04/03/2013 11:07 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2013

My Kiddush Cup and Deeds of Lovingkindness to the Earth

This year, as in previous years at my Passover Seders, I raised my silver goblet, my Kiddush cup with my name engraved on it, for the traditional four cups of wine, and I remembered how I got it. It was a Bar Mitzvah present from a group of old ladies. When I looked at the goblet and the card that came with it, I learned that it came from the "Malbishis Arurum Society." I laughed at the funny name and was told that it was a group of my Bubbie Troster's friends.

I did not think much of this group until I got to rabbinical school and learned that "Malbishis Arurum" was the Yiddish form of the Hebrew Malbish Arumim, "clothing the naked," and that this group of old ladies many years before (in the 1930s during the Depression) had been formed as a social welfare group that collected and provided clothes and shoes for Jewish orphans in Toronto. By the time of my Bar Mitzvah in 1966, they were no longer needed because of the general social welfare laws but continued to exist as a group of old friends, marking each other's celebrations like the Bar Mitzvah of a grandson.

I also eventually learned that Malbish Arumim is the one of the classic rabbinic ethical actions of what was called Gimilut Hasadim, "deeds of lovingkindness." Here is one of the Talmudic sources for this critical Jewish value:

Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina further said: What means the text: You shall walk after the Lord your God? (Deuteronomy 13:5) Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah [God's Presence]; for has it not been said: For the Lord Your God is a devouring fire? (Deuteronomy 4:24) But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy Blessed. As God clothes the naked, for it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them, (Genesis 3:21) so should you also clothe the naked. The Holy Blessed One, visited the sick, for it is written: And the Lord appeared unto him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, (Genesis 18:1) so should you also visit the sick. The Holy Blessed One, comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son, (Genesis 25:11) so should you also comfort mourners. The Holy Blessed One, buried the dead, for it is written: And He [God] buried him [Moses] in the valley, (Deuteronomy 34:6) so should you also bury the dead. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a)

These are the four classic ethical actions of Gemilut Hasadim: clothing the naked (malbish arumim), which God did when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden; visiting the sick (bikkur holim), which occurred when God appeared to Abraham immediately following his circumcision and the tradition interpreted this appearance as being during the time that Abraham was recovering; comforting the mourner (nihum aveilim), which is interpreted from God's appearance to Isaac right after Abraham's death; and burying the dead (kevor meitim) because God is depicted as burying Moses.

Gemilut Hasadimwas often concretely expressed in Jewish communities from the Middle Ages to the modern era with various social welfare groups that fulfilled each of these actions as well as others that were also considered aspects of lovingkindness.

It is obvious that Gemilut Hasadim is concerned with ethical action between human beings but could there not also be deeds of lovingkindness to the earth from which we all have come, which provides us with all we need and to which we all will go? I find such an ideal in Psalm 104:13-14:

God waters the mountains from God's lofts; from the fruit of Your works the earth is sated. God makes the hay sprout for cattle, and grass for the labor of humankind to forth bread from the earth.

Just as God takes care of the earth for all God's creatures (and Psalm 104 is all about how God cares for both human and non-human life) so must we show lovingkindness for the earth. If we are to follow the divine attributes one of the main characteristics of God in classic Jewish sources is that of ongoing care for all of Creation.

My teacher in Jewish ethics, the late Rabbi Seymour Siegel, once said that we must imitate God but not impersonate God. The first is piety, the second is idolatry. We have made great idols of our ability to harness the resources of the earth, damming rivers, moving mountains and creating great structures that reach to the sky. We have done all this in a spirit of conquest and control. While we have gained great benefits from our labor, it is time to now think of how to treat the earth with kindness as we have maimed it to the point where it will soon no longer be able to absorb all the alterations that our power has imposed on it. We need to include all of Creation: the animals, plants, rivers, oceans, mountains and air in our deeds of lovingkindness.

That is what I will also think of when I next raise my Kiddush cup at my Seder.