The Chesed Secret

The Chesed Secret

I know a woman who runs a free lending library.
This sounds like it would be a lot of work, right? Actually, not at all.
This woman has a little notebook with a pen and a key hanging outside her front door. People who want to borrow books just take the key, open the cabinet with the books, which is located by the elevator, and then write down which books they have borrowed or returned in the notebook.
Aside from putting the books in the cabinet, this woman provides hours of entertainment and inspiration for her grateful neighbors, while requiring nothing of her whatsoever.
She explained to me, “The secret to doing chesed is keeping it easy.”

Rabbi Nivin recently mentioned a related idea. Never, he advised, choose to do anything that pushes you more than 20% beyond your comfort zone.
To clarify, there are some things we have to do that are truly difficult, and stretch us uncomfortably way past our comfort level. For example, getting an urgent root canal, cleaning up after a child who has thrown up, or getting the house ready for Pesach.

But there are many optional things in life that we choose to do. And that’s when the 20% rule is helpful.

To give you an example about how I’ve used this rule. Recently, a friend of my husband’s was making a bris for his newborn son in a different neighborhood. Actually attending the bris would have taken up my whole morning. Pushing me, let’s say, 60% out of my comfort zone.

So, when I was out shopping anyway, I bought two adorable matching Shabbat vests for the baby and his 2-year-old brother. And I wrote a nice card to make the mother smile. And I sent them to the bris with my husband. This was a 10% stretch out of my comfort zone, no biggie.

And with doing chesed, the same rule applies.

For example, I decided I want to send Chanukah presents to Gafna and her daughters, whose husband/father passed away 2 weeks ago in the Czech Republic.

I had a grand vision of the package I wanted to send.

A colorful menorah from that store in that distant neighborhood, Chanukah books from another store in the other direction, and hand-dipped candles from the market, on the other side of the city altogether.
But then I realized this plan is way too complicated. It would push me 60% beyond my comfort zone AND probably would take me a few days to get to the stores SO the package wouldn’t even reach them in time for Chanukah.

AND (as usually happens when I dream up elaborate chesed ideas) in the end I probably would just decide it was too much work, and wouldn’t do anything at all. Except feel guilty and inadequate.

So I did a 20% version of this gift package instead. I spent ten minutes picking up dreidls, chocolate coins, and a pretty journal for Gafna at some stores right nearby my home.

The secret to doing Chesed EVERYTHING is keeping it simple.


  1. This really resonates with me and I will keep this rule in mind. Thanks!!!!!

  2. Great article! I’m going to use the 20 % rule when it come to handling social anxiety.

  3. Nice, I like it! Although some people don’t. When I was listening to Dina Friedman once about self care, an older woman piped in – what’s with you people telling everyone to take it easy?! My generation pushes and works hard!! But my children, who are grown up are always saying no to everything, thinking about only themselves all the time!!

    • hmmm interesting

      I heard dina friedman say that we shouldn’t be pushing out of our comfort zone at all–that life as a mother is stressful enough without taking on extra challenges for ourselves.
      rabbi nivin says these 10-20% stretches are what push us to grow. I don’t think dina disagrees with that, just that those stretches happen naturally without us pushing ourselves

    • I’m not sure if it is really a contradiction. I was raised by this hard-working post-war generation (ie my grandparents). Now as a adult I’ve realised that their hard-working being-happy-with-little attitude is not because they intentionally pushed themselves but because they had to work hard to make it, that was just their reality. If anything, they learned to focus on the essential because truly they could not care about what was not essential. There was simply no time or money for that. Our challenge in our easier times is different. I think this 20% rule is directed at us specifically because we have the luxury of caring about things that don’t matter if we choose to do that. There is so much more today to distract us than there used to be.

  4. thks chana a very useful article i love it but i have a question: how do you keep it simple when you have guests for shabat? i personnally feel overwhelmed by the shopping and preparation and especially by the meal in itself (attending to the guests and the kids at the same time)

  5. i love this rule of thumb. such good insights into how we find the right balance in life.

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