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May 26, 2019 6:48 am

Confessions of a Synagogue Candyman

avatar by Paul Socken

Opinion

Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Every synagogue has at least one “candyman.” He happily dispenses candies and treats to the children. In our synagogue, there was a gentleman who devoted his largesse to adults. When he passed away, I continued the tradition and started to offer treats to adults. They got the candies, but I was the one who gained an insight.

It was amazing to me to witness how a little candy would always prompt a big smile and a warm thank you. Faces would light up. Such a small gift would spark a comment, a remark, a connection. It is not an exaggeration to say that the offerings gave rise to relationships with people I hadn’t really known, and occasioned jokes or conversations that were enriching: a web of friendship that was part of the synagogue experience.

If a candy can stimulate that kind of response, what can one say about great acts of thoughtfulness, such as hospital visits to sick acquaintances, a visit to a lonely widow or widower, or other random acts of kindness?

A story is told of the renowned Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who received a letter from a man who was suffering from depression. He wrote that he was struggling, that his life was oppressive, and that he was desperate.

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The Rebbe noted that every sentence of the letter began with the word “I.” He circled the word “I” in every sentence and sent the letter back to the sender with no comment.

While there is no simple cure for depression, the Rebbe was highlighting for the man that a life that is focused outward, toward the good of others, may have given him the purpose and direction that he was lacking. He was trying to give him hope and a role in the world.

In the Jewish tradition, acts of kindness are considered superior even to charity in three respects: Charity can be performed only with one’s money, while acts of kindness can be performed both with one’s person and one’s money; charity is given to the poor, while acts of kindness are performed both for the poor and the rich; and charity is given to the living, while acts of kindness are performed both for the living and the dead.

Although promoting acts of kindness is profoundly Jewish, it is also universal. Gandhi wrote that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Buddha said, “When words are both true and kind, they can change the world.”

So we go from the gift of a single candy, and its effects in creating a network of friendship, to more expansive acts of loving kindness that help others, change us, and have the potential to change the world.

In a world that has always seen too much suffering and pain, in part because of a lack of caring, empathy, and selfless generosity, a “candyman” comes to realize that it doesn’t take extraordinary, or even heroic acts, to make things better. The words of Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, resonate today: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

No one person changes the world, but every person must assume his or her responsibility. One candy at a time.

Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.

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