The Choice of Loving-Kindness

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Last week, our Torah portion left us on the edge of a cliff with a “to be continued” sign. This weeks Torah portion continues telling the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, and the move of Jacob’s whole family down to that region to weather the long famine.

Rabbi Sidney Greenberg points out that very often in our lives we remember the wrongs that have been done to us and neglect to keep a mental list of all the “rights” that we have been the recipients of. As we come to the end of the secular year and are about to embark on the journey of a new year, we can take the time to make a mental balance sheet of what we will remember and what we will forget.

Joseph has many things in his life that come under both headings. He can choose to remember that he was somewhat obnoxious towards his brothers when he was younger and self-righteous. He can choose to remember what his brothers did to him when they threw him into the pit and took his multi-colored coat away then traded him to the Ishhmaelites. Now that he is in a position of power over them, ready to decide their fate, he can choose to remember the good and or the bad. Joseph the righteous chooses to inform his brothers that all that they had done to him was G-d’s will in order for him to be in the position to save the people in the region from starving to death.

A question:

What should we choose to remember in our own lives? Should we dwell on the negatives that have been done to us? Should we remember the negatives that we perpetrated upon others? Perhaps we should strive to remember the good others have done for us, especially if for some reason we are currently estranged from that person or persons for a different reason.

Rabbi Greenberg points out that we easily remember promises that others made to us that they neglected to keep. Our task is to be forgetful of others’ promises while we maintain with great integrity our promises to others.

There is a Hebrew word that comes to mind when thinking of Joseph’s choice: Chesed.
Chesed is difficult to translate. No single word in English captures its meanings. Translators use words like “kindness,” “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “loyalty.” Perhaps “loyal love” is close.

Chesed. Loving kindness and choosing a path of chesed over resentment.
Chesed is the midah of our new month. But how do we practice this most difficult of virtues?

Mussar, classical Jewish ethical teachings, remind us that the most important aspect of Chesed is not what we feel but what we do. When we overcome our inner-resistance and do the nice thing anyway, we benefit ourselves as well as the world.

Rabbi Simlai in the Talmud explained: The Torah begins with an act of Chesed and ends with an act of Chesed. “God made for Adam and his wife garments of leather and clothed them.” And “God buried Moses in the valley.” Both acts are out of love.

And when Joseph chooses a path of Chesed for his brothers he is doing so out of love.

There is a story told of a man who died after having led a thoroughly selfish, immoral life. Moments later, he found himself in a world of bright sunlight, soft music and figures all dressed in white. ‘Boy, I never expected this,’ he said to himself. ‘I guess God has a soft spot in his heart for a clever rascal like me.’ He turned to a figure in a white robe and said, ‘Buddy, I’ve got something to celebrate. Can I buy you a drink?’ The figure answered, ‘If you mean alcoholic beverages, we don’t have any of that around here.’ ‘No booze, huh? Well, then, what about a game of cards? Pinochle, draw poker, you name it.’ ‘I’m sorry but we don’t gamble here either.’ ‘Well, what do you do all day?’ the man asked. ‘We read the Psalms a lot. There is a Bible class every morning and a prayer circle in the afternoon.’ ‘Psalms! Bible study all day long! Boy, I’ll tell you, heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.’ At which point the figure in white smiled and said, ‘I see that you don’t understand. We’re in heaven; you’re in hell.’

Heaven, the story suggests, is having learned to do and enjoy the things that make us human, the things that only human beings can do. And by contrast, the worst kind of hell I can imagine is not fire and brimstone and little red figures with pitchforks. The worst hell is the realization that you could have been a real human being, and now it’s too late. You could have known the satisfaction of caring for another person, of being generous and truthful and loyal, of having developed your mind and your heart, of controlling your instincts instead of letting them control you, and you never did it. (Harold Kushner)

Even when it comes to our understanding of God, we have a choice. Do we favor the harsh, vindictive view of God or the loving, forgiving view?

Last week, Rabbi Harold Schulweis passed away, a brilliant rabbi and noted practitioner of Chesed. One of his most moving sermons,
following the 6.7 on the Richter scale earthquake in LA.

I quote Rabbi Schulweis at length:

After the earthquake, the children of the Day School and Hebrew School were brought together to talk about their fears. (We did the same a few miles away in Hollywood, where I was a rabbi.) The re-iterated question they asked was, “Why is God so angry at us?” Much the same question was asked by their parents.
Where did that question come from? Are we teaching our children and adults a theology that leads them to believe that where there is smoke, there is God’s fire? Are we teaching them that catastrophe, indiscriminate disasters are, as the lawyers say “acts of God”? Are we in our theological teaching preparing the ground for guilt, accusation, self-recrimination? Is that the healthy minded, realistic tradition of the Jewish faith?

