This is another in the series from Mussar workshops I’ve been assisting with. The Middah for December’s meeting was חסד, Chesed, often translated as Loving Kindness.
Before presenting that, I want to clarify an idea about the middot/sefirot as they appear on the עץ חיים, Etz Chayim, Tree of Life. Rather than looking at each middah/sefirah as a separate entity, I think it’s more productive to view them together as a series of lenses or filters. As thoughts and impulses work their way through this chain, they become enhanced and balanced in the most effective way.
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Mussar Midot and Mitzvot
חסד Chesed (Loving Kindness)
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ביקור חולים (Visiting the Sick)
מלביש ארומים (Clothing the Naked)
קבורת המת (Burying the Dead)
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A basic principle of Judaism is to model ourselves after God:
ללכת בכל דרכיו – הוא רחום ואתה תהא רחום, הוא גומל חסדים ואתה גמול חסדים
(רש”י דברים י”א:כב)
“To Walk in His Ways–As He is compassionate, you also be compassionate, as He bears loving kindness, so you, too, bear loving kindness” (Rashi, Devorim 11:22).
There are many reasons we strive to emulate the Creator. The mission of the Jewish People is to bring the Infinite into the finite world. Our tradition teaches that God and the Torah are One. Both are infinite and unbounded by the limits of our physical world. While the Written Torah is, obviously, a definite number of words and letters, each scroll a fixed quantity of ink and parchment, it returns to its native infinity through the Oral Torah. When we learn Torah, we don’t merely acquire esoteric facts, but we add our individual contributions to the entirety of the ever-growing and evolving Torah. Our charge, to be “A Light to the Nations” is not a mandate to spread Judaism, but to share the light which our insights and practices provide the world. When we, limited beings, emulate God, we likewise transform our finiteness into the infinite.
As we’ve previously discussed, distance along the spiritual dimension is measured not by geometry but by similarity. As we approach God and strive to unite with him, which is defined by our tradition as both our goal and our ultimate “reward”, we benefit ourselves by, curiously, not thinking about ourselves but, rather, of others. We taught that God is a Creator who creates for the benefit of others, inspiring us to also be creative for the sake of others.
Three life-phases in which we’re especially effective are enabling people to achieve their own goals, consoling them when they’re temporarily disabled and honoring them when they’re no longer alive.
We anticipate other’s needs much like God did when he provided the first clothing to Adam and Eve. Our daily liturgy begins with a series of brachot, blessings, that includes praising God for clothing the naked. As God provides much more than clothing to enable us to function in this world, we also strive to assist others to realize themselves and fulfill their own potentials and dreams. This generosity is about the other person, not ourselves.
Each of us has experienced times in our lives where we’re both unable to provide for ourselves and also are overwhelmed with pain, weakness, depression, loneliness or illness. The boost to our spirits that we experience when someone takes their time just to be with us, to console, to listen, to share, to empathize, is beyond words. We’re in need not necessarily of anything material, but of human contact. It’s natural to take the time and to give of ourselves for a close friend or relative, but the good we can achieve isn’t limited to only that small circle. In fact, visiting people we don’t usually include in our lives, getting to know a little about them, listening to them, not only brings them comfort but it also takes us out of ourselves. We learn of this mitzva from God, in the form of the three “angels”, visiting Avraham while he recovered from his self-administered brit mila (circumcision).
All of the mitzvot surrounding burial are collectively known as Chesed Shel Emet, the truest expression of chesed. The reason our sages give for this designation is because there is never the ulterior motive of receiving thanks or even acknowledgement. We learn of God, Himself, providing burial to Moses. Additionally, the dead are totally incapable of meeting their need for this, they are totally dependent on those who shoulder this responsibility. Also, when we attend to the dead we come face to face with our own most primal fear. Jewish burial rituals are delicate, loving and respectful–we never objectify the body but rather focus on the person’s neshama (soul), easing its journey to the next world.
These three mitzvot, each a unique expression of Chesed, bring different facets of our own being into closer harmony with our highest potentials. Although, perhaps because, we’re not the primary beneficiary of these actions, we do, ourselves, grow through them. By serving others we also contribute to the spirit of communal and universal love in the world. Perhaps they are the essence of one description of Mussar, self-improvement but not for the sake of the self. Rather, they exercise our practice of modeling God’s actions, partnering with Him in the final refinement of our world.