Chesed–Embodying Grace

Rosh Hashanah 5779

Even long-time Beit Shalom members may not be aware that this congregation has embraced five Jewish values as its core mission. They are chesed, Torah, tikkun olam, hachnasat orchim, and tzedakah. I have decided that this year I’m going to dedicate my High Holy Day sermons to these topics and what each of us might gain in the year ahead by working to embrace all of these values. Tonight’s topic is chesed. I’m specifically not providing a translation at this point in the sermon in the hopes of keeping you on the edges of your seats wondering when I’ll reveal the answer. Stay tuned!

It was a hot, steamy day in Washington, DC as my son Onyx, my father and I boarded the subway at the Bethesda station bound for a day of museum visits. We had just found seats when Onyx said to me, “Someone’s fainted.” I looked to the middle of the car, and saw a man lying on the floor. Now, you may know me as your humble neighbourhood rabbi, but I also have a secret identity as a first aide provider. Armed with the knowledge provided by occasional one-day first aide training courses, I strode confidently down the car and went to work. The man was thankfully breathing and was actually awake and talking a bit. I knelt down next to him, introduced myself, took his hand, and set about doing what we first aiders do best: reassuring the patient and waiting for the professionals to show up. A fellow passenger knelt on the other side of the patient and kept him company as well. Two other passengers were on the subway intercom, talking to the driver and letting her know what was going on. Another passenger passed over her bottle of water so that the man could have a drink, and yet another passenger watched over the man’s briefcase.

Help came just a few minutes later at the next subway stop. The driver announced that the train would stay at the station while this medical situation was tended to. My fellow first aider and I helped our patient very slowly to his feet and walked him out of the car and to the bench on the platform. We were met there by a Metro employee, who said she would watch over him until the paramedics arrived. The man was reunited with his briefcase. We helpers got back on the train and watched the man recede as the train started moving towards the next station.

It was only much later as I reflected on the episode that I understood that I had witnessed and also participated in an act of chesed. Chesed is a word which is too often translated as lovingkindess. The translation is problematic because there isn’t actually such a word. As I write this, “lovingkindness” is underlined in red because the word simply doesn’t exist. If you use google translate, it will tell you the plain meaning of chesed is “grace.” We Jews are inclined to think of grace as a Christian concept, but that’s incorrect. We have grace too. The Hebrew word is chesed.

Chesed is kindness freely given, with no expectation of ever being repaid or rewarded. There is a reason that many chevrot kaddishah—burial societies—have the word chesed in their names. Preparing the body of someone who has died for burial is the ultimate example of a kindness for which the recipient cannot possibly repay the favour. Very few people feel called to perform this particular mitzvah, but each of us have opportunities to perform acts of chesed nearly every day.

You’ll remember about twenty years ago there was a popular call to “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” The concept has not gone out of fashion even though the phrase has. Within a Jewish framework, random acts of kindness are known as g’milut chasadim. Another tricky phrase to translate, because the word g’milut doesn’t exactly mean “acts.” It’s a verb whose meaning is closer to “to deal with.” The expression implies that we have made the choice to deal with someone kindly rather than cruelly. It continues the message that human beings—like God—have the ability to gift acts of kindness to people completely at random and with no expectation that they’ll get anything in return. Simply the knowledge that they have done the right thing at the time.

There are two different categories of mitzvot—those that are between human beings and God, and those that are between one person and another. The first category covers religious mitzvot such as observing Shabbat, hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and wearing a tallit. The second category covers ethical mitzvot such as paying our workers on time, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the sick.

While performing g’milut chasadim is an ethical mitzvah, chesed itself is not a mitzvah at all. Chesed is not an action, but rather an attitude. Danny Segal, founder of the Ziv Foundation, points out that giving tzedakah is a mitzvah. It’s a religious obligation, meaning that we are required to do it whether we are in the mood or not. But surely giving from a place of chesed is the preferred way to give. Maimonides suggested that someone who donates in a grudging way is not as worthy of praise as one who donates cheerfully. So too for all the other mitzvot we do. The rabbinic classic Pirkei Avot includes a quote from Antigonos, man of Sokho: “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” There is a Jewish ideal that we should strive to give of ourselves to others not because we will be rewarded for doing so or even because it will make us feel good about ourselves, but simply because that is the right thing to do. We hope to act from the most selfless motivation possible.

I note here that true selflessness is increasingly rare in this age of social media. Facebook is crowded with videos of people engaged in acts of chesed while someone else films them for posterity. In this era when our phones allow us to record our significant moments, it can be too tempting to make sure that all of our friends and acquaintances are aware of just how full of chesed we are. It can be tempting too to turn these moments into Rosh Hashanah sermons…No one is going to sneak into our brains and explore whether our motivations for our actions are truly selfless. But Jewish wisdom suggests that the purest form of chesed is when it’s bestowed with no hesitation and with no thought of whether we’ll get more likes as a result.

That is what happened on my eventful subway ride back in July. I was part of a sudden outpouring of chesed. Half a dozen or more passengers instinctively sprang into action and did the right thing, with no expectation of reward or thanks. And, as I said, there are opportunities for acts of chesed nearly every day. We may see that someone we care about—or even someone we barely know—is going through a difficult time and jump in with a listening ear or a helping hand. We may come upon someone who is clearly hungry and make sure they get a meal. Sometimes it’s just a small action, like introducing ourselves to an unfamiliar face at Rosh Hashanah services and inviting that person to sit with us.

Of course, Jewishly we strive to act with chesed because God acts with chesed. The word is everywhere in our High Holy Days prayers. We have just sung out our request that God act towards us with tzedakah and chesed and we will do so again at every service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Earlier tonight, we named God as gomel chasadim tovim–the One who bestows great kindness. In the morning prayer Sim Shalom, we pray that God will grant us chen, v’chesed v’rachamim: kindness, grace and compassion. As we celebrate the extraordinary gift of life at this time of year and count our abundant blessings, I hope we will feel called to give back to the world around us.

This time of year brings with it a spiritual vocabulary which is strange and often confronting. Many of us are disturbed by the suggestion that God personally decides each of our fates at this time of year. The workings of the universe are inscrutable and mysterious. But these Yamim Nora’im–these awesome days–affirm how much power is in our own hands. Gertrude Hildreth Housman wrote the essence of this in her poem “The Gift of Choice:”

I came into the world without being asked,

And when the time for dying comes

I shall not be consulted;

But between the boundaries of birth and death

Lies the dominion of Choice:

To be a doer or a dreamer,

To be a lifter or a leaner,

To speak out or remain silent,

To extend a hand in friendship

Or to look the other way;

To feel the sufferings of others

Or to be callous and insensitive.

These are the choices;

It is in the choosing

That my measure as a person is determined.

Shana tova–may we all be blessed with a year of sweetness and joy, of health and peace, and may each of us bring these gifts to one another and to the others we have the opportunity to touch. Amen.

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