This time of year it is natural to make lists of the best and worst of everything, at least in the past year. This include final words of those who are dying. Reading Ron Chernow’s new book on President Grant, I was reminded of the up and coming John Sedgwick, the general who told his adoring troops not to worry about the enemy fire, as the rebels could not hit an elephant at this distance.” Actually he was struck dead before getting the last word out.
Many movies of course excel in deathbed scenes or memorable lines. My favorite is King Kong: “It wasn’t airplanes. It was beauty that killed the beast.” Then there is the five hankie ending of Terms of Endearment.
I am sure we all have our own list.
The scene from this week’s Torah portion: Father Jacob lay dying. It was a sad but not a tragic moment. He had lived long and had seen much. His giant strength was now gone and he called to his great son, Joseph, to whom he said: “Do me the kindness of truth, and bury me not in Egypt.”
The words “kindness of truth” have become a living phrase in Jewish life, “Chesed Shel Emet.” Also translated as Mercy and Truth. Don’t get bogged down on the literal translation. They don’t mean speaking truth with compassion or something like that.
They are actually best translated figuratively as an aspiration for doing the right thing with no hope of tangible reward.
Chesed v’Emet is a popular name for a Jewish cemetery since nothing is more important than how we take care of the remains of our beloved departed. Earlier today Rabbi Conover’s father, Dale, was laid to rest in a cemetery in St Louis bearing this name, as was her mother the week before.
The ancient Rabbis said that chesed shel emet symbolizes the highest level of virtue; the noblest kindness is that which we do for the dead because they can give us nothing in return. Yogi Berra had it right: go to other folk’s funerals so they will go to yours. Yogi was right in pointing out the absurdity of such a practice.
All commandments are equal but one is more equal than others. It is chesed shel emet.
But this value is not only for our loved ones who have passed away.
This exalted standard of ethics, to do good without hoping for anything in return, actually comes into every life.
Chesed shel emet. We must learn to recognize it whenever it appears so as to spread its influence further in our own action.
Talk about a good new year’s resolution!
It turns out that here are three distinct ways to practice chesed shel emet.
Practicing Generosity to the Humble
How does the world usually work? Not with generosity to the humble.
Think about it. Politicians operate through the giving of favors. These favors are part of a process because of which they can demand favors in return. Hence the new tax bill.
It is the swamp at is swampiest.
It is, therefore, not really ethics but simply a business exchange.
The average person acts somewhat differently. She, also, does many favors for her friends, and she likewise expects some sort of appreciation or reciprocity.
But she does not demand.
Her kindness is based chiefly on a desire to make her friends happy.
This is nobler than a mere business arrangement, yet there is still a nobler stage: namely, when to an unpleasant person who is also un-influential, whom we may never see again, we do a kindness; this may be the noblest act of generosity we ever perform.
What we do for a return is simply business.
What we do out of friendship is joy.
What we do to the humble without expectation of return is true service of God.
Dorothy Day has been called an American saint. She took her Christian faith right into the most dreadful slums of New York City. There she established the first Catholic Worker House, a place of radical Christian discipleship.
That house became a place of hospitality for the down and out — for men Day later described as “grey men, the color of lifeless trees and bushes and winter soil, who had in them as yet none of the green of hope, the rising sap of faith.” Not long after, the Catholic Worker House began welcoming women and children as well.
One day, a wealthy socialite pulled up to the house, in a big car. She received the obligatory tour of the mission from Day herself. When she was about to leave, the woman impulsively pulled a diamond ring off her finger and handed it to Day.
The staff was ecstatic when they heard about this act of generosity. The ring, they realized, could be sold for a princely sum — enough money to take some pressure off the budget, at least for a while.
A day or two later, though, one of them noticed the diamond ring on the finger of a homeless woman who was leaving the mission. Immediately, the staff members confronted Day. Why, in heaven’s name, would she just give away a valuable piece of jewelry like that?
