This week of Pesah is also week one of the counting of the ‘Omer, a spiritual practice that connects Passover and the Festival of Shavuot seven weeks in the future. Seven weeks, seven Divine attributes, Sefirah meaning counting, Sefirah meaning Divine manifestation/attribute – noticing those confluences led the Safed Kabbalists of the 1500s to build a contemplative practice that involves focusing on one Sefirah (attribute) during each week of the Sefirah (counting). Seven weeks, in other words, in which to deepen our connection to and understanding of God and ourselves.Among other allusions, the medieval kabbalists matched up each Sefirah with its own color. The colors don’t precisely match the hues of the rainbow but they represent a similar idea. Each attribute, each aspect of the Divine (and human) ‘person’-ality, can be represented by a different emotional color. In like fashion, different teachers and writers will understand and describe the various Sefirot through the prism of their own experience. Each will bring a different coloring to the practice of counting, a unique shading with which to understand that week’s Sefirah.So, let’s enter, starting with Hesed (Love/Kindness), the Sefirah for this first week. Our teacher is Marina Gerstemeier. Marina’s evocative reflection on Hesed follows. Joyful and meaningful counting to all. – Rabbi David
A bit of background: In my estimation, I have been Jewish my entire life. There was never a time when I wasn’t Jewish and when my thinking, being, and indeed my existence were not all completely Jewish even when I wasn’t practicing communal or even domestic manifestations of being Jewish. In hindsight, I can see all that.
However, it is also fair to say that Judaism and I are still getting to know one another. I feel as though I know Judaism more than I did early on in my life. At this point, it feels like we are in a relationship where we have been betrothed but are now getting more seriously involved on a deeper level. So, counting the Omer is new to me. In point of fact, I only just started it last year. When my friend Donna asked me to participate in this public, reflective process of emulated attributes, I was nervous but accepted the challenge as part of my show of my deeper commitment to my lifelong darling, Judaism, and my other darling, intellectual curiosity (so Jewish!) . So here goes.
According to the dictionary, this is the definition: the attribute of grace, benevolence, or compassion, especially (in Kabbalism) as one of the sefirot.
Benevolence, I understand – it’s kindness. Compassion, no problem (“sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”). But grace. What is grace? Christians talk about grace a lot. I sort of thought it was a Christian concept, though, as I very rarely hear of Jews talk about it.
Coincidentally, I insisted that my oldest daughter, Sasha, have the middle name of Grace after her great-grandmother, whom neither of us met: Graciela. In Latin, the meaning of the name Graciela is favor; blessing. I have always had a tiny bit of uneasiness about it, for although I was honoring the Jewish tradition of naming my baby after one who has passed on, the name itself, while pretty, seemed, well…Christian. My ex-husband’s family is Christian, so they naturally LOVED the name.
Here’s the funny part. Both my current husband and I were drawn to biblical names for our youngest daughter. Her name is Hannah, which is Hebrew for “favor” or “grace of God.” Ha. Hannah is a Hebrew, and arguably, Jewish name. So, at least in my capacity as a namer, somehow, grace has made its way into my thinking, and I, in turn, have bestowed that concept onto my offspring. But what is it, and why was I apparently drawn to this for my daughters?
Then I read this:
“Amazing Chesed by Rabbi Rami Shapiro challenges the notion that grace (chesed in Hebrew) is a Christian, not a Jewish, ideal. Grace, writes Rabbi Shapiro, is “God’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.” He adds that there is no one outside the reach of grace—“not the sinner, the heretic, the unbeliever, or the differently believing believer,” arguing that “there is nothing one can do to merit grace, earn grace, or even avoid grace.… Grace is unlimited and all-encompassing.” (www.tikkun.org)
There’s nothing you can do control grace, or to be more of less worthy of it. You are just loved because you exist. Because you are.
The idea of hesed sometimes reminds me of a bumper sticker my mother had on her car that read, “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” a phrase that is attributed to writer Anne Herbert. It was based on the phrase “random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty”…
The question is…why? Why love the world? Why love humanity? What does it mean to love those things? What about those random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty? They challenge us each and every day, especially in these times of horrific events, of children being gunned down in their schools, of increased acts of seemingly random terrorism, and of despairingly sad reports of young black men being shot 20 times with just a cell phone in their hands. It can be so hard in the face of all that dreadfulness to love humans as a whole.
However, it is precisely because these things happen that it is critical for us to love humanity. We make choices as human beings, many of them amazing and wonderful, many of them regrettable and sometimes tragic. But, in the end, for me, it comes down to this one reverberating idea: We have to love. We have to connect with that deep and unremitting compassion for the world’s inhabitants. If we don’t, we are lost. We are hopeless. We fall into the unending abyss of sadness and suffering. Simply put, in order to continue living, to continue being human, to survive, we have to love each other. According to myjewishlearning.com: “Chesed appears in the Torah to communicate God’s kindness and love toward humanity as well as human kindness and love toward each other. Chesed emerges as one of the essential ways humans engage with God to sustain creation.” My understanding: Hesed is a path to amalgamating with the Divine and also to perpetuate our existence – just by loving humanity and — everything, really. And we must express it by showing compassion, empathy, and care. This is the root of it all. I believe that the outward expression of that love is crucial, making our hesed clear, unambiguous an imperative towards which we must constantly strive. Sometimes that means words and sometimes it means acts of service – shared, tangible, observable expressions of love of humanity. Regardless of its expression, the effect is still the same. It is felt, internalized, and passed onto to others – a sacred echo of the shekhinah.
My last thoughts on the subject (this year): it seems to me that hesed is affected and affects the other attributes that we strive to emulate and examine during this time of Omer. If the goal is to become a better, more enlightened human being, to reflect the idiosyncrasies of the Divine, hesed must needs to infuse gevurah (justice and discipline) with others, inspire malchut (sovereignty, leadership) with others, and cannot help but benefit and sustain our netzach (endurance), hod (humility), yesod (bonding), and of course, tiferet (harmony, compassion).
Maybe none of this is news to you. Maybe it is already your practice. If so, I honor and admire you – truly because the understanding has most likely become a part of you. To me, a newbie, it is a bit of revelation in the sense that it is an absolute truth that I have lived and understood but had not, heretofore, inspected and, once inspected, taken deep within my being. I begin that work now.
That is all. That is the answer, at least for me, and at least this year. As one of my literary teachers, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote once:
Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Plans, credit and the Muse,—