In a mind-boggling statistic, Orthodox Jews represent 0.2% of the US population and yet make up almost 20% of altruistic kidney donors. This past Shabbos, our community hosted an incredible partnership weekend with Renewal that included a panel discussion with members of our community who have donated their kidneys and one member whose life was saved by receiving a kidney. At the energized concert with Eitan Katz on Motzei Shabbos, one of our members met his donors parents for the first time. The parents used the public setting to express endless gratitude for his having saved their daughter’s life.
Listening to the donors describe what giving a kidney meant to them and speaking with our member who had now connected with the family of the girl who carries a piece of him in her, it became clear that while the kidney donors heroically answered the call to give, they had received even more than they gave.
When Rus courageously and selflessly follows her mother-in-law Naomi, they are destitute and impoverished. Rus finds a generous benefactor who invites her to glean from his field and brings the food back to Naomi to share with her. Naomi inquires about the identity of the benefactor and Rus offers a peculiar answer:
וַתֹּ֩אמֶר֩ לָ֨הּ חֲמוֹתָ֜הּ אֵיפֹ֨ה לִקַּ֤טְתְּ הַיּוֹם֙ וְאָ֣נָה עָשִׂ֔ית יְהִ֥י מַכִּירֵ֖ךְ בָּר֑וּךְ וַתַּגֵּ֣ד לַחֲמוֹתָ֗הּ אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־עָֽשְׂתָה֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר שֵׁ֤ם הָאִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשִׂ֧יתִי עִמּ֛וֹ הַיּ֖וֹם בֹּֽעַז׃
Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be he who took such generous notice of you!” So she told her mother-in-law whom she had worked with, saying, “The name of the man that I gave to today is Boaz.”
Shouldn’t it say the man who did something for me, who gave to me, not the man I did something for, gave to? After all, Boaz was the donor and Rus the recipient of his generosity, why did she formulate it in the reverse?
The Midrash explains:
תָּנֵי בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, יוֹתֵר מִמַּה שֶּׁבַּעַל הַבַּיִת עוֹשֶׂה עִם הֶעָנִי, הֶעָנִי עוֹשֶׂה עִם בַּעַל הַבַּיִת, שֶׁכֵּן אָמְרָה רוּת לְנָעֳמִי שֵׁם הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי עִמּוֹ הַיּוֹם, וְלֹא אָמְרָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה עִמִּי, אֶלָּא אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי עִמּוֹ, הַרְבֵּה פְּעוּלוֹת וְהַרְבֵּה טוֹבוֹת עָשִׂיתִי עִמּוֹ בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁהֶאֱכִילַנִי פְּרוּסָה אַחַת.
The poor person does more for the rich person than the rich person does for the poor person. We derive this from Rus’s statement to Naomi, “the name of the man with whom I dealt today [is Boaz].” Rus did not say “the name of the man who did something for me, but rather, “I did for him”, [as if to say] “I did so much for him, did so much good for him, all for a single piece of bread” (Rus Rabbah 5:9).
We often mistakenly think that the person in position to give resources or time or energy is the blessed donor, generous, selfless in sharing what they have with those less fortunate or blessed. And we often assume the recipient is the nebuch, the one in need, dependent, and taking from others. The Torah tells us to reject those assumptions. The person in a position to share gains more than they give when they turn outward and care about others, when they find purpose for their possessions and meaning, and a mission for their talents. The recipient may need a particular kindness, but by graciously agreeing to receive and to accept help, they empower, enrich, and enable the other become who they are supposed to be and live the life they are meant to live.
Rus introduced us to a new perspective on chesed, demonstrating that it isn’t one directional, there isn’t a clearly defined generous donor, a giver on one side, and a nebuch recipient, a taker on the other. Rather, chesed goes in two directions, each one gives and each one receives, together they gain when they graciously coordinate to provide what the other is lacking: one tangible and the other something even more valuable.
The Rama quotes the Avudraham who tells us that we have the custom to read the Megillah of Rus on Shavuos. The Midrash notes that there are no new laws in the Megillah but we learn from it the reward for genuine chesed, the foundation upon which the whole world rests and the prerequisite to the Torah.
