5777: Binding the World with Chesed
by Rabbi Heather Miller
Shanah Tovah– Some Jewish theologians suggest that the activity we begin tonight, during these 10 penitential days of awe, preempts the accounting of the soul that will take place in the celestial court of the afterlife, where we are brought before a judge,
The One True Judge, to account for our actions.
Last month, I found myself in a very official looking room, not that different from what I imagine that final court session to look like. Only, instead of finding myself sitting in front of The Judge, I found myself sitting in front of a very official panel of five–including a retired judge, but also a lawyer, a pastor, a peace activist, and a fire department captain!
I was downtown interviewing for a position on the Civilian Oversight Commission of the LA County Sheriff’s Department. Final rounds of interviews are this Wednesday. The interview was going along as would be expected, and then, they asked me to confess a mistake I had made in the past year.
I clarified– “A professional mistake, right? Because for personal mistakes, you can just ask my wife.” And, then I thought– how appropriate that they are asking me this question in the month of Elul– the month leading up to these, the Days of Awe.
I know, you want to hear what my confession was. Well, I shared that in preparing for the High Holy Day services, the cantor, Cantor Juval to be specific, and I had disagreed on the way we should introduce a prayer; he had his idea, and I had pushed back. And then he retracted his earlier statement. I thought he caved, and I asked him about it– he replied that indeed, he was just giving in. I asked, “Why would you do that?”
“Because,” he replied, “I’d rather not risk losing the relationship over this.”
Yikes! I hadn’t realized my passionate sharing of my perspective had indicated to him that our relationship was at risk. I immediately apologized and answered, “Our relationship is not at risk. I’m sorry for giving you that impression. We can disagree, but the relationship is not at risk.”
In this moment I realized that when Cantor Juval and Rabbi Lisa and I talk about our great working relationship, it is because our relationship is bound by a deep, covenantal, loving respect for one another. Even when we disagree.
The interviewing panel of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission appreciated this answer, because, it affirmed for them that while the nine members of the commission
will likely disagree on various points, I would be committed to make sure to not let the disagreements get in the way of the work. Disagreements should be l’shem shamayim– for the sake of heaven, that is for the sake of improving the world, not destroying it.
These kinds of relationships are bound up by the Jewish concept of chesed— a kind of love that is rooted in loyalty and obligation.
I want to thank those of you who attended my High Holy Day preparation class three weeks ago and those at the parent study session yesterday because together, we explored the multifaceted concept of chesed— especially as it applies to relationships. We drew the conclusion that relationships based on chesed are kinds of covenantal contracts that display loyalty and sacred responsibility for the other. One of you summed it up as relationships that you, “suit up and show up for.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was Chief Rabbi of the UK, says chesed, “is usually translated as ‘kindness’ but it also means ‘love’- not love as emotion or passion, but love expressed as deed…[this is a kind of] love that means being ever-present for the other, in hard times as well as good.”
These are all ways that I would describe how Rabbi Lisa, Cantor Juval and I– your clergy team– relate to each other– and how we hope everyone at BCC relates to one another. Rooting our relationships in chesed, together, we create a safe space for each of us to ask the hard questions, contemplate life’s meaning, and mark sacred occasions.
In communal relationships bound by chesed, each person is responsible for the other.
There is an unspoken bond that unites them. That’s why as Jews we have the saying:
kol yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh-– all of Israel is responsible for one another. We have love for one another, and share responsibility for one another. We are invested in one another.
Tonight, I would like to speak with you about amplifying chesed in the world this year because we each have the power to consciously decide to do so. We can all can make the choice to infuse this kind of covenantal love into all of our relationships: romantic relationships, friendships and, professional partnerships. Would that it be that all of society consisted of relationships built upon chesed, that kind of love that is rooted in respect and obligation.
My friend, the Reverend Ed Bacon, recently retired rector of of All Saints Church in Pasadena, and frequent guest on Oprah’s Soul Series, wrote a book called The 8 Habits of Love, a kind of how-to manual for cultivating relationships based on this kind of chesed. He suggests, that to live a life of love, one should regularly practice: generosity, stillness, truth, candor, play, forgiveness, compassion and community. Read his book for more information on these ideas- they’re great. Through my interactions with him, I have found that he practices these values.