Day responded: “That woman was admiring the ring. She thought it was so beautiful. So I gave it to her. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”
Practicing generosity to the humble. Not so easy after all.
In addition to generosity to humble there is a second amalgamation of mercy and truth. Chesed shel emet. To whit:
II. Service Without Reward
One wonders why people want to be President of the United States. Especially these days!
The office exposes them to denunciations, yet most serve to the best of their ability in many significant ways. And most are rewarded with honor and prominence and a place in history.
People serve in many places of leadership and are honored for it. They deserve the honor, and their work is a valuable service.
It is ethical, but there is a higher ethic.
Whenever we do something good anonymously, whenever we give a gift, however small, which no one knows about, that is a service which is really pure and on the highest level.
In Jewish wisdom, giving anonymously is valued as among the highest form of giving. But is it a lost art?
A few years ago , the Toronto Star featured the story of 11-year-old Adam, who turned in a wallet he found containing $1,400. The owner repaid the act of honesty with a measly $10 reward. When the story became public, hundreds of people wanted to reward the boy. Adam received numerous gifts and benefits for his deed of honesty; so many, in fact, that Adam’s sixth- grade teacher was quoted as saying, “Honesty really does pay.” In other words, the cheapskate loser of the wallet ought to be chastised, and Adam deserves the accolades he received. But whatever happened to simply expecting honesty as a way of life? Doesn’t honesty deserve applause as a virtuous ethic whether it pays or not?”
Chesed shel emet says yes.
Finally, besides service to humble and service without reward there is one more important facet of chesed shel emet:
III. Faith in Misfortune
The Book of Job touches the depths of human experience. It involves happiness and faith, tragedy and rebellion. Satan sneers at Job’s nobility. “Does Job serve God for nothing ? Haven’t You, God, not given him happiness?” This is an unfair sneer.
It is noble to have faith through gratitude for joy.
But there is a nobler faith. When tragedies come which bewilder us, when we feel beaten down by an undeserved misfortune, then there can be nothing nobler than to be able to say with Job, “Yea, though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”
In a sermon at Harvard University’s Memorial Church on September 23, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks, the late Peter Gomes told the story of Ernest Gordon, who was captured on the River Kwai during World War II. “While in a Japanese prison camp, Gordon and his fellow British captives were initially very religious, reading their Bibles, praying, singing hymns, witnessing, and testifying to their faith. They were hoping and expecting that God would reward them and fortify them for their faith by freeing them or at least mitigating their captivity.
“God didn’t deliver, however, and the men became both disillusioned and angry. They gave up on the outward display of their faith; but after a while, as the men began tending to the needs of their fellows — caring for them, protecting the weaker ones and in some cases dying for one another — they began to discern something of a spirit of God in their midst. They discovered that religion was not what you believed but what you did for others when it seemed that you could do nothing at all. Compassion gave them their inner strength, and their inner strength gave them compassion.
“Could it be that amid the cries of vengeance and violence and warfare, the inner strength we so desperately seek is the strength that comes from hearing and heeding the cry of the other?”
Chesed shel emet:
The words mercy and truth do not do the phrase justice.
But these embedded ideals do:
Generosity to the humble.
Service with no reward.
Faith, even in misfortune.
In other words, we should practice kindness like God would, without expectation of reward.
In Deuteronomy 13: 5 it states, “You shall walk after the Eternal your God.” Two thousand years ago, Rabbi, Rabbi Chama bar Chanina tried to understand this text. ‘What is the meaning of the text: “You shall walk after the Eternal your God?” [The meaning is] to walk after the attributes of God: As God clothes the naked, so should you also clothe the naked. As God visits the sick, so should you also visit the sick. As God comforts mourners, so should you also comfort mourners. A God buries the dead so should you also bury the dead.
THIS is how we walk in God’s ways. By following the examples set by God. By showing God’s attributes in our actions. By not just being kind but DOING kindness.
Chesed shel emet.
Not a bad way to begin the new year!