On Nov. 6, 2019, Matt and Andrea Campell noticed that their one-year-old son Brooks’ eyes and skin looked yellow, a sign of jaundice. The next day they took him to their pediatrician, which led to a trip to the emergency room at nearby Akron Children’s Hospital. A day later, Brooks was being transported by ambulance to Cleveland Clinic Children’s, where he was diagnosed with acute liver failure.
Dr. Koji Hashimoto, the Cleveland Clinic director of living donor transplantation, made it clear to the Campbells that they had a few days to find little Brooks a match. Matt was hoping to be the donor, but after six hours of testing, doctors determined he had a blood clotting disorder that disqualified him. The rest of his family was also ruled out because they had the same disorder.
Andrea was 15 weeks pregnant at the time, so she also could not be a donor. Her brother Grant had flown in and was in the room when they found out nobody so far had been a match or was eligible to donate their liver. Grant volunteered on the spot. By the next day, he was cleared and Brooks was being prepped for surgery. Less than a week after the diagnosis was discovered, Grant underwent a six-hour surgery and Brooks underwent a 13-hour transplant surgery, led by Hashimoto, that was successful.
Brooks is now a rambunctious 4-year-old whose liver is continually monitored by doctors. He is also now a big brother to James, who was in the womb when Brooks was fighting for his life. At first glance, this is a marvelous and heartwarming story of a generous donor and grateful recipient, an uncle and nephew with matching scars and a special bond.
However, upon closer examination, it is much less clear who is the donor and who is the recipient. Grant did the most selfless thing for his nephew when he underwent surgery and gave a piece of his liver to save his nephew’s life. But here is the most amazing part of the story. When he had first heard of the dire circumstances and immediately came to be with his sister and her family, he was in the midst of a very turbulent time in his life. He had recently moved away from his family to Texas, ended a relationship, and had a new business fail, all of which had led to severe depression.
He had gone into isolation and the very day he learned about his nephew’s health crisis, he had been thinking about taking his own life. However, when his nephew needed him, he found his purpose, his will to live, because he had done something selfless for someone. He saved a life and that gave him his life back. Grant’s selfless act helped him as much as his nephew.
If you look at the story on the surface, Grant is the hero, the donor who saved his nephew. But if you look a little closer you will see that Grant was the recipient; his nephew had saved his life.
On Sunday morning, across the community, Renewal set up swabbing stations to help find more kidney donor matches and save more lives. A woman in the community I have long admired for her generous and giving spirit shared with me that she was moved by the Shabbos presentations and had gotten swabbed. She commented to me, “I just know I am not going to get called, I never win anything and I am never chosen for things like this.” I was stunned that here she was the prospective “donor” and yet she was thinking of the opportunity to give as “winning” the lottery or raffle, hitting the jackpot.
The story is told of a Holocaust survivor in Crown Heights named Yankel. He related: “You know why it is that I’m alive today? I was a kid, just a teenager at the time. We were on the train, in a boxcar, being taken to Auschwitz. Night came and it was freezing, deathly cold, in that boxcar. The Germans would leave the cars on the side of the tracks overnight, sometimes for days on end without any food, and of course, no blankets to keep us warm.
“Sitting next to me was an older Jew – this beloved elderly Jew – from my hometown I recognized, but I had never seen him like this. He was shivering from head to toe and looked terrible. So I wrapped my arms around him and began rubbing him, to warm him up. I rubbed his arms, his legs, his face, his neck. I begged him to hang on. All night long I kept the man warm this way. I was tired, I was freezing cold myself, my fingers were numb, but I didn’t stop rubbing the heat on to this man’s body. Hours and hours went by this way.
Finally, night passed, morning came, and the sun began to shine. There was some warmth in the cabin, and then I looked around the car to see some of the other Jews in the car. To my horror, all I could see were frozen bodies, and all I could hear was a deathly silence. Nobody else in that cabin made it through the night, they died from the frost.
Only two people survived: the old man and me. The old man survived because somebody kept him warm. I survived because I was warming somebody else.
There are no shortage of opportunities to warm others from inviting and hosting, cooking meals, checking in on others, contributing to causes and volunteering time. When you give of yourself or your resources you will realize that when you warm others you are warming yourself and that while you think you are the donor, you may just be the recipient who has won the lottery.