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Kabbala #10:  Chesed - The World is Built on Kindness

Kabbala #10: Chesed - The World is Built on Kindness

The fourth of the Ten Sefirot -- chesed -- precedes all others because it is the only one that is unconditional and unmotivated.

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In the earlier parts to these series, we have explored the meaning of the first three of the Ten Sefirot, which we described as the attributes of the "intellect." We are now ready to explore the attributes of "action." The first of these is chesed, which is translated as "kindness."

Kindness is often thought of as being synonymous with niceness, but the connotation of chesed is much deeper than this. Chesed is properly described as an act that has no "cause."

When a person works for an employer, and then he gets paid, that pay is really a recycling of his own deed. Thus, the energy a stevedore expends in unloading boxes from a ship is recycled to him in the form of the money which he uses to buy bread. A chesed act, however, is an act which is not recycled -- for example, an anonymous gift to dedicate a scholarship fund.

An act of chesed act is that which is not recycled back, like an anonymous gift to charity.

Chesed is proactive –- it is the initiator of interaction, and must therefore be the first in the sefirot of action. Chesed deals with the level of visible, and in the chain of social dynamics is the primary spark that initiates subsequent action.

Being first is no mere hierarchical ranking. Being first carries within itself a property that no other element in the universe possesses. Every action in the universe has a cause –- except that which is the the first one. Within the sphere of visible action, chesed is without cause, a proactive expression of expansiveness.

The ultimate act of chesed is creation, an act that has no previous cause. The Psalms make this clear:

"The world is built with chesed." (Psalms 89:3)

When we call creation an act of chesed, we are not only talking about creation ex nihilo, "out of nothing," in the purely physical sense. Rather, we are also referring to the interaction between God and man.

One may mistakenly think that once the world is already in place, its continuity depends on human merit. (We fulfill God's commandments and therefore we are rewarded.) None of this can be possibly true about creation. It was a unilateral act. No one "deserved" to be. It was chesed in the ultimate sense.


NO GROUNDS FOR LITIGATION

This point is a very fundamental cornerstone of our interaction with God. The person who does not thoroughly understand that the relationship with God is built on a foundation of chesed, engages in litigation with God arguing he had been somehow "short-changed." Thus, all the dramatic debates that literature has produced concerning man calling God to task are built on the assumed argument that God "owes us something."

A worker may rightfully litigate his employer and tell him, "you are not giving me my due pay for the work done, for behold Mr. X is doing the same work and he is being paid double." But an alms collector cannot logically make the same argument to a donor.

If a young person dies, he cannot make the argument to God: "You wronged me, I did not deserve this."

Understanding that creation is an act of chesed removes the ability of man to litigate with God. Thus, if a young and righteous person dies, he cannot make the argument "You wronged me, I did not deserve to die." No person ever merited his own existence; no one "deserved" to be born.

God's reply to Job's litany of complaints was: "Who preceded me that I shall have to pay him?" (Job 41:3) God, in effect, told Job, "You may question, but you cannot debate."

The underlying foundation of all existence is a gift. I owe you nothing. (There is, however, a valid form of questioning God's actions, which we will discuss in a later piece.)

This aspect of chesed -- that it is by definition ex nihilo -- has an important ramification with regards to all the range of activity that the Torah deems chesed.

While purity of motive is virtuous with regard to every mitzvah, it is intrinsic to chesed. As soon as there is a motivation "for something" -- be it honor or a future payoff -- it has ceased being absolute chesed. It is just another action in the long series of links in the cause and effect chain.


THE MEANING OF TRUE KINDNESS

Thus the act of burying a dead person is called chesed shel emes –- "true kindness." For any act of chesed that is accorded to a person during his life is never "pure," it carries within itself some of the complexities of human interaction. Maybe I owe him a favor and am uncomfortable in refusing him, or perhaps I like having him owe me one. While with regard to other mitzvot this would be a mere "blemish" on an otherwise fine deed, with regard to chesed, this corrupts its very essence. For chesed by definition is "something for nothing."

Any hint of a return corrupts the very essence of chesed.

This understanding of chesed will also clarify for us the special status accorded to one's parents and the fact that this is mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

One usually understand this as gratitude for all the favors and good that one's parents have bestowed on him. But what about the child who had a stormy relationship with his parents? Or what about the child that was given up at birth for adoption? According to Jewish law, the child must honor his biological parents as if they had been fully functional parents. Why?

The answer is that parents have done the only true chesed with the child, -- that is, giving him existence. Any other act of benefit to a child is an act within a previously existing framework, and is therefore of a much lower dimension. The gift of life the parents have given a child is a gift that cannot be compared to any other act of kindness toward him.

This is the reason that we are told that the honor towards one's parents is likened to respect towards God. For both have given the person his existence and this gift as such is worlds apart from favors, benefits, and other kindness bestowed on a person.

Let us sum up. Chesed is the first step of action. It is true that it is preceded by "thought" but as far as "deed" is concerned it is the first step. It is not a reaction to any previous deed. It is an act parallel to creation, an act ex nihilo. Chesed is also the one of the Ten Sefirot that describes the beginning of any relationship of God to man.

Published: May 13, 2000

Article 10 of 24 in the series Kabbala


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Visitor Comments: 26

(25) Paul, October 11, 2013 1:13 PM

Is the reference to Psalm 89:3 correct?

Great article! I have been studying the true meaning of chesed and your article really helped with my understanding. Just one question, I looked up Psalm 89:3 and it appears to be a totally different verse. Is the reference correct, or do I have the wrong translation?

(24) Nicola, September 5, 2013 4:45 PM

Daughter's name is Chessa

Thank you for this writing. I named my daughter Chessa after the Hebrew word chesed. I like that chesed contributes to tikkunolam which means "repairing the world". My daughter came to us (in Seattle, WA) from Ethiopia when she was two. She is now 9 and has a heart that is so beautiful that I believe she already contributes to repairing the world and showing compassionate kindness like no child I've met. What a gift from God.

(23) Anonymous, November 3, 2012 3:57 AM

Does anyone commit Chesed?

I'll be the first to admit being both cynic and pessimist. But I think I am right in saying that there are few - if any - acts done by humans that validates chesed. People have already mentioned the thing about birth, so I won't beat that dead horse any further into the ground. But unless one is acting on true impulse, every action requires motivation - which has the word 'motive' in it. Does anyone commit true chesed? Even when we help people, our motive is to see them get better; thought precedes action. Are human beings naturally giving, or do we have to be taught kindness and giving? Chochmah is a flash of inspiration, but does it leave room for instruction from a righteous person?

(22) Chiedu, May 12, 2011 11:28 AM

God's kindness as "Something for Nothing"?

On one hand this article says that None Deserves to be born (for nothing can be seen as what anyone has done to merit being born or created). On another it explains kindness as "something for Nothing." I suppose the "Something" is the creation and or giving of life to a person. How should kindness be felt in the recipient, after all God's kindness is not readily (always) perceived or felt as good? How and or what will bring one to feel and perceive God's "Kindness" or creation and giving of life in this world as good?

(21) manny givot, May 8, 2011 2:33 PM

rightous meaning grateful?

thanks Barry, I think you are a very kind soul with a good sense of humour, I really miss my friend Michael Greene, although he is an orthodox rabbi in Far Rockaway, he never had an issue with me and my lack of belief in judiaism or any organized religion. I've always believed in god and I've always been spiritual, yet skeptical of anything that felt binding/conforming. I hate rules, unless I'm breaking them! I realize that they are needed in a society, but they don't really apply to me! So I'm really not very nice, I'm an ego maniac!

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