It happens with the best intentions. A regular, normative family finds itself turning into the object of a “chessed project,” and they hardly know how it happened! The family’s dignity is compromised and their privacy intruded upon* The way to misguided chessed is paved with good intentions…
A class had a project to “collect acts of chessed.”
“What chessed did you do?” the teacher asked Brocha.
“I helped an old lady with heavy bags cross the street,” Brocha replied.
The teacher nodded and gave her a point.
“And you, what chessed did you do?” she asked Rachel.
“I helped an old lady with heavy bags cross the street,” answered Rachel.
The teacher murmured something, gave Rachel a point and called on Gila: “And you?”
“I helped an old lady with heavy bags cross a dangerous street,” Gila reported.
The teacher was about to mark a point for Gila, too, when she stopped short.
“I don’t understand,” she wondered. “So many old ladies with heavy bags crossed the street yesterday?”
“No,” the children laughed. ‘There was only one old lady. But she didn’t want to cross the street and it took all three of us to drag her across together…”
Sound familiar? The reason it is humorous is that it is an exaggerated form of what often happens in real life.
When a similar, but all too real incident took place, it wasn’t the least bit funny. Mali from Jerusalem told us about it: “I went to a wedding and left the baby in my husband’s devoted care. The baby, who was teething and running a fever, cried non-stop. My husband was busy with him all evening, trying to calm him in every possible way. Meanwhile, the “building committee” assembled. The neighbors heard the ceaseless crying and wanted to help. They called me on my mobile phone, but I couldn’t hear anything because of the racket from the band. They called the house, but my husband didn’t answer because he was busy taking care of the baby. They feared for the baby’s welfare and decided that they could not just stand by and do nothing. One neighbor volunteered to take action. She climbed out of her living room window and at great risk, slid down a rope to our back porch (yes, this really happened!) and entered my home. My shocked husband was stunned to see her suddenly appear in the room, suffused with a sense of mission. ‘I just wanted to help,’ was all she had to say.” This extreme case is repeated many times in more minor forms.
Dina lives in Beit Shemesh. Dina’s home functioned wonderfully. She deftly juggled home and work, and her relationship with her children was excellent. Things changed after the twins came along. They were born prematurely and required specialized and constant care. She knew she wasn’t giving her kids what she used to but ‘forgave herself’ knowing that it is temporary and did the best she could until the twins would mature a bit. She moved during that period to an apartment in a different neighborhood and the new neighbors did not know “the old Dina.” They heard a lot of crying coming from the house, the children’s clothing did not look too great, Dina always looked tired. In short, it appeared to them that something was not as it should be. “She is dysfunctional,” they concluded, shaking their heads knowingly. And so, a week after her move, Dina found herself opening the door to a surprise guest – a social worker.
“They really messed me up,” Dina claims. “They called the Social Services on my behalf and caused me unnecessary complications.”
Was there a better way?
Rivy Kosover, Deputy Director of Ezer Mizion’s Jerusalem branch is familiar with the phenomenon.
“We have learned from experience – and I’m talking about many years of experience – that you cannot send help based only on neighbors’ reports. There are neighbors, good souls, who want us to look after a family that, according to them, is suffering from a medical, financial, or functional problem. Many times, the family is coping alone and prefers to continue doing so. A person’s wishes should be respected. We won’t strike down this basic dignity. ‘The children are neglected,’ ‘There is nothing to eat,’ the neighbors claim. In fact, these are often exaggerations and the result of a subjective, often distorted, view. People are offended by help that is brought to their doorstep without their being asked, you can’t imagine how much. And isn’t maintaining dignity an integral part of chessed?
“But – if it appears to you that the situation the situation has gone beyond mere discomfort and is potentially life threatening, it is a good idea to call our attention to the matter. We will find a way to clarify what is really going on without compromising their dignity.”Chessed is an art.
Sara Tzimmer from Modi’in Ilit is a counselor for family therapy. In Sara’s opinion, excess chessed is not always showered only by people who sincerely want to help but misread the needs of the object of their attention. Sometimes, there are other factors in the picture, people whose chessed is motivated by snoopiness.
A family in crisis? A sister-in-law is coping with a medical problem. A friend having trouble finding a shidduch? We are convinced we know what is best for her better than she does. Interrogation, prying, wordlessly conveying the message: “I’ll help you – but first show me all your cards.”
“However, most people really do want to help for the right reasons but they don’t know where to draw the line.
How do you shake off the excess help? Ms. Tzimmer suggests a variation of the following.
