SMALL ACTS OF KINDNESS: Striving for Derech Eretz in Everyday Life
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by Shalom Freedman
“Derech eretz is, in its broadest sense, acting with consideration and kindness to one’s fellow human beings, and in so doing, fulfilling the will of God. In Jewish religious terms, everyday life presents us with constant struggles to act in the correct way -- we are constantly battling between good and evil. It is a never-ending ethical drama in which the individual should always be striving to serve God in the best way possible. It means being able to transcend the mere formulaic response, yet, in turn, also being able to endure the anguish that true freedom of choice often encompasses.”
“It is important to try to speak with those people who no one else seems to care for. This morning I spoke with a person who hangs out at the shul. He has a speech impediment, and is a harmless, quiet religious person. He is so alone but never complains. Today we talked more than ever before. He has such a smile of innocence and openness. 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.”
–Excerpts from Small Acts of Kindness
Hardcover, 279 pages
publication: March 2004
About the Author:
Shalom (Seymour) Freedman was born in Troy, New York, and received a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Cornell University. He came 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 Torah which center on the theme of serving God (Avodat HaShem), In the Service of God and Learning in Jerusalem, and a book on the life and thought of Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, Living in the Image of God. He has also written a book of Jewish thought, Life as Creation: A Jewish Way of Thinking of the World, an autobiographical work, Seven Years in Israel: A Zionist Storybook, and a book of poems, Mourning for my Father.
Praise for Small Acts of Kindness:
Shalom Freedman has written a fascinating and insightful book about goodness and the quest for its regular performance. Couched as a personal journal of daily occurrences in his life over a period of a year, the book shows the trials and tribulations that one faces even when one has set one’s face and fate to do good.
The book is real and honest, sometimes even painfully so, and the reader will be astounded by the author's candor and self-analysis.
But this is more than a book about a good person striving to do what is right. It is really a book of instruction, of practical guidance, a description of life as it really is and why even the best intentions sometimes are impossible to translate into action and behavior. 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.
–Rabbi Berel Wein
In a time of great turmoil and trouble in our society, each one of us, nonetheless, has many opportunities in the small encounters of everyday life to show kindness and be of help to others. In Small Acts of Kindness, Shalom Freedman tells his own story of such encounters in a realistic and instructive way.
I highly recommend this work.
–Dr. Miriam Adahan
Anyone reading Small Acts of Kindness is likely to benefit from Shalom’s many sensitive insights into today’s world and realize how much finer a person he or she might be as a result.
–Dr. Yaacov Fogelman
Small Acts of Kindness: Striving for Derech Eretz in Everyday Life by Shalom Freedman (Urim) details the author’s personal quest for goodness, amidst the challenges in daily life in Jerusalem.
–Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week
What a wonderful thing it is for there to be a book on "Derech Eretz!" The author explains that "In Jewish religious terms, everyday life presents us with constant struggles to act in the correct way - we are constantly battling between good and evil. It is a never-ending ethical drama in which the individual should always be striving to serve God in the best way possible. It means being able to transcend the mere formulaic response, yet, in turn, also being able to endure the anguish that true freedom of choice often encompasses."
Dr. Freedman, whom many will remember as the author of the stimulating book about the life and thought of Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg - Living in the Image of God - has a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Cornell University, and made aliyah in 1974. He lives with his wife, the painter and poet, Rifkah Goldberg, and his children, in Jerusalem, where he is a translator and free-lance writer.
He writes, in a diary which began in May, 1999, and continues until the following year, about people he has met and with whom he has interacted in a meaningful way - showing them kindness and menschlichkeit. He meets people whom others would not approach, perhaps because they have a speech impediment, or are very quiet and seem unapproachable. Each day brings a new opportunity for an act of kindness. This book is about a kind person's effort to bring more goodness into the world, but also a book of instruction and practical guidance. He does not always find it easy, but inevitably feels satisfied that he has made a small contribution to society. His book is an inspiration to read. Not a book with deep philosophy or dazzling new historical information, but a book to learn from about living in a materialistic and selfish world and following the high road of ethical values taught by our Torah. There is no one who cannot benefit from reading this uplifting volume.
-Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Media Review
From Shavuot 5759 (May 1999) to Shavuot 5760 (June
2000), the Jerusalem writer Shalom Freedman kept a journal
of his ongoing effort to live according to derech eretz -- kindly
and considerate behavior, or in his words, "how best to serve
G-d in everyday life." Small Acts of Kindness, a book based
on that journal, is an engaging, deeply honest account of his
year of striving that combines description of everyday events
with profound reflections on the challenges and meaning of
being a Jew in today`s Israel.
Much of Freedman`s endeavor of derech eretz involves
attempts at helping needy individuals. There is Israel R., a
lonely Holocaust survivor who obsessively tells the story of
the destruction of his family; Yigal, an immigrant of ques-
tionable character who has medical and financial needs; a
former dentist, also an immigrant, who begs for tzedakah on
a corner in downtown Jerusalem; and others. Freedman
writes piercingly about the frustrations and limitations of
trying to improve others` lot:
"Despite all my efforts in the past year, I have not
helped people in any significant way. The sick were not
healed; the lonely did not find their mates ..."
"And also about the fulfillments: "I discover again and
again that I feel no greater satisfaction than when helping
others"; "the joy I feel when I am truly helping someone is the
purest joy of all."
That relentless scrutiny of his own feelings, and of the
real possibilities of human accomplishment in a recalcitrant
world, is a constant feature of the book — as when Freedman
confronts the particularly difficult issue of how Israeli Jews
can act with derech eretz toward the Arab community when it
is a source of so much hostility and violence:
"I gave tzedakah to an Arab woman with small children
... near Jaffa Gate yesterday.... I do not know what G-d wants
of me here. I have read that these women are `run` by some
kind of criminal group. On the other hand, they may just be
poor people in need...."
