A SMALL ACT OF KINDNESS

January 21st, 2021

Have you ever heard of Riceman? Probably not. He’s a YouTuber who will turn 28-years-old this Saturday. Born in Shanghai, China, his real name is actually Victor Li. Truthfully, though, his personal information has no bearing on what he is best known for.

Riceman is a self-declared ‘social-experiment videographer’, which is just another way of saying that he is an inveterate prankster who posts videos of his pranks to entertain his 1.7 million YouTube subscribers, so that they can see how his subjects react to pranks such as chair-pulling, changing the gender signs on public toilets, never-ending shampoo (don’t ask!), and pretending to cut their hair.

All of it appears to be nothing more than an excuse for unscripted Benny Hill Show type slapstick humor, and Riceman spends most of the time running away from his infuriated victims, or chortling to himself as they get evermore nonplussed by the situations they find themselves in.

Occasionally, however, Riceman stumbles onto a side of human nature that even he, in his rather childish clickbait reality-TV filming, never expected to confront. In one of his so-called ‘social experiments’, he decided to inform random strangers that he was looking for his brother who had been missing for two months, and hand them a flyer with a photo of his ‘missing’ brother in an attempt to enlist their help.

One of the people he approached was a homeless man standing on the corner of a busy street who was holding up a sign that said: “U.S. Vet in need, please help.” Riceman gave the man a bit of loose change, and then told him that his brother was missing and to let him know if he saw him. He gave him the flyer with the photo and a phone number to call if he spotted his brother.

As soon as Riceman walked away, instead of holding up his own sign soliciting money to the passing cars, the homeless man held up Riceman’s flyer. Despite his own desperate circumstances, and despite the fact that he didn’t know Riceman or his ‘brother’, the man decided to stop seeking money for himself so that he could help find the missing man.

The video shows Riceman returning to the homeless guy to explain that it was all an experiment/prank, and to ask him why he had decided to hold up the missing person sign rather than his own sign asking for help. The man looked at Riceman with utmost surprise: “What kind of a person would I be if I didn’t help someone else?”

Riceman immediately gave him some more cash and they hugged. It’s an unbelievable moment, a demonstration of human nature at its best. And since being uploaded in 2015, the video has been viewed almost 3 million times, hopefully inspiring viewers to rise above the selfish needs of their own lives, however pressing they may be, in order to help others in need.

One of the most famous of all the many questions arising out of Parshat Bo is rooted in the following verse (Ex. 11:2): דַבֶּר נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וְיִשְאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ כְלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב – “Please speak to the nation and each man should ask from his neighbor and woman from her neighbor silver vessels and gold vessels.”

Almost all the commentaries understand this as God’s instruction for the Israelites to obtain valuables from their Egyptian neighbors to take with them when they left Egypt, as God had promised Abraham that they would emerge from servitude with great wealth.

The problem is that it seems odd to use the Hebrew word rey’eyhu – “neighbor” – with reference to the Egyptian oppressors, and the word na – “please” – also seems quite out of place in this context.

Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), breaks ranks with the other commentaries to offer a remarkable explanation of his own – so contemporary in its understanding of human nature that it might have been written yesterday.

The word rey’eyhu is not referring to the Egyptians, he says, but to fellow Israelites. Each person was told to go to his or her neighbor and to ask them if they could please borrow some valuable item. At this crucial moment before Divine redemption, every Jew had to be engaged in performing an act of kindness – small but meaningful – lending a precious possession to his or her fellow Jew.

The oppressive slavery had happened as a result of the bitter fight between Joseph and his brothers. By sharing with each other – and by caring for each other, even in the midst of their own misfortune – the Israelites became brothers and sisters in exile so that they would become brothers and sisters in redemption.

The physical freedom from Egypt would happen no matter what, but the release from a captivity of the spirit, from the type of mean-spiritedness that means we can never be free, was in their hands. The small act of kindness that every Jew performed for their neighbor undid the animosity that had existed between Joseph and his brothers – and in that merit their redemption could be complete.

We often think that we need to run around showing kindness to others outside of our own community just so that we can show how wonderful we are, but in the meantime we are fighting with and hateful toward each other. This mind-blowing lesson from the Vilna Gaon teaches us that borrowing valuables from each other was the transformative moment not just for us as a people, but also in the eyes of the Egyptians. Seeing our acts of kindness to each other convinced them that we were not slaves, but an exceptional people, whose acts of benevolence transcended petty differences and disagreements.

It is undoubtedly important to feed the homeless or to send an earthquake relief team to some overseas disaster zone, but if we want to truly convince ourselves and others that we are the Chosen People – what we need to do is show love for each other. When they see the incredible care and devotion we have for each other that will be the catalyst for kindness well beyond our Jewish communities, creating a tidal wave of chessed that will in turn release God’s kindness on all of us.

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