Fierce Chesed

Here we are in the aseret y’mei t’shuvah – the ten days of repentance. After spending long hours in synagogue praying, reflecting, and attuning ourselves to the holy, we are back for Shabbat. Given the grandeur and majesty of Rosh Hashanah, it might feel somewhat anticlimactic coming down from those great heights.

The soaring melodies, stirring poetry, and deep worship of Rosh Hashanah helps us do that ever-important soul work. But now, it’s a little more quiet. What are we to do now?

Here’s the truly great thing: Maurice Lamm teaches that God is not just a Rosh Hashanah God. Holiness is available to us, if we acknowledge it, every day. God’s majesty cannot be contained within a synagogue ark, or squeezed into the stone walls of Jerusalem, or locked tight in the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the attributes of God, and how we are meant to emulate them. In particular, how we are taught that truth and teshuvah are not just good ideas, but are fundamentally part of what we might think of as God’s divine-DNA.

Another one of God’s attributes holds the key to capturing, on a daily basis, some of the awe-someness of the yamim noraim.

The Torah describes God as Rav Chesed – great in kindness.

Like truth and teshuvah, chesed is not just a good idea, or a nice way to interact with others, but is elevated by our tradition to among the highest possible traits.

Our ancient rabbis were imaginative people. In addition to studying Torah and formulating Jewish law, they thought expansively about the nature of the universe. They were fond of making concise lists of what they considered to be among most important things in the world.

You’re probably familiar with one of these. The world, they said, rests on three things: On Torah, on Worship, and on acts of Loving-Kindness (Mishna Avot 1:2).

Dr. Alan Morinis, a teacher of Jewish ethics, explains one view of chesed: “It is not simply wishing someone well, or smiling, or doing what is expected of you. We need to be careful around the almost universal translation of the word chesed as ‘lovingkindness.’ To my ear, and maybe to yours, too, loving-kindness suggests being nice…”

Rather, “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.”

Chesed is not just an exceptional attitude, but is a fundamental obligation of every Jew. It is, alongside worship and Torah study, part of the very cosmic stitching of all of existence.

* * *

Like many of you, I watched the scenes from the recent seemingly incessant natural disasters in profound awe. I was struck by the ferocity of nature, but also by how people selflessly reach out to each other in times of desperation.

I confess that while it has been moving, and indeed inspiring to see people supporting one another in times of great need, while watching coverage on CNN, or the Daily Show, or any of the other myriad outlets that have focused on this, I have felt an unsettling notion nagging at me.

Like rubberneck traffic, we are stopped in our tracks to marvel at humans “getting it right.”

I wonder if the way in which we tell these stories communicates a message that these acts of kindness are the exception rather than the norm.

Yes, there’s something captivating about watching heroic acts of kindness, but what happens when cable news networks add “late breaking news” graphics and dramatic soundtracks to the footage of someone saving another from drowning? Why are we so astonished to see people acting compassionately toward one another?

To be sure, this is not a black and white issue.

On the one hand, these dramatic stories of kindness can be inspiring and motivate others to do good. They can convey a message of comfort during times of catastrophe and disarray.

But on the other hand, as consumers of these stories, how do we let them affect us?

Do we de-incentivize kindness through this exceptionalizing? Do we send the message: “I don’t need to help people unless there’s a disaster. Unless there’s a hurricane”? Each of us may encounter our own brand of hurricane every day. Are we deserving of kindness only during natural disasters?

Acts of chesed are not meant to be viewed as exceptional. Indeed, they are meant to be the norm.

* * *

The word chesed appears 245 times in the Torah. The rabbis taught that the Torah begins with an act of chesed (BT Sota 14a), when God provides Adam and Eve with clothes; and it ends with an act of chesed, when God buries Moses.

Rabbi Lamm teaches that, “In a sense, the goal of the whole enterprise of Judaism is to develop human beings whose principal trait is chesed… It appears on page after page of the Jewish Prayerbook, in chapter after chapter of the Psalms, and is implied in the legal and moral decisions on folio after folio of the Talmud… The world could not have endured so long without chesed; it would have imploded.”

We always have access to chesed. It is a way that we can emulate God every day. Not just on Rosh Hashanah, not just on Shabbat, and not just when exceptional disasters call for it.

Okay, so how do we do this? How can we approach chesed in a way that doesn’t result in us losing our sense of humility, and doesn’t require flashy cable-news headlines? Can we bring a sense of chesed to our lives that is not sensational or exceptional, but is part and parcel of who we are every single day, just as it is for God?

Dr. Morinis offers:

[Action] is the key to opening the heart.  It is too easy to think good thoughts and say the right things but then just continue to be stuck in the same old ways.  We’re too easy to deceive, especially self-deceive. Action is required. Then, through experience, the heart learns and opens, setting off a chain reaction of hearts opening and connecting leading right up to openness and connection to God.

* * *

This past summer, I worked in a hospital, learning how to provide spiritual counseling to patients, families, and doctors. One of my teachers was a Buddhist, who introduced me to a concept called Fierce Compassion.

I think that the Jewish idea of chesed and the Buddhist idea of Fierce Compassion might inform each other. Willa Miller, a Tibetan Buddhist, teaches that Fierce Compassion is based in a contemplative perspective that helps us be more kind, in four distinct ways:

One: Fierce compassion requires that we lean into our own shadow to see how we avoid truths within ourselves. Fierce compassion is introspective, and curious about our own darkness…

If what is happening is not pleasant, we gradually learn to come alongside the very states of suffering that we are in the habit of avoiding. We cannot develop a compassion practice without being intimate with our own suffering. In this way, fierce compassion begins with self-compassion.

Two: Fierce compassion asks of us to extend love to those who is it not easy to love. It asks for us to suspend condemnation long enough so that we consider the humanity of those who have done us harm. When we consider their humanity, we, too, become humane.

Three: Fierce compassion leans on a perspective of equanimity. It is broad… We need to broaden our sense of compassion, so that it becomes wide enough to embrace the earth as a whole organism.

Four: Fierce compassion builds resilience. Contemplative practices of compassion rely on engaging with suffering as a method to transform it into joyful empathetic responsiveness.

Fierce Compassion requires that we learn how to be kind to ourselves, so that we can extend that kindness to others. It requires that we give this freely to all people and creatures, not only to those from who we can expect something in return. And it is clearly not a one-shot-deal. It is not something that we do every now and then when the stars align, or when we are feeling especially altruistic. It is an entire way of being, a process of engaging with the world.

Fierce Compassion sounds a whole lot to me like God’s idea of chesed.

These aseret y’mei t’shuvah are a gift to consider how to bring more holiness into our lives every day. Who are the people that we want to be each and every day – not just when we’re in synagogue, but at all times?

When we make chesed a part of our daily, when it becomes not just a series of actions, but an entire worldview, we are fulfilling what the prophet Micah teaches us is what God requires of us: “only to do justice, love chesed, and to walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

May we all bring more chesed into the world, with a little fierceness.


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