For the vast majority of Israeli Jews who occupy some
point between generic antipathy toward Arabs and spineless
groveling, it is indeed a harsh dilemma; Freedman does not
presume to overcome it but raises it, unflinchingly, at several
points in the book.
He grapples just as resolutely with his own personal
issues as with issues that confront the whole nation. Divorced and seeking a mate at the time of writing the journal,
he has to face the quandaries that inevitably arise in the
world of dating: the derech eretz issues of causing the least
pain possible when rejecting someone who wants to keep
meeting, of seeking not to wound the confidence and vanity of
others. And he writes movingly about the basic plight of
singlehood, "the disorder and sad longing that my ... status
creates within me."
Perhaps inevitably in someone for whom behaving well
is so important, Freedman can be harshly self-critical, as
when he castigates himself for sometimes being focused on
his writing to the exclusion of others` concerns, when in fact
serious writing is itself a way of contributing to society and
helping others. Yet, while poignantly viewing himself as "a
largely ineffectual, yet well-intentioned person, a Don
Quixote with Torah guidance," he is full of respect and
sometimes reverence for others, particularly his guide and
mentor the late Rabbi David Herzberg, z"l, to whom the book
is dedicated. Freedman writes lovingly of this individual --
"with the exception of my family ... the person who has had
the greatest influence on me" -- and well evokes his warmth
Freedman`s devotion to klal Yisrael, his deep identification with the country and its problems, his tolerance of the
different groups in the society, shine through in many
thoughtful, balanced passages.
He is, however, unsparing in his indignation at the
media and academic establishment that vilify Israel both
domestically and internationally and try to undermine its
Jewish character and consensus values. And he is critical of
those for whom derech eretz entails rejecting full participation in the life of the society, including the burdens of
defending it against its enemies.
On the whole a compelling book, Small Acts of Kindness
could perhaps have benefitted from some trimming; its
passages about the derech eretz of synagogue behavior, and of
helping strangers on buses, are interesting to an extent but
too plentiful and repetitious, sometimes a touch mechanical.
But that is a minor shortcoming in a book that so candidly
and intelligently discusses the struggles, dilemmas and
elations of behaving well as an Israeli, Jew, and human
-P. David Hornik, The Jewish Press
If only the sub-title of this book were a subject on the syllabus of every Jewish school what a different community we would be. It’s a great concept.... Freedman, an American born Israeli, has written a diary of his everyday life in the religious world in Jerusalem reflecting on opportunities for good. It’s a fine, worthwhile personal journal....
-Australian Jewish News
I have never read a book like this. It is the journal of a man who is striving to do the good, no less than that, and who records every day his successes and his failures at this task. Analysts could have a field day with this diary and could label the author 'compulsive' or guilt ridden' if they wanted to, but this may just be an extraordinary work of self-criticism and a lesson in how difficult striving to be good really is.
Again and again, all through this book, Shalom Freedman tells of how he did a good deed and then felt guilty afterwards for not having done it well enough or for having neglected some other good deed while doing it, or for having caused someone else discomfort by doing it and so on. On some pages I was ready to dismiss him as a Jewish equivalent of Monk, the detective on television, who is brilliant at solving crimes but who is compulsive and passive-aggressive in his behavior. And yet, I wonder---perhaps I have caught the compulsion from him?---if judging him this way is just a device that I am using in order to escape from the obligation to judge my own character by the light of his.
If becoming a good human being is a goal of yours there are not many books available to help you. Most of the Mussar tradition is not yet translated into English. And so I recommend this book as a possible resource for you. It may drive you to distraction with its constant self questioning but how often do you read the work of a person who is obsessed with the desire to do kindness? There are surely many much worse obsessions to have.
-Rabbi Jack Riemer
The author's daily bookkeeping records one man's struggle to help the sick, the bereaved and the needy through acts of kindness. Freedman aims for regeneration not through absorbtion in the self but in the constant striving to transcend it. This exploration of the meaning of derekh eretz opens a fascinating window on the normative Jewish soul.
-Haim Chertok, Hadassah Magazine
There are many words and phrases in Hebrew that seem to defy translation. One example is derech eretz. Literally, derech eretz means "the way of the world," but within the context of Jewish culture it implies everything from civility and grace, to general culture and knowledge.
In this thought-provoking and enlightening journal, Shalom Freedman defines derech eretz as "goodness." Written over the course of one year (1999-2000), Freedman documents his personal journey to improve his own derech eretz. Day by day, the reader follows Freedman's encounters with others, his own self-doubt and questions, and the gradual success he experiences as he becomes more sensitive to the needs of others.
Small Acts of Kindness is a simple book with a deep message. It challenges the reader to consider his or her own actions and beliefs, via the inner struggle of its author.
-Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky, Jewish Book World
This book is the journal from Lag B'Omer, 1999 to Shavuot, 2000, of Shalom Freedman, an Israeli writer and observant Jew, who made aliya from the US in 1974. The purpose of the journal is to record his everyday encounters in which he tries to live a life of derech eretz, in service to G-d. He attempts to treat others with consideration and kindness, especially the needy.
Freedman is very honest in his writing, often painfully so. However, as I read, I sometimes got bogged down in the details; even so, I felt the need to continue to the end of the paragraph. Freedman analyzes what he has done during the year, and at the end, in 2001, he tells us how the people in his book are doing, a very considerate service to his readers.
This book is tied to the ideas of mussar, about which very little is written in English. Freedman says his main audience is Israeli, although he writes in English because it is easier for him. This book has universal appeal, beyond the borders of Israel.
Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter
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)
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