Compassion Confusion

Have you ever endured the ugliness of having to step cautiously past a comatose vagrant and his smelly bundles blocking the entry to a store you’re trying to patronize?  I know what you’re thinking. “Our rabbi lacks mercy for the homeless,” right?

Have you ever visited a home where the parents are meticulously raising monstrous little brats by bribing them for basic compliance?  Did you have to stop yourself from rolling your eyes as mom and dad yielded to a toddler’s terrible tantrum?  Are you thinking that your rabbi lacks kind feelings for children?

Many employers fail to demand adequate performance from certain classes of employees thereby imposing additional pressures on other employees who are not deemed worthy of special compassion.  Even in education, many grades and admissions are not bestowed impartially but on the basis of compassion.

But what about mercy for the storekeeper to whose shop access is effectively denied?  What about compassion for children whose lives would be immeasurably improved by granting them the gift of discipline?  How about kindness to employees forced to pick up the slack caused by misplaced kindness or for students who are penalized by unjust grading?

So which is it?  Is mercy right or wrong?

Let’s explore this topic by examining the figure regarded by ancient Jewish wisdom as the father of kindness—Abraham.   Abraham who went and rescued his nephew Lot after he had been abducted (Genesis 14:16). Abraham who never let anyone pass by his home without inviting him in for a meal and some rest.  (Genesis 18:2)  Abraham who cared so deeply about all people that he even argued with God in a vain attempt to save the sinners of Sodom (Genesis 18:23)  Abraham who grieved at his wife’s demand to banish his son, Yishmael. (Genesis 21:11)   For all these as well as other reasons, ancient Jewish wisdom urges us to practice the kindness, the ‘CHe-SeD’ of Abraham.

But wait!  These aren’t the only big events in Abraham’s life.

He also banished his nephew Lot (Genesis 13:9).  He launched a world war (Genesis 14:14).  He allowed Sarah to banish Hagar (Genesis 16:6).  He did send away his son Yishmael (Genesis 21:14).  He was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac. (Genesis 22).  These do not appear to be the actions of kindness.  But Abraham is not the father of kindness—he is the father of CHe-SeD.

This complex and mysterious word ‘CHe-SeD’ was routinely translated about one hundred times through the TaNaCH (Hebrew Scripture)  merely as ‘kindness’ or ‘mercy’ by the King James translators in 1611.

…and show kindness unto my master…(Genesis 24:12)

But the Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy…(Genesis 39:21)

And showing mercy unto thousands…(Exodus 20:6)

…since I have showed you kindness, that ye will also show kindness….(Joshua 2:12)

Since Abraham is the father of CHe-SeD we can begin trying to grasp how CHe-SeD differs from kindness, mercy or compassion. CHe-SeD, as exemplified by Abraham, recognizes that human understanding is limited by time and space. When God directed Abraham to act in a way that looked on the surface as harsh or cruel, he had the humility to recognize that God knew better than he did. Not surprisingly, the numerical value of the Hebrew word CHe-SeD, adds up to 72. That number also reflects the number of letters in the all-encompassing name of God known only to Moses and a few chosen others through the generations.

    ח     ס     ד  
D  ←   S   ← CH
4         60        8

CHe-SeD poses a dilemma for those of us who do not have the relationship with the Almighty that Abraham enjoyed. Horrible things have been, and are, done purportedly in God’s name. Yet, Abraham’s life serves as a warning to us that words like compassion, mercy and kindness are not unfettered guiding principle of morality. We must suspect and question them. They may start, but do not end conversation.  We are obligated in CHe-SeD, yet understanding what that represents in any given situation is a challenge, not an easily mouthed platitude.

