Some things in life have to be earned, and some things cannot be. We can earn respect and reputation by our behavior, but sometimes we need help, or forgiveness, or just a break, that we haven’t earned and don’t deserve. And we can also give to others gifts they don’t deserve and don’t have to earn. That sort of undeserved kindness is captured by the word Hesed, often translated as lovingkindness.
Chesed or loving-kindness is an essential human attribute, but it’s first of all a divine attribute. If we want to cultivate chesed, we should pay attention to how Hashem exercises it. And God’s chesed is on display at the conclusion of the Haftarot of Comfort, the passages from Isaiah that we read during this period between Tisha B’av and Rosh Hashanah.
Here's a drash on loving-kindness adapted from my book Creation to Completion, which comments on parashat Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11-34:35).
Parashat Ki Tisa includes Hashem’s revelation of his glory to Moses, the thirteen attributes of God. This self-revelation opens with the words, “Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, full of chesed v’emet—loving-kindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6). Earlier, in the Ten Words, Hashem had declared that he would show chesed to “thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6). Chesed is an aspect of God’s character, an aspect that gets sorely tested in this parasha, when Israel builds the Golden Calf. But this same story also reveals the possibilities of chesed on a human level through the example of Moses.
For the Torah was given through Moshe; chesed and truth came through Yeshua the Messiah. -- Yochanan 1:17
Chesed is one of those rich Hebrew terms that defy a direct one-word translation into English. We often translate it as lovingkindness, which is actually two words jammed together, and not a word we’d commonly say in modern English at all. Other terms are mercy, love, or grace. But perhaps we can get closer to the meaning of chesed by considering it along with another Hebrew word with which it’s often paired, emet or truth. This combination appears in the Torah when the Lord proclaims to Moses in Exodus 34, “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in chesed v’emet—goodness and truth.”
In his commentaries in both the Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur Koren Machzorim Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks of the God who “creates us in love and forgiveness, who loves and forgives, and asks us to love and forgive others.” Love is so often found side-by-side with forgiveness in discussions of God’s relationship with us.
My maternal grandfather is often one of the least effusive people I know. He has a big white beard and it is rare that one can get a sense of what’s going on under there at any given moment. Affectionate would not be the first word that comes to mind when I think of him. At the same time I can safely say he is the kindest man it has ever been my privilege to know.
A woman died and left no money to pay for her funeral. She was an inhabitant of one of the Lithuanian twin towns of Kovno and Slobodka, which were separated only by a small river. A dispute arose between the burial societies of both towns as to which town was responsible for her burial, and would therefore have to underwrite its costs. This dispute erupted during morning prayers, disrupting the recitation of the Shema, the declaration of God's unity.
Rabbi Salanter and his disciples were present at the time. Rabbi Salanter saw the debate dragging on, with the body consequently being left unattended, an unacceptable desecration of the dead according to Jewish law. Rabbi Salanter therefore declared that since no one was ready to bury the woman she fell under the category of met mitzvah, a person who has no one to attend to his or her burial; the obligation to bury such a person falls upon every Jew in the vicinity at the time of death. He then removed his prayer shawl and phylacteries and instructed his students to do the same. He and his students attended to the woman and buried her.
It would not have occurred to most people to interrupt their prayers in order to take upon themselves the arduous tasks of preparing the corpse of a total stranger for burial. Only someone with Salanter's highly developed ethical sensitivity would conclude that the normal obligation of prayer was superseded by the duty to provide someone with a proper burial when no one else was willing to do so. --Cited in Hillel Goldberg, The Fire Within: The Living Heritage of the Musar Movement (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1987), pp. 48-49.
Among messianic Jews, much has been said concerning the parallels between the sacrifices of the paschal lamb and that of Yeshua. After all, the paschal lamb was the essential sacrifice which God commanded the children of Israel to make before liberating them from bondage to the Pharaoh of Egypt and bringing them to Sinai where they would enter into a covenant of service to Him.