Several times a year, he invited us, members of the interfaith community, to attend holiday services; moreover, he sat us in a place of honor at the front of the church. Reverend Bacon (I love that name!) binds all of his relationships with the virtue of chesed/love. His final sermon as rector of All Saints entitled, “The Journey of Love-Alignment,” he affirmed that, “We bear witness to the truth that the energy pulsing at the center of the universe is love.”
In Judaism, we revere the practice of chesed, loving compassion, in a similar way. Psalm 89 tells us that “olam yibaneh chesed/the world was built with chesed.” And, in the Babylonian Talmud, the sage Rabbi Simlai elaborates on this idea as he specifically recognizes that, “The Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed.” After all, creation itself that we are celebrating here, tonight, was an act of chesed, as was
the compassionate burial that God gave Moses at the end of the Torah. The Torah, begins and ends with chesed. Think about that for a moment. Chesed binds the universe together. So, when we bind our relationships with chesed, we are in greater alignment with the universe. No wonder it feels so good! And, in doing so, we also align ourselves with God’s incredible expressions of chesed in the Torah.
Here’s one clear example: remember that not only did God give the Israelites the 10 commandments a first time, but even after they proved to worship a false idol, the golden calf, causing Moses to destroy them in a rage of anger, God compassionately forgave the Israelites and provided another set. Out of a covenantal relationship bound by love and compassion, God gave us a second chance. Thank God!
This is a relationship that can’t break– or perhaps the lesson is that even when it is broken, repair is possible. Because the relationship is based on chesed. In our liturgy, as well, you will notice that we appeal to the chesed of our Creator.
An example is the quintessential High Holy Day prayer, the Avinu Malkeinu, where we plead to God to act with chesed towards us- asei imanu tzedakah v’chesed v’hoshieinu; we ask for chesed and justice to be done to save us.
A second example is found in the Amidah, where we include the words: “v’zocheir chasdei avot v’imahot/remember the acts of chesed of our forebears.” We remind God of the compassion of our ancient relatives with the hopes that their acts of chesed inspire within God acts of chesed towards us. Acts of chesed inspire acts of chesed. In this way, we have the power to amplify acts of love in the world simply by practicing love in our own lives.
NPR ran a story last year about a professor and social scientist from Wesleyan University named Scott Plous who puts on his course syllabus requirements to engage in chesed— okay, well he doesn’t call it chesed.
But he does put on his syllabus requirements to bind relationships with chesed, like the requirement to adopt a “norm of reciprocity: [where] if you’re nice to someone, or you open up to them, they’re likely to do the same with you” and to practice “the power of empathy: [where] when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, [it] profoundly changes the relationship you have with them.”
The capstone experience for this class is a Day of Compassion in which, “students… spend one day being deliberately kind and generous toward others. Scott [asks] them to notice how these actions changed the way they felt about themselves. And, students often report that it’s transformative—that they’re really surprised at the reaction, that people are so overwhelmingly positive that it starts to feed on itself…And by the end of the day, they report, ‘This is a different side of me that I didn’t recognize was there.’” What would happen to us if we amplified chesed in our relationships in the new year? What would happen to the world if we amplified chesed in our relationships in the new year?
I know that when we watched or read the news this year, it may have seemed that the world was falling apart– I felt it too. But if we deliberately attuned ourselves to look for it, we might have noticed the numerous acts of chesed, of grace and compassion and love exhibited within covenantal relationships, that were present at every turn. And, then we would have known that amidst the drama and challenges, good people were affirming the truth that love binds the universe.
The most obvious example was during the Olympics- among the salacious headlines of Olympians behaving badly, one could find compassionate stories of triumph, victory and truly sportsmanlike or sportsperson-like behavior. For example, did you see those runners, New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino, who ran into one another, fell on the track and then helped each other up to finish the race together? The Olympic spirit of covenantal love was alive there. They saw beyond their personal ambition, and instead realized the power of the Olympic dream in the other. That motivated them to help the other complete the race. They deserve a gold medal in chesed, and inspiration.