23 thoughts on “Compassion Confusion”

  1. Dear Rabbi,

    In the same vein, in Christian circles, there is the use of describing God’s love as “unconditional.” They use the word from the Greek, agape to define his love as unconditional. The best way of describing his love is unfailing and eternal, but not unconditional. That term implies that God will “reward” those who “misbehave,” violate laws pertaining to relationships, and even those who would reject him as sovereign. There are consequences for unbelief and disobedience, but because of our notion of mercy and grace, we get compassion wrong as well. I also recall your teaching on loving your neighbor as yourself, and applying the concept of not being a burden to your neighbor as an attribute of showing love to your neighbor. This is a part of what our culture has done by promoting victimization to a very unhealthy extent. Thank you for your teaching.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for writing Tom–
      yes, ingratitude is extremely corrosive and by promoting a culture of entitlement and rights our government is promoting ingratitude which causes tremendous unhappiness.

      1. Dear Rabbi,
        Your discussion brought to mind Proverbs 12:10 – the compassion of the wicked is cruel. By not understanding how the world really works (if only they had listened to your teachings!), the wicked go for the short term/immediate fix to a problem, which in turn makes the problem worse. They do not intend to be cruel (as I understand it), but their misguided acts of “compassion” nonetheless effect a cruel end. I think of the war on poverty, which was so “compassionate” yet lacked all the virtues of love or CHe-SeD.

        Thanks Rabbi for all the wisdom you share. Your work has been an immeasurable blessing to me. I only hope for more genesis journeys :).

  2. What a wonderful post, so politically incorrect and so true!

    I recently rode along with a Henderson Police officer. We met many people that night who would probably be a lot better and happier people if their parents had practiced ‘CHe-SeD’ instead of “kindness”. To make matters worse, our government’s “kindness”, allows them to continue to live in a vicious cycle of self-oppression.

    I can’t help wishing we had an English word for ‘CHe-SeD’ might, tough love, be an element of ‘CHe-SeD’?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Ben–
      These days, to be true it will automatically also be pol-incorrect. This is because today’s culture is a culture of duplicity and dishonesty. It is Stalinist in its utter disregard for reality. Tough love isn’t at all a bad way to start looking at it. But it doesn’t always have to be tough. It will only feel tough to those who have travelled too far down the road of trying to escape reality by the path of socialism.
      Looking forward to my visit to Henderson

  3. Rev. Sophia Snyder

    I totally believe it is a relational continuance with the supernatural that makes us raise above our natural tendencies to act in a manner that is not kind. When we are equipped with His power in Holy Spirit because we have spent time in communiton of His presence by praying and learning and renewing our minds with His Word: Torah and Bible. Then we are able to rise above that which is our natural inclination to do so, like roll one’s eyes, etc. We must remember if it wasn’t for the grace of God we might be that individual we find challenging.

    1. Reverend Sophia, You are right that eye-rolling might not be the best response, but the point is that, using the example of the homeless person, accommodating homeless people by allowing them to sprawl wherever they wish may very well be a cruel rather than a kind response. Cruel to the people (business owners and customers) whose lives they disrupt, cruel to a society that is forced to lower its expectations of public behavior and cruel to the homeless person who is not being given the help he or she needs to become a functioning member of society. All these things need to be taken into account rather than using the word “compassion” to shut down discussion.

  4. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    Dear Deborah–
    I’d like to tell you, but if I did, I’d have to kill you!
    Seriously, though, as we said, the 72 letter name of God is known only to a few. Now, think about it, either I am one of the few, or I am not. If I am not, then I’d say to you, sorry I can’t tell you. And if I am one of these few, well, wouldn’t I say exactly the same thing?
    This much I will tell you: Just before Scripture records the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea on dry land immediately after God’s amazingly visible revelatory miracle, there are three consecutive verses each containing exactly 72 letters. Exodus 14:19, Exodus 14:20, and Exodus 14:21. This pattern is found nowhere else in Scripture. In certain arrangements, this matrix of 72 X 3 yields the seventy-two 3-letter names of God and also 3 depictions of the one 72-letter name of God.
    That’s as far as we’ll get on this today.

  5. Dear Rabbi,

    What is the name of the Lord that Moses knew, adding up to 72 (in your blog, above)?

