The Torah of Loving Kindness

Once upon a time every rabbinical union sent out the subject to be discussed on High Holidays, so no matter where you went, you’d get the general conversation going on in the Jewish community. While this unanimity is now only memory, this year a new book has come out that I am sure is the topic of most rabbis’ sermons this year. Samuel Freedman has written a book called Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, and it is a chilling picture of six million Jews pulling away from each other and toward the extremes. In the last two decades we have witnessed the disappearance of what most of us have depended upon to define Judaism and Jewishness. The community has always created Judaism, and the community that determined neighborhood, schools, politics, food, clothing, and ideas is now largely memory.

According to Freedman, the portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future and is already flourishing will be the Orthodox model whose central premise has always been that religion defines Jewish identity. Secular Judaism worked so well that it no longer works in a world where bagels outsell doughnuts and intermarriage is rampant. We may call ourselves Jews, but what does it mean? The time has come for a new Judaism of freshly articulated practices and principles that weave us into a web of mutuality; even the most pluralistic among us have come to recognize that boundaries give purpose and shape to any group. To that end, I’ve taken four areas of human concern to examine from a Jewish perspective. The intention is to offer the wisdom of a rich, classic path by which to navigate our lives and at the same time learn what it means to be a Jew.

The first subject for study is my favorite word in the English language, loving kindness. In Hebrew the word is hesed, which is also translated as mercy and grace. It is unconditional, causeless love, the love we have not just for those nearest and dearest, because that’s easy. It means behaving as if we love to strangers and even those we don’t like. The opposite of love is not hate, but loving kindness, the behavior we offer when we may feel exactly the opposite of love. And how do we know that this is what God wants us to give each other? Because we are btzelem elohim, in God’s image, and hesed is God’s chief attribute upon which we most depend. loving kindness is what God gives us, no matter what. The love that never stops, never gives up, no matter how unworthy we may feel. God knows better than we who we are and who we may be.

The Torah begins with God’s loving kindness. Not in making the world but in remembering that even when we’re angry, we love each other. God is angry with Adam and Eve for eating the apple, yet it is the Holy One who makes clothes for them before they leave the garden. And the Torah ends with loving kindness. While God will not let Moses into the land, when he dies God buries Moses in the land of Moab.

Being in God’s image isn’t a physical thing. God doesn’t have arms and legs; it is our behavior that must be like God’s. The mystics of Safed in the 16th Century created havurot, fellowships, who undertook regimens of loving kindness. They went beyond legal requirements to awaken genuine love and compassion. They counseled, “Look around the room. Can we love everyone here? Oh, there is someone who did me wrong! I don’t love him. Right away forgive him. Don’t wait for him to ask forgiveness, as the law tells us. Love anyway.”

If it’s any consolation, even God had trouble with this. When the Israelites grew impatient with Moses leaving them to receive the word from God, they made a golden calf. Moses, you remember, had a fit and dropped the tablets. And then God tells Moses that he will kill the people. Moses pleads for the people, and God listens. God tells Moses, “Look, this isn’t going to work if we both get angry. Help me to remember my loving kindness. Say these words to me, Adonai, Adonai, el rahum v’hanun, and then I’ll remember. And, as you are merciful to each other, so I will be merciful.” The rabbis amplify this, “Forgive your neighbors his wrongdoing; then your sins will be forgiven when you pray. Shall one cherish anger against another and yet ask healing from God? Do we have no mercy on each other and yet pray for our own sins?” God needs us to bring down God’s goodness to earth. Behavior is contagious. We not only help God to remember how to be with us, we help each other by being merciful. But how? By doing more than the law demands, by giving more than is required. This is loving kindness.

Adonai, Adonai, otherwise known as God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy, are repeated throughout the High Holiday services. Last Saturday night, Selichot, we sang these words over and over to remind God, in these days of judgment, to remember that we’re trying, that we have a promise and an agreement. Why don’t we say it just once or twice? When we’re hurt, we remember over and over the painful words or incident. Each time they dig deeper into us. If our nature is to revisit and repeat words, then we can shift what we listen to in ourselves and hear words to remind ourselves of God’s hesed to awaken our own kindness.

Imagine thirteen ways to describe loving kindness, each exquisitely separate. Here are a few examples. Adonai, the first word, is the name of God we hear when we ask for the merciful face. This is the God who forgives us even before we commit them. The second word is also Adonai. This is the loving kindness of God who will forgive us after we have sinned and repented. A word about sin. The word in English comes from stain, a permanent mark. In Hebrew the word is chet, which is an archery term that means to miss the mark. The guide to finding the mark is Torah, and the 13 Attributes of Mercy are found in Torah, Exodus 34.

The next word, El, is the name of God’s great power that implies mercy even beyond the words, “Adonai Adonai.” God is then described as rahum, compassionate, which has its root in the word, rahem, which is womb. Hanun is the attribute of grace, the loving kindness that comes without having earned it.

