I realised yesterday as I bought my bunch of early daffodils at a stall in Camden Town, that I’d interrupted the saleswoman from her task of tying up single red roses in pretty paper.
February 14 is not a fixture in the traditional Jewish calendar. But Valentine’s Day does have its ancient equivalent, Tu B’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, when girls would dress in white and dance in the vineyards where the watching boys would choose partners. It was hardly an egalitarian set-up.
Judaism believes in love. As the wedding blessings show, Hebrew has an extensive vocabulary for romance, affection and fellowship: ahavah, love; achavah, closeness; shalom, peaceful togetherness; re’ut, comradeship. The Bible affirms the magic of passion, as when in The Song of Songs, the whole world is glorious, alluring and full of wonder.
But the greatest love word of all is hesed. No translation feels adequate: ‘loving-kindness’ is too ponderous; ‘faithful kindness,’ while more accurate, sounds pious; just ‘kindness’ seems too commonplace.
But kindness is what the word means, or tenderness, or faithfulness, the enduring, life-long, heart-felt commitment to treating others with warmth, compassion and proactive concern.
Hesed applies most closely towards those with whom we are most close. In intimate relationships it doesn’t exactly refer to passion, but it does express the thoughtfulness, affection and appreciation which differentiate love from lust.
In relationships between children, parents, grandparents and close family, hesed is all those little things –favourite foods, whats-apps about ‘how’s your day’, hugs, notes with the right message at the right time, allowances for our moods – which make us feel safe, loved and cared for, which make the difference between loneliness and home.
But hesed is not just a pretty term for those lucky enough to live inside cosy bubbles.
‘The world is built on hesed’, wrote the author of Proverbs, presumably intending this as a prayer rather than a statement about reality. Those are the words on the foundation stone of our synagogue. They are the base-line of our values: they express an attitude, a determination, a will to make the world different, especially in an environment which feels more cruel, hard-hearted and brash towards so many.
Hesed is present when, like Barbara Stern, you semi-retire and devote yourself to Home Start because so many local children don’t get breakfast before school and have no one to help with their homework and give them a decent chance in a competitive world. Hesed is when the man filling shelves in the store doesn’t just answer her question, but accompanies the lady with the white stick to where the rice is and asks her which kind she wants. Hesed is when any government, anywhere, doesn’t just say it cares but allocates budgets and acts because it really does care, and believes that the country is a safer, better and stronger place because of it.
Hesed is the essence of creation. It’s a basic rabbinic view that God made the world from and for the sake of hesed. The trouble is that this simply doesn’t appear true. In a cruel, self-devouring world the evidence just isn’t there.
That’s why the words of Arthur Green speak to me so sharply:
The flow of life as we experience it is morally blind… But as humans we are here to direct that flow of life, to lead the divine energy in the world in the direction of compassion… The divine energy flows outward from the Source, through the complex and multi-pronged evolutionary process, and into us… We, by adding to it the insight and act of compassion, send it streaming back to the One, our gift in gratitude for the gift of existence itself. (A Jewish Mystical Theology)
Hesed is the latent possibility in every relationship, every encounter. Through love of life and love for life, even in the smallest acts and simplest words, we make it real.