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.