After several hours of concentrated effort, I finally had the presentation ready for Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night of study dedicated to healing the entire world. But then I felt moved to share something that is not only dedicated to healing the world, but offers ways for us to actually do that healing. Our seemingly endless world filled with billions of people and multitudes of different creatures and creations might actually be affected by what you or I feel, think, do and say. This is an astounding thought but I believe it to reflect emet, truth.
The true nature of loving kindness, what we Jews call chesed, ultimately is the source of healing for ourselves and for our world. I say this knowing how complex life is and how difficult and conflictual, perhaps even treacherous, our society has become let alone the rest of the world. The true nature of love kindness also is challenging for each of us to recognize, integrate into our lives and to act with toward others. True love originates with Source and each of us finite beings is capable of connecting to this Divine and infinitely alive trait, and bringing more of it into the world. We all are aware of the worldly options at our disposal, such as voting, demonstrating, speaking out, and so forth. These tools are important and our actions may change the politics of the moment. But real change requires love, love for ourself and love for other. Chesed is the nourishment that our world needs because it is the ingredient with which the world is made:
“The world is built with chesed.” Ps. 89:2
We look into ourselves and into the world and wonder about this chesed. We all have weaknesses, we all stumble, we all fall, we hurt others, we hurt those close to us and we hurt ourselves. We transgress against humanity, other creatures, our environment and the Source of Blessing. Where is the chesed in this? Jewish tradition answers that we continue to breathe, that we are alive and that the world goes on because G!D sustains the world with chesed.
In the Jewish view, it is not enough to hold good thoughts and prayers for someone. Each of us is responsible to help sustain another person. It is our actions filled with chesed, making a phone call, visiting, giving charity, volunteering, listening with empathy, etc., that count. Some sages have taught that our actions help to open our heart, and our heart opening helps other hearts to open, and all of this leads us back to the unending Source of Divine chesed.
Yet, the doing is not enough if the doing is moved from a sense of obligation rather than from an authentic sense of generosity. Unless our action is driven by our true desire to do kindness without expectation of reward, what we do is not an act of chesed. We do something kind without expectation of quid pro quo. Tit for tat is not a consideration. Jewish tradition’s teaching about service to the dead provides a clear illustration of chesed shel emet. When we help to bury or pray for one who is dead, the person cannot repay our kindness. When we help to prepare the body for burial, the dead cannot thank us. Chesed shel emet often requires that we go beyond our normal boundaries of giving. To do chesed is to practice a kind of soul yoga-we stretch ourselves to help another who is going the opposite way.
Our father Abraham often is identified with loving-kindness, both by our prophets and kabbalists. Abraham ran to do acts of kindness for others. When he saw three strangers approaching his tent, he invited them to stay. It says in the midrash that Abraham was healing from circumcision that he had three days earlier. The rabbis believed that the greatest pain is on the third day, but regardless, Abraham invited the strangers in for nourishment and rest. Then, the Torah tells us in Gen.18:2-5:
“. Abraham rushed to Sarah’s tent and said, “Hurry! Three measures of the finest flour! Knead it and make rolls.”
“Abraham ran to the cattle and chose a tender, choice calf, He gave it to a young man who rushed to prepare it.”
Abraham rushed to do chesed. These were not actions based on conditions or obligations. Though he was healing from pain, Abraham rushed to render kindness to others. It is important that we understand that Abraham’s heart was oriented to giving and to offering kindness in substantial and sustaining ways.
Our prophet Micah (6:8) just nails this idea when he wrote:
ח הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם
עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
“He has told you, O man, what is good! What does Y H V H, (Is-Was-Will Be-Being) your G!D ask of you, that you do justice, love chesed and walk humbly with your G!D.”
What does Micah mean by these words? Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina answers in the Talmud:
“The meaning is to walk after the attributes of the Holy One of Blessings. Just as G!D clothes the naked, so should you clothe the naked, as it written, (Gen 3:21) And the Eternal G!D made garments of skins for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Just as the Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, so should you visit the sick, as it is written (Gen 18:1)And the Eternal appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre. Just as the Holy One of Blessings comforted mourners, so should you also comfort mourners, as it is written (Gen. 25:11) After the death of Abraham, G!D blessed his son Isaac. Just as the Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, so should you also bury the dead, as it is written (Deuteronomy 34:6), G!D buried Moses in the valley.”
Micah and the sages are teaching us that we realize true loving-kindness, true chesed, when we imitate the attributes of G!D with a heart oriented to love, generosity and kindness. It is through acting with true chesed that we connect with Source of Chesed, Infinite One Being.
What if someone is acting in mean and hurtful ways to us or others? Some of us read Tomer Devorah together, the Palm Tree of Devorah. Its author, Rabbi Cordovera, tells us that,
“Even if one is aware that another person is doing him evil, and this angers him, if that person has some redeeming quality….this should be sufficient cause…..to delight in the kindness that he does (the mean one)….A person should say…with regard to every person….”It is enough that he has been good to me or to someone else in such and such a way, or that he has such and such a positive quality.”
In her diaries, Etty Hillesum, z”l, a Dutch Jewish women who was murdered at Auschwitz, wrote that she would look into the faces of Nazi guards for some sign of humanity.
I know that what I am saying is not easy. It requires constant refinement of our personalities and our evolving in consciousness and in spirituality. Therefore, I want to leave you with two exercises that I believe help condition the heart to loving kindness. “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am G!D.” We have to love ourselves to truly love others. These two exercises are not only soothing and promoting of wholesomeness, they also help us to continue to orient our hearts to loving-kindess.
- Go into meditation or just sit quietly for 10-15 minutes. Bring to mind something that you did that was a kind or good action that benefited someone else, that contributed to another’s well-being. If something comes to mind, allow yourself to experience the happiness of this remembrance. If nothing comes to mind, gently turn your attention to quality that you like about yourself. If still nothing comes to mind, reflect on the urge for happiness that humanity shares. (From Sharon Salzberg’s book “Lovingkindess”)
- Rabbi Jeff Roth was the first one to introduce me to this kind of “blessing meditation.” Feel free to change it in any way that you would like.
May I be blessed with good health or May I be healed or May I make friends with my body
May I be blessed with joy and compassion
May I be blessed with insight and clarity
May I be blessed with inspiration and spiritual light
Repeat this to yourself or out loud for 15-20 minutes/day for as long as you need
You cannot make a mistake in these meditations. Even if negative feelings arise or you get lost in thought, return to the meditation and begin again. Feelings will give you information about your internal environment. The skill of meditation is to return to its focus.
© 2022 Rabbi Debrah Shenefelt
- Morinis, A. (2007) Everyday Holiness, Boston: Trumpeter Books; See chapter on Loving-Kindness for a detailed discussion of this trait within the context of Mussar (Jewish Ethics)
- I heard from my rabbi, Rabbi Theodore Brod, z”l; Also see Rashi’s comment on Gen. 17:1
- b. Sotah 14a, Translation used is from Morinis op. cit. p. 193