I shared with the questioners my belief, which is grounded in the Jewish tradition. Two familiar names of divinity stand side by side in our prayers and in our Bible. One name is “Elohim,” the other is “Adonai.”  Different, yet one. “Hear O Israel the Lord (Adonai) our God (Elohim), the Lord is One.”
The names that describe one divinity are different. The name Elohim in the first chapter of Genesis is used exclusively. Elohim is the God of nature, the life of the universe, the author of all creation. Elohim is the God who creates lion and lamb, light and darkness, the eagle and its prey. Elohim is the Jewish reality principle “Nature pursues its own course,” our sages taught, and Elohim is the ground of nature. Nature includes earthquake, hurricane, tornado, sun, moon and mountains. Through the eyes of Elohim the whole of existence is “very good.”  One can command nature only by obeying it, understanding its ways.
The world of Elohim is not a court of justice. In this sense the world is not fair. But that is not the whole world, nor is Elohim the whole of divinity. Were Elohim the only description of God’s way we would be pantheists, equating God with nature. We would submit to nature and live according to nature. But Judaism knows another dimension of Divinity, Adonai. It is the name that is introduced in the Bible with the creation of humanity (Genesis 2:5; 4:26). If Elohim refers to that which is, Adonai refers to that which ought to be. If Elohim is the source of all that is given, Adonai is the power that transforms givenness, repairs the broken shards, mends the torn fabric, holds back the chaos.
Why the earthquake, and where is God? There are powers, energies, colliding forces that scientists identify. Theologians have no better or alternative explanation. The laws of tectonics that the seismologists describe theologians may trace to Elohim. In that sense and only in that sense, Elohim is in the earthquake. Elohim is amoral, revealing the transcendent power out of the whirlwind as we read in the concluding chapter of the book of Job.

But where is Adonai in the earthquake? In the energies and talents of His divinity as imaged in creation, in people in their individual and collective behavior to protect, sustain and comfort those who suffer. Adonai is present when we are present and it is through our godly behavior that belief in His existence and goodness is demonstrated.

The rabbis ask in a Midrash (based on Deuteronomy 13:5) how it is possible for human beings to follow the devouring fire of God.  The answer is that we are to imitate the attributes of Adonai. As Adonai clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, visits the sick, comforts the mourners, buries the dead, so faith in Adonai within and between us mandates us to emulate His qualities.
The earthquake is not a moral judgment of God. It is the consequence of the amoral world of nature. A natural cause is not a divine moral intention, a natural consequence is not a divine curse.

The Jewish answer to the question, “Where is God in the earthquake?” is typically another question: “Where are we in the earthquake?”  What have we done to alleviate the suffering of its victims, to calm the frightened, shelter and feed those made homeless? What have we done and what will we do to anticipate and mitigate the effects of the turbulence? With Adonai, there is always something to be done.

If we are paralyzed by the shock and aftershocks of the earthquake, it is because we have split apart Elohim and Adonai as if they were separate Gods. Left with Elohim alone, we incline toward passivity. Left with Adonai alone, we tend to ignore the principle of reality. In the Sh’ma we proclaim the unity of both, the nexus of the real and the ideal, of nature and morality. That unity is to be achieved by binding Elohim and Adonai together….

Elohim creates day and night, light and darkness. Lion and lamb, Bacteria and penicillin.  Gives power to the fowl above the earth, to the great sea monsters below, to every living creature that creeps on the earth.
And Elohim said, “It is very good.” All existence is good in the eyes of Elohim, the God of the first chapter of Genesis, Elohim who spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.
Who laid the cornerstones of earth? Who shut up the sea with doors When it broke forth and issued out of the womb? Who caused it to rain on a land where no man is? On the wilderness, wherein there is no man?
Elohim, the God of Omnipotence, before whom we recognize our own impotence, “Canst Thou bind the chain of the Pleides or loose the bands or Orion?” Elohim the God of Omniscience, before we whom we recognize our ignorance, “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you number the clouds by wisdom?” Elohim, before whom we bow our heads and bend our knees, the sovereign God whose power and reality we accept.

But Elohim is not the whole of divinity. Alongside Elohim is Adonai. This is our affirmation of oneness. “Hear Israel, Adonai our Elohim is One.”
Adonai, the Lord of all that ought to be. Adonai revealed in the yearning and behavior of His human creation for justice, for fairness, for peace, for harmony. Adonai in the vision of a compassionate society. Adonai in the transformation of chaos and violence and the void of the universe, into order, sanity, and love.

Adonai in the mending of the universe, the repair of the world, the binding of bruises, the gathering of fragmented sparks buried in the husks of the world. Adonai revealed in the discovery of the self created in the image of Adonai-Elohim, the Lord God, who breathed into our nostrils and made us a living soul.
Elohim/Adonai, Acceptance and transformation, the reality of what is, the reality of what ought to be the reality of what is yet to be.

Just as God has different facets, so do we. My hope for us in the month and year ahead is that we tend toward Chesed in how we treat ourselves and — most importantly — how we treat each other.