I live in a neighborhood known for its Christmas festival. Several years ago, I wrote an essay for this paper, describing our decision to build a giant dreidel for the festival, and reflecting on the experience of living here.
That essay ended with this thought:
Sometimes a giant dreidel at a Christmas festival is more than it appears to be. For me, and I think for my neighbors too, it has become a sign of community and coexistence. There may not be peace in the Middle East in my lifetime. There is little I can do about the battles raging in our country over politics and immigration, marriage and the economy. But in our little corner of Tucson, people of different religions, ethnicities and political beliefs are working together to create something beautiful and joyous. And, in some small way, that gives me hope.
This year there will be no dreidel. After four years, it is time for a change. This year we “donated” our yard to Ben’s Bells, a “community art project that demonstrates and encourages kindness. The Bens’ Bells Project empowers each of us to create community, inspire hope, and spread joy – simply by being kind.”
This year, our yard has been transformed into a garden of kindness.
Why Ben’s Bells? Why “Be kind”?
Ben’s Bells was founded by a Tucson family after the death of their young son. They honor his memory by honoring the simple kindnesses that helped them through their grief. Ben’s Bells – ceramic flowers, hearts and beads, strung together with simple bronze bells – are created by community effort. Each is engraved with the message: be kind. Groups of volunteers form the pieces, paint them, assemble them. By the time each is finished, it has been touched by dozens of hands. You cannot buy a Ben’s Bell. They are hung randomly throughout Tucson, for people to find and keep. In addition, each week one individual is “belled” – surprised with the gift of a bell, after being nominated by others in the community for their consistent and intentional acts of kindness.
In many ways, the message of Ben’s Bells is a logical progression from what the dreidel came to mean to me. “Be kind” is the “how” that gets us from the difficulties of the world we live in, to the hope I described in my earlier essay. (http://azjewishpost.com/2010/chanukah-on-christmas-avenue-raising-a-jewish-family-in-winterhaven/)
These are not easy times. Our hearts have been broken by horrific shooting attacks and devastating natural disasters. The Middle East is enmeshed in yet another cycle of unending war; any hope for a lasting peace seems to be disappearing. In my own family, it has been a year of illness and healing and illness again; a time of endings and new beginnings.
Kindness may seem to be too simple an answer to all of this. “Be kind” seems a little trite in the face of such complex and complicated issues and challenges. But to me, in this moment, this simple message is exactly what we need.
My own understanding of kindness comes from my study of Mussar, a Jewish ethical and spiritual practice. In his discussion of chesed (which loosely translates as loving-kindness), Alan Morinis, a teacher of Mussar, notes: “Only some problems have solutions, while all of them are alleviated by the loving response of those around us.”
Yet he cautions us, this does not mean simply being nice. True kindness involves actions that help to sustain others:
“… it isn’t enough to hold warm thoughts in our heart or to wish each other well. We are meant to offer real sustenance to one another, and the ways in which we can do that are innumerable: we can offer our money, time, love, empathy, service, an open ear, manual assistance, a letter written, a call made, and on and on… Action is required. Then, through experience, the heart learns and opens, setting off a chain reaction of hearts opening and connecting…”
True kindness expects no reward or recognition; it comes from a place of compassion and selfless generosity. This is deep kindness, kindness that stems from our understanding that we are all created b’tzelem elohim (“in God’s image”) – that within each of us, there is a spark of divinity (whatever that means to us). Chesed/loving-kindness challenges us to find those sacred sparks in those around us, even (or maybe especially) if we disagree with them or if they have caused us hurt or harm.
My hope is that the garden of kindness in my yard will inspire us to live a life filled with chesed. May these flowers and bells show us the way to a life filled with meaning and joy and connection with others, despite whatever pain, challenges and suffering we are dealing with. May they remind us to do our best, this holiday season and beyond, at times of crisis and change, and in the small moments of everyday life, to be kind. And, by doing so, may we all be part of that beautiful chain reaction of opening hearts and connecting souls.
Ben’s Bells will be taking 1,000 bells to Newton, Conn., to be hung on Jan. 8. For more information on how you can be involved in this project, visit www.bensbells.org.