D’var Torah by Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Construction in Process
The word חסד (hesed) occurs 248 times in the Bible. It is translated in various ways: mercy, love, kindness, loving-kindness, steadfast love, faithful love, compassion, and goodness. It refers to the gracious, covenantal love of God for the people of Israel and the compassionate care that human beings can offer one another.
The Talmud (Sotah 14a) reports a teaching of Rabbi Simlai:
The beginning of Torah is an act of hesed and its end is an act of hesed. Its beginning is an act of hesed, as it is written: “And the Eternal God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). And its end is an act of hesed, as it is written: “And Moshe was buried [by God] in the valley in the land of Moav” (Deuteronomy 34:6).
We are called to model our lives on these Divine acts. By cultivating an ethos of hesed, we construct a world-view that brings us closer to other humans and to God. This involves both an inner spiritual feeling and an external mitzvah action.
Last Sunday at KBI, I watched volunteers pack and distribute over 200 bags of food for the Ottawa Jewish Food Bank. I see that KBI has fostered a community that values hesed. Although I’m in Ottawa less than two weeks, I’ve already spoken with some bnei/bnot mitzvah students about becoming involved in this type of mitzvah activity.
Constructing our personal lives with hesed as a core value serves to guide our interaction with others. Facing the uncertainty of all life, aware of social injustice, and conscious of the daily medical, economic and personal challenges so many face, hesed becomes even more essential.
The great Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai writes:
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment
millions of human beings are standing at crossroads
and intersections, in jungles and deserts,
showing each other where to turn, what the right way is,
which direction. They explain exactly where to go,
what is the quickest way to get there, when to stop
and ask again. There, over there. The second
turnoff, not the first, and from there left or right,
near the white house, by the oak tree.
They explain with excited voices, with a wave of the hand
and a nod of the head
There, over there, not that there, the other there,
as in some ancient rite. This too is a new religion.
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment.
Amichai’s response to natural disasters and human evil is not to attempt to transform the world. He presents a much smaller project: Accompany others. Give direction and support. Be with the healers and helpers, not with the haters.
In The Optimism of Uncertainty, Howard Zinn observed
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysm moment …but moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change… Human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness…. If we remember those times and places… where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act….
As we muddle forward (for that may be all we can do), let us try to cultivate hesed in our souls and to add more hesed to our daily deeds. Psalm 89 tells us “עולם חסד יבנה — hesed constructs a world.” Construction is in process.