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Hesed is the Answer- Yom Kippur 5780

11/12/2019 02:17:53 PM


Rabbi Avi Alpert

Friends, we are together as a holy community preparing to recall impactful people in our lives who have left us… who are no longer in this world. We do this in the middle of this awesome day, a day appointed for magnificent reflection… for return. We bring to the forefront of our minds our losses and our state of deficiency, realizing that we are left alone, yet still capable of more living. 

And, in order to live better, we each must add an ingredient to our daily diets. In the midst of our Yom Kippur hunger, I ask you, “What is missing from our diets? Is it more protein? More complex carbohydrates? More olive  oil?” No, the ingredient that each of us must add to our diet fuels us - but it isn’t food. This ingredient is an element for our daily conduct that never sells out, it’s always in stock. It’s the answer to our state of sorrow, to our lacking, and to our disappointment and to our pride. (Slowly) We need to add more חסד, more kindness to our diet of humanity. On this holiest day of the year, I’m urging all of us to add more חסד, more loving-kindness to our lives.

I must not forget that I would not be standing here today if it wasn’t for a tremendous amount of חסד shown to me by countless individuals. This is a basic truth. Let’s go back to the beginning of my story… I am only able to make these choices today because at the beginning of my life two people held me when I was helpless, חסד. Someone fed me, חסד, kept me clean, warm and safe...חסד. (Thank you, Mom and Dad) And I’m imagining the same is similarly true for you. Let’s begin to internalize this… 

The fact that I am here, with you today, is also a result of the חסד, of the loving-kindness that my wife and I have bestowed upon others. We welcomed guests into our home for Shabbat, regularly, twenty years ago. Because we were willing to extend hospitality to guests, even unfamiliar guests, going outside our comfort zone, we were blessed one hundred-fold, blessed in many many ways. Hosting folks helped us to become close to different people and to build meaningful connections with new souls, all a reflection of the Divine. One of these personal connections actually led us to physically move and to serve a different community, which in turn led us to another community, and finally enabled us to become Bet Shalomers. It was a chain reaction of חסד that began with a small, yet perhaps, courageous act. We were not expecting anything in return and we shouldn’t have expected anything in return, but loving-kindness can open heavy gates.   

Some believe the way to make better choices is through harnessing fear, of being afraid of punishment. This method is championed by our sage Akavia ben Mahalalel whose words are found in the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 3:1). Akavia directs us to keep three things in mind and we will never be capable of making the wrong choice: He suggests that you contemplate, “where you came from, where you’re going, and before Whom you’ll have to give an account and a reckoning. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. And to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms, and maggots (best case scenario). And before Whom will you have to give an account and a reckoning?

 לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא.״ 

Does the Holy One really want us to be in a constant state of trepidation(?)  to raise our blood pressure, from the gravity of our existence?

A famous story teaches us an alternative to connect to God’s instructions by steering us away from negativity. The Talmud (in Shabbat 31A) tells the famous tale of “a gentile (who) came before (the great sage) Shamai then (before the greater sage) Hillel and said, ‘(Make me part of the nation of Israel) on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot’… (Rabbi Hillel) helped him to become Jewish by saying to him: ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.’” The emphasis here is on חסד, on loving-kindness. Hillel boils the entire Torah down to his version of the Golden Rule. The essence of Divine instruction, of Torah, is treating people the right way. Here Hillel appears to disagree with Akavia replacing fear with loving-kindness and consideration.

How much חסד should we use? The prophet Micah reminds us that Hashem only requires us “to do justice, to love חסד, and to walk modestly with (our) God.”(6:8) In other words, חסד is all we should be doing. Justice, loving-kindness, and humility should permeate every one of our actions. Why? Hoshea prophesied (6:6) that Hashem desires the gift of חסד and the awareness of the Divine Presence more than (the other) sacrifices and offerings. But, According to Martin Buber, each “deed (even acts of חסד) involves a sacrifice and a risk.”(I and Thou, Trans. Kaufmann p. 60). Take more risks and make more of these personal sacrifices because God is pleased with חסד. So, If we really want to be pleased with our deeds this year, the key is to increase our loving-kindness. Mishnah Peah asserts that there’s no minimum or maximum measurement for גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, for acts of loving-kindness. Furthermore, the Mishnah claims that we will benefit from acts of kindness, while living in this world, in this reality and even in the next reality. This is because חסד transforms reality. 

We can’t afford to just talk about חסד though. We cannot afford to let our kindness atrophy. We must use חסד as a way to frame and measure every interactive opportunity that Hashem brings our way. Rabbi Dr. Bennett Blum rightfully pointed out ten days ago that “...we cannot reach our highest spiritual levels by mere wishing – we have to learn and practice.” And the practice of חסד is even pleasant, uplifting, and psychologically beneficial. If you want spiritual pleasure, spiritual height, deliver food or clothing to a person in need. Give an elderly person your seat. Give a tired new parent your seat...or make them a meal. Offer to accompany someone to a doctor’s appointment. Take the time to really listen to another person’s story. Be patient with another. Remember that person could easily have been (or might be) you, given another time or circumstance.

