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Abounding in Hesed

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Abounding in Hesed

SHIMON THE RIGHTEOUS, a member of the Great Assembly from the time of Ezra, stated that the world is established on three pillars (Avot 1:2): the Word of God (Torah); the service or worship of God (Avodah); and acts of kindness (Hesed).

Hesed is a chief characteristic of the God of Israel and a core covenantal concept. Its range of meaning is wide and deep: lovingkindness, mercy, steadfast love, covenant loyalty and even grace.

The Psalmist declares:  “I will sing of the lovingkindness [hesed] of the LORD forever… For I have said, ‘Lovingkindness shall be built up forever.’” (89:1-2). The Hebrew word olam, translated as “forever,” can also be read as “world.” The Sages concluded that the world is built up on hesed, on acts of kindness – both God’s and ours.

“The LORD is righteous [tzedek] in all his ways, and kind [hesed] in all his doings” (145:7). The people of God, like the Almighty himself, should abound in hesed and be known for acts of love and kindness.

The word hesed can also mean to go beyond established boundaries. An authentic Hasid in Judaism is one who goes beyond the letter of the Law; he obeys with a heart attuned to the spirit of God’s instructions.

By nature humans tend to be self-centered, but acts of hesed transport us beyond our natural boundaries. Indeed, acts of kindness fulfill the Divine injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This mitzvah according to Yeshua is equal to the greatest commandment of the Torah (Matthew 22:37-40).

IN THIS SAME CONTEXT, the Torah commands: “in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15). What does this mean? Does “righteousness” refer to some absolute standard of moral perfection to which we are to hold one another accountable?

Jewish tradition teaches that this command encourages us to “put the best construction on the deeds of your fellow men.” In other words, to judge “righteously” is to assume the best of the other. It is to judge with an attitude of hesed or kindness.

This parallels the Rabbi Yeshua’s teaching when he cautioned, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned” (Luke 6:37). In other words, “Don’t be judgmental!” Do not have an inclination to condemn, but rather have a disposition toward kindness and mercy. For by the very measure with which you judge, whether by condemnation or by kindness, so also will you be judged.

ONCE A WOMAN was caught in the act of adultery and taken before Jesus for judgment. Her accusers were ready to stone her to death. But the Rabbi from Nazareth challenged them: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7). The condemning crowd dispersed without a single stone being thrown, and the woman was left standing alone with the Master.

Note carefully what he says next: “‘Woman… has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more’” (John 8:10-11).

Here we see an act of kindness – “Neither do I condemn you” – joined to a witness to the truth, “Go and sin no more.” Mercy and truth met together; righteousness and peace kissed (Psalm 85:10).

Yeshua did not ignore her sin. He affirmed and acknowledged the truth – she was culpable – but cautioned her to sin no more. Hesed prevented him from condemning her. In effect the Master extended the woman an invitation to repent of her lifestyle and, in response to the kindness of a gracious God, to turn around and walk in the way that leads to life. “Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).

We see in the life of Jesus the embrace of truth and kindness. In him, righteousness (the high standards of the Torah) and peace (the mercy of a gracious Father) embrace. Indeed, the Messiah embodies the way of truth that leads to life. In the Son we see a Father who abounds in hesed.

This year let us engage in acts of kindness, g’millut hasadim, that hallow His name and help repair a world presently broken but destined to declare the Father’s glory. 

Jerusalem Post Christian Edition Jan 07Dr. Pryor is founder of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies;

This commentary was first published in the January 2010 issue of The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition

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