‘I feel good knowing that you are with me. It gives me a sense of security. When we will need your actual help – we will feel free to come ask for it.’
And if we genuinely want to be there in a tough time, how can we do it right? – we asked Ms. Tzimmer.
“When you offer help, you always have to be very tuned in to the other person’s wants and needs, to listen and not jump in immediately with advice and instructions. After we have listened, really listened, we can inquire about helping. The inquiry must be done in the form of a question: How would you want us to help?
“If she claims that she doesn’t know, try offering a few ideas of assistance on your own, but always in the tone of a question, not dropping it in their lap uninvited.”
Excess, misguided help can also cause damage by fostering the family’s dependence on an organization or on an individual.
Rina Gantz, an active coordinator in an organization supporting special children and their families, learned this first hand. “The point is that sometimes, you are exposed to sad cases, get heated up about them, and are all gung-ho about helping. But you have to understand: You can’t carry these people in your arms their entire lives. So what did you accomplish? You help and you help and you help and you help, until one day, you crack and disappear. Basically, you created a dependency and then abandoned the family. The approach to chessed has to be different. The right kind of help,” Gantz explains, “empowers the recipient with his own strength. You cannot be strong instead of the person, because by doing so, you weaken him; you train him to believe that he cannot make it alone. True chessed empowers the person by conveying the message that he will be able to manage on his own.”
This principle that Gantz adopted in the way of chessed is true for every case.
Rina offers an example from her own experience: “Once when we went to the park, a cute, little girl latched on to my children, and since then, she started coming to our house a lot. It was strange. She would come to us for six, seven hours. I couldn’t understand where the parents were and why they weren’t looking for her. A little investigation revealed that this was a good family, in which the mother had lapsed into depression. When I heard, I felt terrible. At the start of the next season, I collected some money and brought it to the father of the family to buy nice clothing for the child. After thanking me profusely, he asked, ‘Maybe you could go buy it for her?’ I almost bit. What could be more satisfying to me? To browse through the stores with a poor, neglected child and dress her up according to my taste… But I stopped myself.
‘It would have been my pleasure,’ I told the father. ‘But I think that if her mother or her father goes shopping with her, she’ll feel good.’ I was sure it would contribute a great deal for the sweet, little girl to be able to say, ‘My Abba went with me and bought me…” I didn’t add aloud that it will do a lot for the parents, too. So I stopped there, because chessed means giving the person the strength to cope on his own.”
Here is another area where it is important to know where to stop: “When there is a special child in the home, some families practically fall apart at the outset after diagnosis. There was one little boy who was not home for Shabbos for almost half a year. Don’t think it was easy for us to arrange it. Once, there was a retreat, once a host family, another time, a volunteer. Ordinarily, we can and want to take a child away for Shabbos once a month, not more, as a much needed break. After half a year, I turned to the parents and said. ‘I know that you are going through a difficult time, and that is why I made the effort to provide you with extraordinary assistance at the beginning. But now is the time to research other means of handling the situation.’ I said these words with a lot of forethought and caring, not from meanness. Why? Because we will not be able to set up a place for the child every Shabbos, forever. One day, the family will be left with their tongue hanging out and won’t know what to do with themselves. Our exaggerated help distances them from a good solution. True chessed would be to teach them coping strategies and to educate them so that they will feel confident in making their own decisions.
“There are chessed-doers who are “mechalkel chaim,” who sustain life, and there are those who are “mekalkel chaim,” who destroy life.
Tips for doing chessed right from Rivi Kosover, Assistant Director, Ezer Mizion’s Jerusalem branch
- Maintain the recipient’s dignity. Don’t be patronizing.
- When you are on the helping side, always remember that we are all in the same boat. Anyone can run into a difficult period and the roles can instantly switch, chalilah. When you are helping, remember that you are not superior to the object of your assistance. This is just a fleeting, temporary situation.
- In order to help in the optimum way, try to step into the recipient’s shoes. Try to feel his pain. The quality of your help will change drastically.
- Don’t intrude! You have no license to enter or even peek into a room that was not opened for you, neither a physical room, nor a chamber of the heart.
- Do not dictate what to do! You are offering help, period. That’s it.
- Remember that everything is divinely orchestrated. When you keep this in mind, your help will be different. You relate to the object of your attentions differently. The proper, believing approach is: ‘Today Hashem gave me the abilities and I am utilizing them to help.’
- There are some situations where only professionals should step in. Do not try to deal with these cases or pry into them if you are not professionally trained.
- Gossip is off limits!
- Help as the recipient wishes you to help. Do not force your own opinions upon him.
For further info: www.ezermizion.org