Just as we are hopeful today and every day that Hashem will not judge us harshly; we need to stop judging our brothers, sisters, and cousins and replace that judgment with חסד. Through this specific loving-kindness, we realize that we are all connected to every person in this world. Martin Buber writes that “relation is reciprocity” (I and Thou, Trans. Kaufmann p. 58) underscoring this idea. Buber means here that since all humanity is interlaced; all must behave in a give-and-take toward each other.  These interpersonal reciprocities can be as simple as a smile, and they can be as painless as offering words of encouragement. If we want to have a better relationship with our Creator we have to use חסד, appreciating and communicating with the other human beings who are sent our way, by the אײבערשטער. 

All this focus on חסד is not to say that we should trust everyone or put ourselves in dangerous situations חָס וְשָׁלוֹם!  We also need to practice חסד toward ourselves. We must be certain not to neglect ourselves or harm ourselves or allow anti-semites, racists, sociopaths, or other misguided souls to harm us. On the contrary, we are commanded through חסד to defend ourselves, to value our own lives more than anyone else’s life. The Torah teaches (Sanhedrin 72A on Exodus 22:1) when a person uses evil and rises up to murder you, protect your life; kill the perpetrator first! That too is loving-kindness. 

Hillel taught on this topic of self-value:

 ״אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי…״

“If I am not acting for myself, who is acting on my behalf?...” 

This is because loving-kindness is not equivalent to self-sacrifice, senseless pacifism, or turning the other cheek. Using חסד doesn’t mean a lack of strength or lack of fortitude. Loving-kindness is essentially a prism through which we view and evaluate our decisions.

חסד is not at all a foreign concept in our shul. Bet Shalomers are known to exemplify the qualities of love and kindness. At CBS we are deeply concerned with how each person is treated and how we respond to the needs of our community. We want people to feel welcome within our gates. We insist that everyone have Positive Jewish Experiences. Bet Shalomers naturally reach out with comfort when there is an illness or a loss. We have a group led by Erica Friedman and Dr. Sid Temlock that prepares food for shivah houses. We have volunteers, as you know, who took it upon themselves to help move our books and materials to and from this location for these special days. And, they’re ready to help you to build a sukkah at your home this Sunday morning (Talk with Arnie Merin if you are interested!). One way to gain more חסד opportunities for yourself is to join these groups. These and many other CBS groups are part of the “network of support services responsive to individuals, family and community needs” that Rev. Norm Rubin spoke about on Erev Rosh Hashanah. This is our shul!

We  Bet Shalomers also want to raise each other up when we have cause for celebration. Last year Antar and Alex were married under a חופה in our shul. They invited the entire congregation to celebrate with them, that’s חסד. Oftentimes people who are celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, or other milestones in life, use חסד to sponsor, or even host a Shabbat meal, for our growing community. Tonight at the end of this fast Anne and David Lowe are sponsoring our communal break-fast in honor of their 50th anniversary. We’re all invited to share in this mitzvah meal, and we’re also invited to be inspired by this simcha.

Public, communal, and human to human opportunities for חסד-work are not the only way to engage in repair.  The (admittedly peculiar) custom that we Jews have of binding leather boxes containing words that say “Love A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu with all your heart” binding these boxes to our physical bodies, on weekday mornings, (we call this wrapping תפילין) can be considered an act of loving-kindness toward ourselves. Eating kosher and healthy foods… exercising regularly can be acts of חסד toward ourselves. These activities not only serve ourselves, they ultimately give us added strength and courage throughout the day ahead to hopefully bestow some type of חסד upon every other person we meet.

We need this strength to do חסד, especially in today’s world. The lack of unity in our nation is evident everywhere we look. The anger, fear, obnoxious dissension, and even frantic behavior toward fellow citizens prevails. So we have an even greater challenge to bring light, love, and joy to our corner of the world. I’m inspired by the words our host congregation has hung on the wall behind me... “courage, hope, and justice” as all of these are חסד. 

So, on this שבת of שבתות, you and I must consider adding more חסד, more loving-kindness to our lives. חסד is the key component to healthy living. חסד can minimize our sadness, it can fill our emptiness, and it can guard us against arrogance. If we use חסד correctly, in everything we do, we will only become stronger and stronger. Today we are missing more than breakfast, lunch and leather shoes; we may have been missing out all year on opportunities to be part of the solution. I believe more loving-kindness is the answer to a healthier year and a healthier lifetime.

May we all approach the idea of loving-kindness at this moment in time, as we also focus on loved ones who are gone, those who can no longer do the mitzvah of חסד. After all, this is why we are here today, to reflect and to improve. And as we prepare to say Yizkor, remembering those who have departed, those who can no longer better themselves, we pray that “goodness and חסד shall” nevertheless “pursue” them and pursue us, and (together we) “shall dwell in Beit A-do-nai forever.”

And let us say, Amen. (Psalms 23:6)

Sat, January 16 2021 3 Shevat 5781