Monday, November 25, 2013

What's the Deal with Chesed?

One of the things I've never understood about the Jewish concept of chesed or "loving kindness" as it's often translated is that in modern Judaism we treat the act of doing chesed as notches on a belt or ticks on our wall of proper, ethical living. 

Bar and bat mitzvah kids usually have to do a chesed project leading up to their big day, and many do great things like fundraising for wildfire victims or those suffering from the damages caused by hurricanes and flooding the world over. The concept of chesed is great, it's beautiful, and we learn from Pirkei Avot -- the Ethics of the Fathers -- that it is one of the three things that the world stands on.
Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness. (Pirkei Avot 1:2)
What we learn from this is that beyond the obvious necessity of living a Torah life, there are two things we need: service of G-d and chesed, which relates to our fellow man. This is what separated Judaism from other Near Eastern Religions. Judaism was the first "religion to focus on ethical monotheism -- the monotheistic part related to G-d and the ethical part related to man. 

So what's my beef? My gripe is that the way we connect with HaShem matters, but it only matters between us and HaShem. The way we connect with fellow man works the same way. We shouldn't do things publicly or keep lists so everyone knows how awesomely kind and giving we are. Yes, we live in a world where billionaires throw money around at causes and get lots of mad props for it, but is it right? Is that what chesed looks like?

I've been reading, weekly, a little book that Mr. T nabbed for me at Pomeranz booksellers called A Portion of Kindness by Rosally Saltsman, which has weekly mini-assessments of verses from the parshah (portion) and how we can connect it to chesed. I really like her quick and witty take on the weekly portion, and she offers a lot of great tips on how to do chesed. This past week, for Va'yeshev, Saltsman commented on how there were so many good intentions in the parsha, but that most of the time the good intentions didn't really come to fruition (like the brothers who wanted to come back, rescue Yosef and return him to his father). She discussed how there's a concept in Judaism where if the intention is there and the follow-through falls through, the intention is what counts. So often we do something with the proper intention, and it doesn't always go according to plan (at least not our plan), and that's fine. HaShem knows where our intention is. 

Although I like her approach to taking away a lesson on chesed from the weekly portion, I have to gripe that Saltsman lays out a plan to keep a chesed chart, so you can keep tabs on all of the awesomely wonderful things you've done for your fellow man. It goes back to my issue with anonymity and doing something for the sake of it being good and kind rather than for the attention and spotlight on what a great person you are. There's no weekly or monthly or yearly accounting in synagogue of all of the various chesed you've done, is there? So why keep track of it? Feel good about doing it, and move on with your life. It isn't a competition. (For a conversation about the difference between tzedakah or charity and chesed, see this article, which discusses how chesed is "higher" than tzedakah.)

What do you think about chesed? If you're not Jewish, I'm curious if there is a similar ethical responsibility that is encouraged in Christianity or Islam or Buddhism and whether keeping tabs is encouraged or if it's about doing good, feeling good, and being good. 

Note: The book reviews I'm doing for Pomeranz are honest, as all of my product and book reviews are, but the books are being given to me at no cost for review.