    Thank you,

  6. Thanks, Rabbi, for this very important clarification. Our society is at present rife with misunderstandings about this, with many people unjustly accused of being “mean-spirited” or lacking mercy or compassion. I would much rather read you than the news!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Deb–
      We began overdosing on news early summer and now we (particularly Susan) seldom listen to or watch the news. We read a few newspapers, mostly non-American other than the WSJ but otherwise are too weary of what you correctly describe

  7. I am not of Jewish ethnicity and I am a Christian: I have never understood the use of chsed in Leviticus 20:17 (I am using an English bible here)
    Of the 249 occurrences in the KJV one is “wicked” (Leviticus 20:17) and one is translated “reproach” (Proverb 14:34) ; in both theses cases I cannot see how it is used.
    The traditional “dictionaries” that I have access to merely give two meanings for the word 1) good and kind: 2) reproach and shame

    I would appreciate some help here please

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear John,
      thanks for writing. CHeSeD does not mean shame and reproach. The reason that some translators or dictionaries offer that wrong translation is precisely because of Leviticus 20:17 in which the context seems to suggest something shameful
      I can’t fully explain it in this necessarily brief communication, John, but it has to do with the idea that marrying your sister would be a very kind thing but unfortunately God prohibited it. Why would it be kind? Well, for one thing, when a man marries a woman he is committing right there an act of kindness but particularly when the woman he marries shares his values. Theoretically that is best achieved by marrying a sister raised in the same background as you. The basic idea is to find a wife who has certain sisterly attributes in terms of someone who’ll love your parents, and share your values.
      That’s the best I can do in the time I have available now. But there is much more in a wonderful educational program on marriage available in our store (click above) entitled Madam I”m Adam-Decoding Marriage Secrets from Eden

  8. This is a topic that requires careful consideration. We don’t want to turn away from anyone in true need. We also don’t want to open a cocoon when we see the butterfly struggling. This will ease his struggle but he will never be able to fly. He will be deformed and will never enjoy the fullness of being a butterfly. This is a sad thing to do to butterflies but sorrowful beyond tears when done to men.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      That’s exactly right, Lisa–
      and there are circumstances in which the death penalty justly carried out is one of the most ‘CHeSeD’ activities you could do but nobody would call it merciful even though it it because it may save many lives behind the scenes by discouraging other murderers.

    2. Thank you so much, Lisa, for your analogy. I am a dentist in Australia, working in public health. I struggle with the ethics of a system that helps those few that truly cannot care for themselves, but destroys countless lives lives over multiple generations by undermining families and rewarding foolish, lazy behaviour. You can be sure your excellent analogy will be oft repeated half way around the world! Blessings to you, Terri Brummitt

  9. I understood from many studies in the past that CHaSeD which is often times
    translated “Loving Kindness” is most often spoken of as a “Covenant” kind of love or mercy, that which is connected to covenant. Covenant, many times a promise worth dying for, is a strong demonstration of love or mercy, far beyond emotion. Therefore, your commentary of CHaSeD seems to fit with what I learned in the past. I do not know Hebrew, but depend on Hebrew scholars for my information. Thank you for your careful insight.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      You’re welcome Susan–
      Yes, CHeSeD is not correctly translated as kindness, mercy or even loving kindness. It has no direct translation in English much the way that many German words I remember, such as gemutlichkeit (deep feeling of comfort and harmony etc) or backpfeifengesicht (someone who really has it coming to him etc) are more cultural concepts than simply words and also cannot be directly translated. The most important thing about CHeSeD is that it means kindness and mercy but not in a temporary immediate sense but in a long term ultimate sense. It is kindness to all, not just toward one person trembling before you. It is kindness that will still seem kind in ten years not only in the immediately perceptible present.

      1. There is a cultural aspect to words that usually cannot be “translated”, a major stumbling block in understanding the true meaning of the words. I appreciate your explanation for just that reason; you take it beyond just the word itself and explain the word, it’s literal meaning, it’s cultural meaning and how it fits with other words. This provides a more meaningful definition and helps me understand the true meaning

  10. I’m sorry I’m too tired to comment on this except for I think it is foolish. Love you man and hope you and your family are well.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for the good wishes, Stephen,
      I and my family are all well thank you, and apparently, perhaps a little more rested than you!
      Take it easy and get some sleep–it really helps!

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