If you had to distil the essence of a good and meaningful life into just one word, what would you choose?
Aristotle chose happiness, Moses said listen, Miriam told us it’s about music, Rabbi Akiva opined love, Wordsworth said feel (or emotion), Martin Luther King Junior urged us to dream, Viktor Frankl encouraged us to seek meaning. And Sigmund Freud told us to just talk ….
These are all of course essential if not imperative for a productive life.
I would however like to focus on one other word that for me encapsulates the life and philosophy of the very first Jews, Abraham and Sarah. I’ve been thinking of these two singular individuals, not only because we begin to read their life stories in our weekly Torah and synagogue reading this week, but also because they lived in tumultuous times and have many lessons to teach us in our troubled era.
The word that characterises them both is compassion, known in Hebrew as chesed /חסד.
Chesed is the leitmotif of Judaism. It’s a hard word to translate accurately; it’s referred to as loving kindness or gentle compassion and it contains within it the whole gamut of human love and caring. It’s about reaching out to others with practical actions from a simple touch on a shoulder to the more complex and demanding requirements of visiting the sick, empathising with the hurting, attending to the dying, consoling the grieving .
It’s about the overt and visible and it’s about the hidden and invisible or what Wordsworth called the ‘ unremembered acts of kindness and of love’. Sometimes it’s those forgotten and seemingly unremarkable actions that are the most impactful and can change a person’s heart or even life. Think about the stranger who helped you at a juncture of loss or confusion, the friend who said just the right word at the right moment, the Mum or teacher who nudged you at that opportune occasion.
The power and potency of chesed lies in its borderless and boundless nature. It applies at home and abroad, in your heart and in your hands. It gives a voice to the mute, hope to the voiceless and life to the inanimate. When you relieve the suffering of an animal or ease the pain of our environment you are acting as a baal chesed , you’re a captain of chesed.
The creatures of our world so need our protection as the Australian awful bushfires so pointedly reminded us. There is a beautiful poem by the English poet Philip Larkin which illustrates just how tender and subtle chesed could and should be to all creatures, animal and human :
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
As educators know, you can never underestimate the effects of your words and teachings. This is captured in the touching observation of Vironika Tugaleva – though your acts of love and compassion cannot penetrate bandages or armour, they are never wasted and never lost. They sit within the recipient’s mind, awaiting his awakening.
I have always been struck by the Biblical scene (Genesis 18 – next week’s Torah reading) that is taken as emblematic of the kindness of Abraham and Sarah. I am referring to their hospitality towards the strangers who turn up at their humble tent, to their anticipation of the needs of these tired and dusty visitors, the electricity and energy with which they embrace them; the sheer generosity and thoughtfulness towards these unexpected and uninvited guests.
I am even more impressed that Jewish tradition finds this homely vignette as significant as some of the more public and famous events in the life of Abraham and Sarah. Their simple kindness and thoughtfulness are as important as their courage and bravery in the face of war, conflict, infertility and family disputes. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that the thread of compassion is what ultimately binds us together and knits the human soul into its purpose and destiny.