By Sheri Mellema | Church Partnership Director
Recently I was reading an article that introduced me to the words gemilut chasidim. I have no idea how to pronounce these words and if you are like me, you are thinking that they look like a character’s name from the “Lord of the Rings” series. Hazarding a guess as to whether this character is good or evil, I think I would lean toward the dark side. Gemilut just sounds like a bad guy!
In actuality these two words have quite a wonderful meaning and stem from an embedded Jewish tradition. They mean, “the bestowal of loving kindness” or “acts of compassion” according to the Jewish dictionary. The term was already in use by New Testament times, but the concept was drawn from the Israelites’ understanding of verses like Deut. 10:17-18: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing”.
These words settled deep into Jewish belief and practice. In fact, this approach to good deeds finds its roots in Jewish religious views, summarized by Shimon Hatzaddik's “three pillars”: “On three things the world stands. On Torah, On service [of God], And on acts of human kindness” (excerpt from Pirkei Avot 1). Being Jewish meant taking this responsibility seriously and yet it was also considered a privilege. Dennis Bratcher who writes for the Christian Resource Institute states (and Jews firmly believed that), “The needy have a God-given right to aid and the giver has an obligation to God to help. So acts of compassion were not a burden for the Jew. They were simply part of being God’s people in God’s world and therefore should be done with joy.”
Bratcher goes on to emphasize that, “The attitude behind charity for the needy was that all possessions, lands, and goods ultimately belonged to God.” I wonder during the course of each day how many times I forget that truth? My stuff has never ever really been my stuff! Every resource I have is actually on loan from a gracious God whose heart aches for those in this world who do not have adequate resources, care, and a sense of inclusion. I have a wise friend who has mentioned that money can serve as an insulator and an analgesic, in that wealth often removes the vulnerability that is necessary to reveal our utter dependence on God and it can numb us from the realities of suffering.
Certainly money is not the only culprit when it comes to numbing ourselves to the needs around us. Work, entertainment, busy schedules, social media, and numerous other possibilities are also effective distractions. So what was it that captivated the hearts of the early Jewish people as they lived out acts of compassion? In our defense, they didn’t have the overwhelming distractions that we face in our day and age. Nonetheless, they stayed the course and remained devoted to the marginalized people within their society. They were faithful throughout many generations.
If we fast forward to the thirteenth century through the eighteenth century in Eastern Europe we find the concept of gemilut chasidim still alive and well. Five million Jews were relegated to a sequestered area called the Pale of Settlement and yet they were determined to persevere and care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. The Pale of Settlement was home to this Yiddish speaking group of people who lived in villages called shtetls. In spite of the fact that poverty and death were pervasive, the practice of bestowing human kindness did not wane. Historian Simon Schama wrote and narrated a documentary called “The Story of the Jews” and he notes that, “Everything the villagers of the shtetls did, they did together. They worked together, they sang together, they ate together, they lived together, they died together. The word ‘individualism’ I think, doesn’t have a translation in Yiddish. They were never individuals, they were a kahal, they were a community.”
Perhaps this sense of community is where some of the secret hides. When engaging the orphan crisis, we are faced with tragedy and pain and at times it can seem too heavy a burden. The numbers are staggering and the resources few. But when reflecting back on the words of Deut. 10, we can see that God didn’t share his heart for the least of these with just one or two Israelites. No, he asked that this care and concern be shared by the entire nation of Israel. Even after years and years had passed, the Jews shared both the burden and blessing amongst the entire community. It is evident that the early Jesus followers and what we often call the first church also adhered to the same practices. Acts 4:32 reads, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
Again we can see that God did not place this calling on only a few specific people. We are all asked as the body of Christ to become engaged. It should be a natural part of our lives when we grow towards becoming “God’s people, in God’s world.” God’s intent for the body of Christ as the church is best positioned to meet these needs. That is why World Orphans is so convinced that caring for orphans through the local church is an effective strategy. We need to be in this together, as a community whose focus and determination does not waver. And please be encouraged that the church is stepping up to the plate more and more each day. The Barna Group recently did a research project that shows that churches are becoming more passionate about the orphan crisis. In fact, Christians are adopting twice as often as the average person and it is Christians who are more likely to take action within the foster care system and in aiding vulnerable children all over the world. This is very encouraging!
I think that there is something innately satisfying about communal effort. God created us to need each other and to enjoy the relief of carrying our burdens together. Acts of compassion have the most profound impact when all of us are committed to the struggle. Jedd Medefind, the president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, puts it best when he says, “Loving a wounded soul to wholeness is a journey no one family should walk alone. The encouragement and aid of a supportive church community is essential. Care for orphans is a mirror of God’s heart. When a church embraces orphans, we’re offering the world a small yet potent reflection of how God first loved us. The challenges and joys of loving this child bind us to each other, build community and deepen faith.”
Now come the hard questions we must discuss: How are we participating within our communities of believers to address orphan care? Do you see local churches in your area moving toward a direction of action? Specifically, how is your church engaged?
1- Pirkei Avot is usually translated as "Ethics of our Fathers.” It is a compilation of the Torah's ethical teachings and maxims as interpreted by the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period. It is included in the Mishnah.