This passage includes synonyms, or near-synonyms, of chesed; mercy, love, and pity. But it focuses first on chesed, opening with a plural form linked to God’s own name—chasdei Hashem—and then repeating the word in the same verse. This chesed produces one of the most poignant statements about God in the whole Bible—“in all their troubles He was troubled,” or “in all their afflictions he was afflicted.” Chesed moves God to not only rescue us, to pull us out of our self-made messes, but to first join us within the mess itself. Chesed is that extreme of loyalty that puts self aside to support the other. Cultivating chesed in our Mussar practice means looking for opportunities to so decisively identify with the troubles or needs of another that self has no place.
“In all their afflictions he was afflicted.” It’s not only poignant, but profound, because it raises the question, how can God the Creator and sustainer of all things be afflicted or troubled by anything? Chesed moves him to freely take on our human fallibility, to “not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but to empty himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” and to humble himself by “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
How do we cultivate such chesed ourselves? It has to start with compassion, the ability to sense and respond to the pain of another person, not just by feeling sorry for that person, but by taking on their interests and needs.
Recently a bookkeeper at a school in Georgia named Antoinette Tuff—who happens to be an actively engaged Christian—helped avert yet another tragic school shooting by calmly talking down the young man who appeared in her office, grasping a loaded assault rifle that he’d already started firing. Antoinette called 911 to alert them to the threat, while she kept talking with the shooter, Michael Hill, going from calling him “sir,” to “baby” and “sweetie.” She tells Michael about her own defeats and losses, tells him that they share the same last name (her mother’s last name is also Hill), tells him that she’ll shield Michael with her own body if he’ll put down his rifle and ammunition and give up. At the end of the standoff, Antoinette tells him, “I just want you to know that I love you though, OK? And I'm proud of you. It's a good thing that you've just given up. Don't worry about it. We all go through something in life.”
As one commentator notes, Antoinette has the “ability to see herself in her assailant (and him in her)” (Dahlia Lithwick, slate.com, posted Friday, Aug. 23, 2013).
“We all go through something in life,” and we’re talking about a God who goes through something in life too. This God shows us how to see past the ugliness and threat of another person to share their suffering. Evidently, that kind of chesed can dramatically change even the worst circumstances.