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Toldot - Finding Chesed Amidst Brutality

01/29/2024 04:24:22 PM


Rabbi Nat Ezray

Toldot - Finding Chesed Amidst Brutality

The avalanche of emotions connected with what is going on in Israel continues to impact us.  Loss, suffering, uncertainty, anger, anxiety, fear – all of this is so real. In past sermons, we have spoken about naming and feeling – just as Abraham does in this week’s portion when he mourns and cries at the loss of his wife Sarah.  So many have found that space to mourn and cry amidst community. We’ll continue to create that space as we reflect on current realities.

            While we begin with creating space for emotions, a deeper question is how we stay mentally healthy and spiritually whole in times like these. In a recent column, David Brooks explores how we prevent ourselves from becoming bitter, callous, suspicious and desensitized. His answer touched me.

            He asks us to nurture a mindset of leading with love and compassion for ourselves and others.  He clarifies that to lead with love and compassion does not mean for us to be naïve.  Evil, genocidal people will not change because we lead with love and compassion.  In fact, they will exploit it.  Evil like Hamas displayed must be defeated or else their evil will fester and grow.

            But that is the exception and not the rule – too often we make it the rule and not the exception.  Brooks writes: “Most people – maybe more than you think - are peace and love-seeking creatures who are sometimes caught in bad situations.  The most practical thing you can do, even in hard times is to lead with curiosity, lead with respect, work to understand the people you might be taught to detest.  That means seeing people with generous eyes….and adopting a certain posture toward the world.  If you look at others with the eyes of fear and judgement, you will find flaws and menace; but if you look out with a respectful attitude, you’ll often find imperfect people enmeshed in uncertainty, doing the best they can.”

            I wonder if David Brooks knew that this week’s Torah portion explores this mindset. What Brooks describes is the Hebrew word chesed – love/kindness/compassion/a generous eye – and it appears throughout the portion.  Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for his son Isaac.  Eliezer prepares for the moment with prayer – asking that he find a wife for Isaac who acts with chesed – offering not only him, but also his camels water. Rebecca rushes to do just that.  Her approach to life is one of kindness – responding to a moment with care and kindness – it simply her nature.  A poignant comment at the bottom of the page suggests that Rebecca’s chesed was just what was needed to shift the family dynamic in Isaac’s life from insensitivity to others in the household to kindness, care and awareness as the framework through which you experience life.  When chesed is your mindset, you become skilled at knowing how to bring it to each situation. The Chasidic commentary Kedushat Levi suggests that Rebecca consciously chose not to give water to the camels one by one, for she would not want to choose which one to give first and cause the others to wait. Rather, she chose to keep running to the well, drawing water, and pouring the water into the trough, so that all the camels could drink at once. Physically, this was a much more demanding way to provide water for the camels – but when chesed is your mindset you do whatever is necessary.

Chesed is the call of this moment as we think about who we are becoming in the face of trauma and ongoing conflict.  Brooks observes that while chesed may or may not impact the person we are encountering – it certainly impacts who we are in this moment.  Ask yourself how this moment is impacting you: Are we becoming more or less humane?  Do we lead with kindness, or has anger, stress and fear nudged kindness aside?  

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a wonderful rabbi who lives in Palo Alto wrote an inspiring article this week in the periodical Evolve where she observes that in moments of intense collective pain, many of us – myself included go to our heads - reflexively wrestling with policy issues and attempts to predict the future, compulsively consuming more and more news and analysis. She writes about rushing to debate statements we read, rather than feeling the pain of what we have witnessed and experienced.  She writes that the horrors, shouting and suffering we are witnessing, often leads to a sense of hopelessness and despair – there is little space for chesed

Amy asks us to think about approaching life with generous eyes – making time and space for chesed as we face painful times.  The simple act of reaching out who need our chesed begins to shift our soul. Amy writes: “In a community devastated by trauma, grief and fear – few things are more meaningful than spreading kindness.” 

            Stories of chesed abound when we allow ourselves to see them.  Mimi shared with me a Facebook post by a friend of her about a woman putting up posters of family members who were kidnapped by Hamas.  A Muslim Palestinian man came up to her and told her and that he wants peace. They talked for about 30 minutes – he acknowledged the pain and suffering caused by Hamas and shared support for the woman going through the excruciating pain of a family member in captivity.  Then he went into his house and returned with a meal he bought for her sharing the Arabic word for a pillar of Islam – sadaqahi – which we call tzedakah in Hebrew. At the end, she told him salaam alaikum in Arabic – peace to you - and he told her shalom alecheim – peace to you in Hebrew. Sometimes when you feel like there is no humanity left on this earth, it presents itself in the most surprising ways – often clothed in chesed.

            Amy has a meditation practice of extending chesed to others.  As she sits in silence she offers phrases of well-being: “May you be safe and protected from harm. “May you be healthy and strong.” “May you be happy.”  “May you be at peace.” She extends this to herself, to loved ones, strangers, difficult people and all beings.  These days, she has focused on the families of the hostages or those who know their loved ones were killed or wounded.  Sometimes, she directs love to her friends and loved ones who have relatives serving in the army. When she is able she sends love to innocent people in Gaza – feeling her deep desire to lessen their fear, grief and anguish. 

Her words remind us that we have the capacity to extend love to all those who suffer.  There is room in our hearts for those whose opinions upset us. When we lead with chesed, people find the courage to say things they worry others will judge them for – and space is created for connection to continue.  

            As orient yourself around chesed – you find so many places where you can live this in day to day life.  From an act like Rebecca’s of giving water to a thirsty person or animals, to thanking a teacher, waiter, postal carrier or family member – those acts of chesed make a difference and ripple.  Let’s allow our acts of chesed to be a counterbalance to the forces of hate and vengefulness in the world. 

            And let’s also extend chesed to ourselves. Amy writes in times of stress we can be “more reactive, more self-focused, quicker to anger, impatience and irritability…We need to forgive ourselves and each other for these behaviors, remembering that when we or someone else speaks harshly, it is because we are suffering, especially now.” She urges us “to offer kindness to ourselves….to feel loved by others and by ourselves.” Let’s be gentle on ourselves and know that it will help us heal.  Let’s think about what it means to bring more kindness and compassion – chesed into our lives.  Let’s know that our chesed can spread and ripple.   

            I conclude with the words of Rabbi Ayelet Cohen: “We know that there is enough suffering and trauma and grief and rage to go around.  We wonder if there is enough compassion or enough hope to carry us through this time.”  Let’s follow in the footsteps of Rebecca and cling to chesed – turning to one another rather than turning away. Let’s blessing one another and ourselves chesed.  It’s will help us move forward during these difficult times. Shabbat Shalom.






Thu, May 23 2024 15 Iyyar 5784