The world is a vale of tears, no doubt about it. At the drop of a simple "how are you" anyone can open their big book of loss, disappointment and pain. It's true for all of us, though surely more for some than others. Black threads are woven into the very fabric of every life.
No wonder, then, that the Jewish tradition elevates deeds of loving kindness (chesed) to the highest possible ranking among soul-traits. Only some problems have solutions, but all are alleviated by the loving response of those around us.
In Pirkei Avot (2:1) we learn that: "The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the service of God, and upon acts of loving kindness." The fact that chesed is one of the three pillars on which the world stands underlines how very important this soul-trait must be.
Chesed is a primary attribute of God. In fact, of the whopping 245 times this word appears in the Torah (telling you something right there), about two-thirds of these instances speak of God's character and actions. God is the Master of chesed, because, as the Psalm states, "The world is built on chesed"(89:3). For God to have created the world at all was nothing short of an act of chesed!
He has told you, O man, what is good! What does your God ask of you, that you do justice, love loving kindness, and walk humbly with your God. - Micah 6:8
God is also constantly engaged in sustaining all of Creation through acts of chesed. So where is the chesed in the suffering and tears that plague our lives? Even though it may be hard to see, there is great love extended to us at every moment. We are weak, and we all stumble and fall. We transgress against others, against ourselves and against God. And yet we are not snuffed out like a feeble candle, as well we might be. We persist in breathing, our hearts go on beating and we find the strength to rise again because God sustains us. That's God's chesed.
We can learn from God's chesed that what we call loving kindness involves acts that sustain the other. In the Mussar view, there is little value in fostering unconditional good will in your heart and wishing someone well. You have to tap those feelings to reach out your hand with real sustenance to another, by way of money, time, love, empathy, service, an open ear, manual assistance, a letter written, a call made, and on and on. People can and do draw sustenance from many sources.
Yet not all acts that sustain constitute chesed. We do some things out of obligation -- paying taxes sustains programs that sustain people, but it would be a big stretch to call paying taxes an act of chesed. Or we might be repaying goodness done to us, or offering sustenance with a plan of getting something in return. Those motives don't reflect chesed either.
Here the notion of kindness comes back into the picture. Chesed is sustaining action all right, but it has to come out of kindness and compassion, no other motive. That means that acts qualify as chesed only when they are motivated by a spirit of generosity. You are not obligated to do it, you aren't repaying an act done for you, you don't hope to get anything in return -- you are generously reaching beyond those limited acts to give of yourself in a spirit of honest and selfless generosity.
With these considerations in mind, I'd now translate chesed as generous sustaining benevolence. That's more clumsy than the already clumsy "loving kindness," but it conveys so much more than just being nice and wishing well!
Giving in the way of chesed requires that we go beyond the boundaries that are familiar and comfortable to us. We have to stretch into chesed or it isn't chesed. That makes it sensible why the Jewish tradition accords service done to the dead as chesed shel emet, true chesed. Only with a dead body can we have absolutely no hope or chance of a payback for our generosity.
I can already hear somebody saying, yes, but what of the inner feeling people get when they know they are doing something good? Isn't that a "reward" of sorts? There is a joy that comes from doing a mitzvah. Unless you do the act specifically to get that feeling, being joyful in chesed does not invalidate the fact that in giving you had to stretch yourself beyond the boundaries of the usual and the comfortable to offer benevolent sustenance to another, which is how you enter the territory of chesed.
Mussar points out that some people are moved to acts of chesed whenever they meet up with someone in need of their help. Others, however, don't wait for the opportunity to come to them, but rather search out any chance to act generously in ways that sustain others. This is what the Sages meant when they wrote that the way of those who do chesed is to run after the poor (Shabbat 104a).
The demand is to not only do acts of kindness, but to love doing them.
Another way to understand this distinction is to recognize that there are deeds of chesed, and then there are souls that are totally infused with the spirit of chesed. That's the profound quality pointed to in the quote from Micah: "do justice, love loving kindness, and walk humbly with your God." We are not told that we fulfill our spiritual destiny by doing acts of loving kindness but rather by loving those acts. Of course if we love them, we will engage ourselves in doing them, so the doing is still covered, but really only as a spin-off. Our focus is not on the doing but on the quality of the heart that lives within us. Love loving kindness! What a profound demand!
The words of tradition unremittingly remind us that life is not to be lived every man for himself. Hillel puts it, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" (Pirkei Avot 1:14). It is central to our spiritual job description to stretch ourselves to sustain each other, and the most important dimension of that behavior is bearing in your heart love for the very act of caring for the other. Done for any other motive and the act is not chesed and it does not sustain the world, which is the outer mandate of chesed, nor does it move us closer to realizing the very purpose of our souls, which is its inner mandate. But when we get it right, our perfected chesed makes us pious and righteous people (hence the linguistic relationship between chesed and Chasidim).
Focus inwardly and then ask of your heart: enter joyfully into the love of generously sustaining the other. Then put that spirit into action. The heart and the world are called to connection, linked by flowing loving kindness. Succeed there and your world will be totally transformed, within and without.
© Alan Morinis