While the chorus of Dayenu or Chad Gadya might still be stuck in our heads from the past couple nights of seder, the Jewish calendar is already marching toward the next festival. Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the wheat harvest as well as the receiving of Torah, arrives exactly seven weeks from Passover. There is a tradition to count each of the 49 days of this period, known as the Omer, with a blessing. There is also a tradition to mark each of these seven weeks by exploring a particular character trait, or middah, that we hope to build as a way of preparing ourselves for receiving Torah on Shavuot.
The first of these characteristics is hesed, which is often translated as “kindness.” Many of the learners at JCP’s Hebrew school, HSP, will recognize this word from a song we sing, Olam Hesed Yibaneh, meaning “the world will be built with hesed. (Psalm 89:3)” This word has further Biblical roots as well, describing kindness between people as well as between people and the Divine, and is one of God’s attributes in the Book of Exodus (34:6). Hesed is a keyword in post-Biblical texts as well, as many Rabbis of the Talmud consider acts of kindness a pillar of Jewish life. Into whichever chapter of Jewish tradition we take a glimpse, hesed is a core characteristic which we hope to deepen.
Hesed is a little more than just “kindness,” however. Similarly to how Judaism in general prioritizes actions over beliefs, hesed requires deeds and not only disposition. Mussar is the Jewish study and discipline of character traits such as hesed and one of its leading teachers, Alan Morinis writes “In the Jewish view, it isn’t enough to hold warm thoughts in our heart or to wish each other well. We are meant to offer real sustenance to one another, and the ways in which we can do that are innumerable: we can offer our money, time, love, empathy, service, an open ear, manual assistance, a letter written, a call made, and on and on.” While being nice is always good too, cultivating the character trait of hesed necessitates acts of kindness that sustain one another.
I don’t expect the importance of kindness to be earth-shattering news to anyone. I consider myself lucky to be a part of this community, where hesed is truly expressed through deeds. And yet, if our world really does rely on these acts as the Psalmist claims, there is always more to do. In her most recent Yom Kippur sermon, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl cited a study in which the University of Sussex found that the greatest impediment to performing these acts of kindness is fear of misinterpretation that the recipients might be offended or assume ulterior motives. Part of the transformation from being kind to performing acts of kindness is to face this fear. After all, our world, our tradition, and our spiritual lives are very much built on it.