The Tikkun Middot Project for Tevet: Chesed or Kindness

Congregant Ellyn Bank comments on the Middah for Kislev: Chesed/Kindness

This week our Tikkun Middot group met to reflect upon the middah for the month of Tevet (Dec 23rd to Jan 20th): chesed, or kindness.  I can’t think of a more fitting middah (“soul-trait”) for these winter months, where we find ourselves going inside for warmth, light, and comfort. Chesed breaks us out of our isolation and self-absorption, out of the stillness of hibernation, as we take action to understand, pay attention and give to one another.

Our Tikkun Middot group examined primary sources of Judaism and scholarly discussions of those sources. In Deuteronomy 15:8, we find  “You shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, that which he lacks.”

I am particularly taken by Wolbe’s discussion of this passage. Wolbe advises that we first need to see and listen for what the other lacks. This requires a mindfulness that extends hearing the surface needs that might be expressed by the other. For example, let’s examine one common refrain I hear often at this time of year from my friends with high school seniors: “I am angry/frustrated that my child does not have the connections that others have” to get into his college of choice.”

Wolbe explains that Chesed does not require that we give the other exactly “that which he lacks”—obviously, I may not have that connection or be able to help get their child into college. We may even be angry to hear our friend groan, as we might recognize privileges that our friend takes for granted, such as the financial security, educational foundation, and supportive upbringing that make applying to college a viable option for their child.

If, however, we delve deeper, and really listen, we might consider whether this person carries feelings of fear and worry: “will my child make it to the next step, how will s/he fare in life, have I done my job well as a parent?” (Wolbe advises that there are needs that a person talks about and needs of which the person may not even be aware.)

While we are not yet dealing with acts of Chesed, we are practicing a critical and primary step of Chesed–understanding and seeing the other. This way of understanding and seeing means giving the other the full of our attention and trying to hear hear what they might truly need. In Exodus,2:23-25, when the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, we read: “It came to pass after much time that … the Israelites groaned from the work. They cried out and their scream went up to Elokim …And Elokim heard their groaning….And Elokim saw the Israelites, and Elokim understood.”

The renowned 11th century Talmud scholar Rashi reflects that the meaning of  “God understood” is that “God paid close attention … and did not hide his eyes.” I loved learning this week that the Hebrew phrase for paying attention, Natan Aleihem Lev, translates in English as “giving heart and mind.”

I have always believed that paying attention is an act of chesed; there is no greater treasure than feeling heard by another.  However, how does one know that they are being truly understood and heard? The Mussar scholars claim that Chesed requires an element of action. The scholars remind us that God gave humans the power of Ha’arat Panim, literally translated as an “illuminated face.” We show that we are fully giving our attention by turning our eyes and shining our countenance on the other, an action that can complete the practice of Chesed.

I invite you consider another action. Can you make a “you-turn” and delve within yourself to see what feelings, experiences you share in common with the other in the particular scenario? In the case of my friends with high school seniors, I, too, have worried about how my child might fare and whether I have successfully parented, regardless of whether these feelings stem from  the content of college entrance. I suspect that all of us parents have had these feelings and thoughts at some point. When we can access that same part of ourselves that we are hearing and seeing in the other person, we are able to authentically connect with him/her and offer them the warmth, comfort and light that that part of ourselves also needs.

As we light our Chanukah candles, and enter the coming months of winter, our Tikkun Middot group asks you to join us in considering how we can share chesed—how we can pay attention to each other and bring light, warmth, and communion to one another.

To read the sources of this post more fully, or to learn more about the middah of chesed, go to http://tikkunmiddotproject.wikispaces.com/.