Yeshua seems to have this same ethical stretching in mind when he tells us to not only love our neighbor, but to love our enemy. If there’s anything that will push us beyond the comfort zone it’s this. And the demand is only heightened when we remember that Messiah links “love your neighbor as yourself” with the greatest commandment of all, “love Hashem your God with all your heart, soul, and might.”
So, chesed, or active, generous love for the other, even the hostile other, is not an accessory to the spiritual life, but essential to it. By definition chesed requires us to stretch; the whole-hearted love at the core of mussar is always a costly love.
When Yeshua’s critics get on him for eating with certifiable sinners, he tells them,
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire chesed, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13).
Yeshua is quoting from Hosea, where the full phrase reads, “I desire chesed, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather [or more] than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). The Hebrew for “I desire” can also be translated, “I delight in.” God ordains sacrifices, but He delights in chesed. He says, “I desire [or delight in] the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” He isn’t doing away with sacrifice or burnt offerings, but stating that they are secondary to chesed and the knowledge of God.
Yeshua ramps up Hosea’s saying by demonstrating that chesed especially applies to those least worthy of it. “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. . . . For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?” Matt 5:44-46).
Yeshua says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire chesed, not sacrifice.’” How are we to learn this? In good mussar tradition we can seek out an opportunity each day to 1) do an act of kindness, 2) for which we’re unlikely to be recognized or rewarded, 3) on behalf of someone who doesn’t even appear to deserve it. Try it when you’re driving. Let the road hog have your lane on the freeway, and bless him as he squeezes in. Give a buck and a big smile to the panhandler on the off ramp. Or later this week, invite the bore or the complainer at Oneg Shabbat to sit at your table.
Such chesed reflects the character of Hashem, who always gives to the undeserving, since no one actually deserves His kindness.
Our Rabbis have taught: A man may carry his son [on the Sabbath] while the latter holds a stone in his hand, or a basket in which there is a stone. You may deduce this from the case of the generation of the wilderness, for the Holy One, blessed be He, carried them in the wilderness, As a man doth bear his son (Deut. 1:31), though they had in their possession an idolatrous object; as it says, They have made them a molten calf (Ex. 32:8). Numbers Rabbah 16:26
In this midrash, chesed prevails over the “sacrifice” of abstaining from work on Shabbat. A man is permitted to carry his son on Shabbat, just as Hashem in chesed carried his son Israel every day through the wilderness. But chesed isn’t limited to the innocent or worthy—as Hashem made clear when he carried his rebellious, idol-bearing son each day in the wilderness. If Hashem can put up with us and show us chesed, how much more are we to practice chesed each day to a fellow human being, whether we consider him deserving or not.