here are those who, upon receiving offers of help, might come to hate those who are extending it, for they see in those people a freedom and power that they themselves do not possess." (p. 51)
And finally here's something that relates to post 9/11 United States: "The dilemma of how to maintain our strength while preserving our humanity is one that we are faced with all the time..." (p. 194)
Serving God by Serving Others Nov 13, 2004
The Golden Rule shows up in one form or another in almost all religions. Religious books and leaders exhort us to follow that rule. But most of us find it hard to know what to do.
In Small Acts of Kindness, Shalom Freedman takes on the challenge to perform as many Godly acts towards others as he possibly can for a year during 1999 and 2000. The book is a journal that describes his daily efforts, successes, failures and thoughts about what he is accomplishing. Mr. Freedman's purpose is to help his fellow Israelis make Israel the example for Jews and all other people that God has intended.
This book will be most accessible to those who live in Israel, know Israel or know Jewish religious practices. Almost every page includes Hebrew terms, and non-Jews like me will be kept busy flipping to the glossary in the back to find out what the words mean. In too many cases, there's no translation so you just have to guess.
But it would be a mistake for those who are not Jewish to skip this book. Mr. Freedman is a highly religious and moral man whose example can teach all of us many valuable lessons about following God's will towards our fellow humans and animals.
He is very honest in describing his many failures to do the optimal thing, and is harsh with himself for these failings. He also is a subtle observer who draws valuable lessons from his experiences. He soon notices that helping others involves doing so on their terms . . . not on ours. That may even mean letting them help us, even when we don't want or need any help. There are also many situations where what the right thing is can be very difficult to discern.
Mr. Freedman has more financial resources than many of the people he meets and knows. As a result, he is often asked to loan or give money which he does freely. Yet in the end, he realizes that happily giving his attention, his time and his expertise are usually better gifts than his money.
Ultimately, the value of this book is in holding up a mirror of how one can try to be a moral person who that we can see how we compare. Mr. Freedman has no thoughts or experiences that you haven't had in some other context.
I was struck by how often Mr. Freedman did his moral acts out of a sense of what is right and a sense of caring to be a good person. In doing so, he is like a moral philosopher looking for the truth. Yet, he is a loner and doesn't find human contact easy. Much of his kindness brings him personal pain that often exceeds the benefit that others seem to have received. He is the more to be praised for his efforts.
In my own religious tradition, the Protestant Christian one, we are encouraged to be vessels for God's love which simply spills naturally out of us to encompass helping others. In doing so, God directs us to do the right thing without any particular reflection on our part. The Holy Spirit is always there guiding us. I came away realizing what a great gift the Holy Spirit is in helping us to do the right thing from God's perspective and how the Holy Spirit saves us so many agonies of trying to decide what to do. I wouldn't enjoy trying to be judge and jury over everything and everyone in the way that Mr. Freedman tries to do.
May your life be filled with much joy in providing goodness
Great reading...sure to better yourself May 2, 2004
I just finished reading Shalom Freedman's Small Acts of Kindness. It is MUST reading for any person wanting to better themselves, regardless of their religion. Freedman shows us by personal example how to be a better human being and how to improve everything around us. His positive attitude towards all of humanity is a great inspiration and his willingness to help those less fortunate than himself truly indicates that he is a man to be admired. Anyone looking for ways to better themselves and help others at the same time must read this book.
small acts of kindness review Mar 8, 2004
I have never really read a book of this kind before. This journal measures one man's sincere attempt to perform compassionate (sometimes random) acts towards his fellow man. The author reflectively pursues his attempts at derech eretz in a world that sometimes is unappreciative, sometimes unaware and sometimes mean spirited. Nevertheless, Mr. Freedman chases his goal of being a good person relentlessly and honestly. His attempts are to be admired. Whether he is successful at all times is not the point. His writing is clear and his motives are well meaning. I highly recommend this book to others.