Have you ever been in a broken place and an unexpected act of kindness has, if only momentarily, repaired you? This is grace. Erech Apaim is the God who is slow to anger with both the wicked and righteous, and oogdal hesed, abundant in loving kindness even to those who lack personal merits.

Tonight we celebrate the sweetness of beginning anew. To make ourselves a bria hadashah, a new being, and to be born again we look at the ultimate questions. Who am I? What is my worth? What have I done wrong this year? How do I live the good life? No matter who we are, wild or tame, believing or unbelieving, the answer will be the same, and I guarantee if you take any part of the thirteen attributes into your heart, you will find that matters of belief and understanding melt away. Peace of mind, well-slept nights, and happiness will be yours.

I know, because every year that I prepare for the sermons, I attempt to put into practice what I’m learning. To talk about the Torah of loving kindness required me to examine my behavior, kippah on and off, and see if I could do it. But I learned something amazing. Our tradition says that the deed leads to enlightenment, not the other way around. Every time I found myself raising my voice, sinking into despair, or thinking nasty things about another person, I tested what I was learning. This is when loving kindness comes in; it’s easy to be generous and kind with those we love. The trick is to love when you don’t like, when you’re afraid you don’t have enough to give, and when you feel distant from others, yourself, and God.

250 times the Torah tells us, v’ahavta reacha camocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. We learn two things from this. First, there are no commandments for our natural inclinations. There are no commandments like, “Be number one. Make money.” Second, Torah doesn’t waste a word, and when it’s repetitious, it’s because the idea is very important. No commandment is repeated as often as this and it is more difficult perhaps that even the animal sacrifices, and yet it is, according to Rabbi Akiva, the most important of all laws, because in our love for each other, we will find God. Here we sit as a community to affirm our membership in the Jewish people and its tradition, our belief in God, human worth and life itself. We must do this together, we cannot do it alone. We are told not to separate ourselves from the community, precisely because our inclination leads us to isolate, not join with others. V’ahavta. And you will love, we are told. And yet we don’t believe that we can be forced to love.

This goes beyond simple ethics; we love because God has made each of us in the image of God, and no matter how difficult a person may be, they are here because they belong. On Sukkot we hold four species of plants together for blessing. The lulav, or date palm, tastes good–it bears good fruit–yet it has no fragrance. The myrtle smells sweet yet has no taste. The etrog, or citron, both tastes and smells good. And the willow neither has fragrance or taste. All are necessary for blessing, and God needs all of us, regardless of attributes, to make the world.

Re’achah, your neighbor, includes everyone living near you, Jewish or not. The most typical teachings of Judaism are universal and inclusive. Finally, camocha, as yourself, is understood to be a corrective against self-centeredness.

To illustrate the importance of this mitzvah, we have a powerful teaching that explains why the Temple was destroyed in 70 c.e., the second and most devastating time. The first time the Temple was destroyed it was because we had forgotten the teachings and law. But the second time we were ritually observant, and we still lost the Temple.

In that time there was a wealthy man living in Jerusalem who threw a banquet. His secretary made a mistake and sent an invitation to Bar Kamtza, an enemy, instead of sending it to Kamtza, his friend. The night of the party Bar Kamtza appeared and the host was angry. “Why are you here?” “he shouted. “Because you invited me,” Bar Kamtza replies. “Leave immediately!” Bar Kamtza asked if he could pay for his meal and leave early. The host refused. He pleaded that he would pay for half the banquets yet he was still refused. “I’ll pay for the whole thing! Just don’t embarrass me by sending me away,” Bar Kamtza begged.

But the host insisted, and Bar Kamtza was so incensed he created a great uproar that the Romans quelled by destroying the Temple. Thus, Sinat hinam, causeless hatred, destroyed the Temple.

And when the Temple was destroyed, the depression of the people was unimaginable. Where would they find God if the Holy House was destroyed? What could they offer God in place of animal sacrifices? The rabbis knew. One day Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Joshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua wept and said, “Oy! The place which atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice now lies in ruins!” Then Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of loving kindness.” For it is written, “loving kindness I desire, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). As the Holy One is loving, you too must be loving.

Two thousand years ago, we gave up animal sacrifices and became a religion of loving kindness. Without a Temple, where does God dwell? Between us. To be in the image of God is to treat our spouses, children, business partners, clerks in the supermarket, and even enemies with loving kindness. If we want God’s mercy, we have to treat each other mercifully. This is how we grow love in our hearts, by acting with love, until our hearts know no other way. This is the season when the world is judged by divine loving kindness in balance with our own deeds of loving kindness, and this is the perfect evening to balance the scale by spending the next ten days forgiving, asking forgiveness, and acting with generosity towards everyone, including ourselves.

Rashi said, “Because of loving kindness the world is reborn.” May each of us in the coming year rebirth ourselves to create a Jewish community of kindness and love, and in so doing we will rebirth the world.