Or did you hear of US Olympic basketball player Carmelo Anthony who visited a favela in Rio? He commented on his visit to the slum that, “global poverty is something that’s sad. It’s something that I wish everybody could see…and see what it’s really like.” He expressed that his visit there resonated with his own story growing up in the ghettos in Baltimore. He often returns there, too, because he says, “Now I feel a connection where I can relate back to those people because it’s a respect factor now.” That is a relationship bound by sacred connection, a relationship based upon love and respect and chesed. These were truly uplifting stories of people who served as positive examples on a global stage.
Likewise, among the most horrific news footage this year, of killings of Black folks by law enforcement officers, we could attune ourselves to seeing, and even become a part of a dedicated movement of people rising up to affirm the value of life; a movement of people who are articulating a new way to affirm communal love and public safety. They held vigils and protests and engaged in civic processes like open government meetings, ballot initiatives, town hall meetings and one-on-one meetings with legislators. They critiqued through love, l’shem shamayim, for the sake of improving things. Because it takes an incredible amount of energy to not only endure the injustices projected on screens–but then, to re-engage decision makers and power holders in a positive manner to benefit the entire community– those are absolutely heroic measures of infusing chesed into situation.
One of the single most impactful stories of chesed that I heard this year was from a woman who works in a non-profit organization. I met her through my work on the Community Funding Board of the Liberty Hill Foundation. We will call her Esther. One day at school, a girl punched her daughter in the face. Esther got a call from the principal who assured her, “don’t worry, we will see to it that this student is suspended.”
“No, don’t do that!” immediately replied Esther.
“Why not?” asked the principal.
“Because, I want to know why she hit my daughter. Suspending or even expelling her is not going to solve the problem.”
The principal was stunned that this act of compassion was coming from a parent of a girl had just been punched. But, she did as was requested, and eventually, they found out the the girl was diabetic and her parents hadn’t had the money to get her the medication she needed to control her rage. Esther could have easily treated this girl as a criminal who deserved punitive punishment and set her on a life path of criminalization. Instead, Esther chose to insert compassion into the situation, and this simple act of chesed opened up a new understanding– refusing to throw a student away, and instead looking to address the root issue may have saved this girl’s future educational prospects, and the trajectory of her life.
A final example. We, in the LGBT affirming community, received huge amounts of compassion, love, and deep commitment to relationships in the wake of this summer’s massacre in Orlando’s LGBT nightclub called Pulse where 50 people were murdered. In the days following the attack, countless communities lit candles, released white balloons, held memorials. Scores of clergy from across Los Angeles contacted us here at BCC in support, and they said that they wanted to do something to express solidarity. We decided to host a candlelight vigil in response. And, in the sacred safe space of our sanctuary that night, we felt the sacred bond of chesed, of lovingkindness and a true honoring of relationships among participants. In doing so, together, we also affirmed the love-connection that we felt even 3,000 miles away. And we were not alone– across the country, communities came together to stand against hate and in total raised over $26 million for the victims. The power of connection and overriding love and chesed has never been more apparent to me than in the wake of each of these events around the world this year.
Clearly, 5776 was the year where we could look to finds acts of compassion and goodness even amidst the most challenging headlines. Will you join me to make 5777 the year where we actively affirm that love binds the universe by deliberately taking part in acts of chesed?
In 5777, let’s not only witness and benefit from these acts of love, but let’s consider how we can amplify our own acts of chesed— let’s increase our blessed acts of love and compassion in the community, and see how they are carried forward. Maybe we could all put “do chesed” on the syllabus of the course of our life for this year, or at least this semester.
Maybe we can take a little more responsibility for one another in our families, in our communities, in the world? Like Professor Plous suggests, once we get started, there is no telling were it might end.
In this way, may we each make a sweet new year, for ourselves and each other, and many thereafter! To a Shanah Tovah and many more! Amen!
 Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur. New York: CCAR Press, 2015. Page 358.
 Bacon, Ed. 8 Habits of Love. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012.
 Psalm 89:3.
 BT Sotah 14a.