The Chesed Personality

Nov 26, 2014
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The Hebrew word “chesed” does not have a precise English equivalent, but is probably closest to lovingkindness. In the Jewish moral and mystical tradition, chesed is associated with love, giving, altruism and spreading forth.

The sources that follow maintain that chesed means much more than doing acts of kindness or responding to the needs of others. Obviously if doing acts of kindness is crucial and ignoring the needs of others is callous — but the Jewish tradition demands more from its people.

“A day that a Jew does not do a kindness is not considered a day in his life.” (Rav Moshe of Kobrin, zt”l, quoted in Nesivos Shalom, vol. 1, p. 99).“A day should not pass without chesed, either with one’s body, money, or soul . . .” (Shnei Luchot Habrit, the Holy Rav Yeshayahu Segal Horowitz, end of Pesachim, quoted in the same passage of the Nesivos Shalom).

Statements like Rav Moshe Kobrin’s and the Shelah’s assume that chesed is not only a reaction to the requests of others, being willing to help when called upon. It is, rather, a basic essential aspect of a Jew’s daily life.

The Nesivos Shalom (the present Slonimer Rebbe shlita)
The Nesivos Shalom further clarifies and develops the distinction between acts of chesed and a personality of chesed:

There is a tremendous difference between a man who is essentially full of chesed and one who only does acts of chesed. The latter’s might only stem out of feelings of mercy for the needy, but he might not be searching for one to act towards with chesed. The man of chesed, whose chesed is from the original trait of chesed runs after chesed and tzedaka. This is what the Sages meant (Shabbat 104a), that the way of those who do chesed is to run after the poor. He is willing to suffer, whether physically or even spiritually, in order to do chesed with others. This — a personality of chesed — was at the core of Avraham’s character, as stated in Avot Derabbi Natan (7): “G-d said to Job, ‘You do not reach half of Avraham’s level. You sit in your house and wait for guests; Avraham would run out searching for them . . . ‘“ We find Avraham running after guests even on the third day after his circumcision at the age of ninety -nine!

Rav Kook on “Genius in Chesed”
Rav Kook in Orot Hakodesh (vol. 3, p. 313) speaks about “the genius of chesed of a great philanthropist.” “Chesed and doing good are his soul’s mission and the crown of his life.” One who has an inner vision can discern in this genius “the shine of chesed itself, precious and lofty, higher and more elevated than all acts of chesed that actually come into practical existence.

“We are all fortunate if the light of chesed shines in our midst. The world is fortunate, mankind is fortunate. And the nation is fortunate if the vision of a genius of philanthropy becomes revealed in one of its sons. The ruach hakodesh (holy spirit) of philanthropy is a treasure of life.” This special genius reveals itself and relates with chesed, bringing a spirit of life to all individuals in the nation.

This genius “sometimes reveals itself through the nation’s poor.” Sometimes a poor “genius of chesed” will excell in practical , not financial, acts of chesed. Furthermore, when he meets up the ability to translate chesed into practicality “his spirit is exceedingly amazed.” “Those with a sharp inner eye, those who grasp the real value of life, will be able to recognize the splendor of chesed even when cloaked with many coverings of inability to actually reveal itself.”

Rav Dessler in his Kuntres Hachesed
Rav Dessler worked for years on his Kuntress Hachesed (17 Chapters on Giving and Taking, Michtav M’Eliahu vol. 1, pp. 32-51, 140-145), his classic presentation of how giving and taking are central to man and his moral and spiritual life. He opens with the following paragraphs that place giving at the core of man’s being.

“When G-d created man, He made him a giver and a taker. The power of giving is a higher power of the traits of the Creator of all, blessed be He, who has mercy, does good, and gives without receiving anything in exchange. (He lacks nothing, as the verse says, ‘If you are righteous, what do you give him?’ [Job 35:7] and we are only able to express our thanks, the roots of our service of Him.) Thus He made man, as it is written, ‘In the image of G-d He made man,’ for he is able to have mercy, do good, and give.

“But the power of taking is man’s desire to pull to himself every thing that comes wtihin his domain. This power is what people refer to as ‘self love,’ and it is the source of all evil.

Man is made in the image of G-d = man has the power to be a giver.

He proceeds to describe how giving and taking play themselves out in the business world: the competitive takers (chapter 2) and the givers — like the biblical Chanoch, sewing shoes to give to his clients, and the contemporary Chafetz Chaim, rather shutting his store than take away business from his competitors (chapter 3).

Love is rooted in giving (chapter 4). We love that which we give to, according to Rav Dessler (chapter 5), not necessarily those who give to us. Healthy sexuality involves mutual giving and a healthy loving and lasting marriage is based on giving (chapter 6). He used to tell young couples at their wedding, “Take care, precious ones, that you always strive to give one another satisfaction just like you feel right now. Know, that the moment you start to make demands from one another, marital bliss will be beyond you.”

The remaining chapters of Kuntres Hachesed develop the theme further, showing the centrality of giving to many areas of avodat Hashem.

All three see chesed as far more than something we do. The Nesivos Shalom speaks of the personality of chesed — searching, like Avraham, for opportunities to do it. Rav Kook’s “genius of chesed” reflects the Divine chesed, even when not presented with the opportunities to actualize it. Rav Dessler sees giving at the core of the man’s Divine image.

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