I am a male student in one of the local Jewish high schools, and “Oy vey! Have I got a problem” is an apt launcher for my dilemma. A new chesed (kindness) program was recently initiated as part of our curriculum, and it was at that point that my stomach started performing acrobatic stunts.
One afternoon, all students were called in for an assembly, and our principal and a teacher described their vision of an “Adopt a Grandparent” program. They informed us that we’d be visiting nursing homes bi-monthly throughout Atlanta to cheer up the residents. And listen to this: the program is mandatory, even though it’s not taking place during school hours! We high schoolers are required to be involved in this “special opportunity” of giving back to our elders.
The problem is, I can’t do it. Going to these types of facilities makes me physically ill. When I see people yelling nonsense or drooling or wandering the halls with an aimless look in their eyes, I can’t handle it. Admitting this makes me feel really bad about myself. I know it’s a great mitzvah to cheer up these people, and I hope to get old myself one day. Plus, if the other guys can do it, why can’t I?
Kudos to you for being courageous and recognizing your issue! Many kids and adults, too, would probably just bite the bullet and join the herd while allowing themselves to suffer privately.
My dear boy, every single one of us is born with unique abilities, strengths, talents and deficits. And yet, there are many jobs in life that we all must do, regardless of whether they come to us easily or with difficulty. We must go through the school system, so tortuous for many, get a job, do household chores, and be law abiding citizens. For the Orthodox, adhering to the Torah’s commandments is non-negotiable, regardless of the struggles involved. Whether it’s Passover preparations or fasting for 25 hours, observant Jewry around the world willingly comply with every nuance of these intricate laws. In fact, we learn that our reward is commensurate with the exertion we expend.
Helping others, however, is one of those gray areas that is not clearly defined. “And you shall love your friend like yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is clearly stated – without clear parameters. And that is precisely because not every chesed is designed for everyone to accomplish. Twelve tribes formed our nation, and each one traversed a different path. And even though each path was different, it led the members of that particular tribe to fulfill its national and individual destiny.
Some people are naturally inclined to visit the sick and the elderly, and this mitzvah gives them great inner satisfaction. Others may want to help the homeless, assist struggling students or harried mothers, run marathons for charity. Why, the opportunities for giving are endless and multi-faceted.
Why not approach the faculty member in charge of this new chesed initiative and be straight with your feelings? A competent, effective educator would want to know if you don’t feel inclined or well-suited for this particular mitzvah. Next, this teacher may ask what type of volunteer work you enjoy doing. If you’re not sure, perhaps that’s an area of your personality that you’ve never fully explored. Then the two of you can navigate the journey together.
For the next step, I envision the educator setting you up with your own volunteer initiative and allowing you to accrue your mandatory hours through the venue that you agree upon together. Then, presto – dilemma solved!
Being uncomfortable in a certain milieu does not undermine you as a mentsch in any way. On the contrary, your honesty and willingness to address the issue indicates a sophisticated level of self-awareness and an inherent desire to give in a way that best uses your individual strengths and assets.
I would love to know which chesed avenue you select, and eagerly anticipate hearing how you’re flying high from being involved in a richly rewarding and giving endeavor.
Wishing you the best of success, Rachel Stein