May 15, 2014 admin

Cutting the shoots

On those days when we don’t have a service in the synagogue, I like to say Shacharit, the morning prayers, in the garden, especially at this time of the year, the season of its greenest glory. Today as I did so a blue tit caught my eye, hopping in and out of its nest to bring food to its fledglings. Mercifully, it didn’t have far to fly; maybe it even chose the site because we’d hung feeder nearby with sunflower seeds and fat. I watch it descend for a quick peck, before returning to its needy progeny.
The bird didn’t distract me from my prayers, (so I would choose to argue). Rather, it directed them. It made me think about chesed, loving-kindness, perhaps the highest in the hierarchy of values.
Nothing is too small for chesed: ask the man in hospital, anxious, in pain and struggling to find sleep, about the difference between the nurse who straightens the bedclothes efficiently but with just that sense of roughness which betrays a corner of resentment at being called, and the nurse who does so with a kind word. Or ask a child at school; she probably won’t tell, but she would know to which teacher she could go, (after doing a ‘mood test’ first) if everything felt too much.
Nothing is too great for chesed. It isn’t ideology alone which makes some people hide fugitives in a time of persecution, give them food, bring them on their way to refuge, or conceal them in their very home for many months. It’s an intuitive realisation, which many would acknowledge that they had not known they harboured with such depth and grit, that one cannot betray a fellow human being, cannot break faith with life.
Chesed is that kindness which marks generous and attentive awareness of the bond between all life. That is why it is so often partnered in the Bible by the word brit, covenant. That is not the covenant of specific partners only, but that of which God is understood to speak when God says that the divine covenant is with all creation, with the very rhythm of day and night and with all living being.
The mystics use a puzzling phrase to describe the essence of sin, calling it ‘cutting the shoots’. Perhaps being a gardener makes it sound less strange; it describes the act of taking life and breaking its growth, wantonly, or through the negligence which comes of self-absorption.
I imagine we all know we are blessed with the hands which smooth the pillow with love, the tongue which says the gentle word and the heart which longs for what is most deeply kind. We know too that we have the hands and tongue which can be cruel, and, when truth penetrates us, we realise in our hearts that we have used them in such capacities.  
Chesed is indicative of a very different philosophy of life from ‘the survival of the fittest’. It seeks the generous and gracious in all things; it understands intuitively where fear and vulnerability lie. It never seeks to hurt or triumph, but to help and heal and, if it cannot do so, to bear witness in solidarity and love.
God, says the Talmud, ‘mattei klapei chesed, inclines towards loving-kindness’. The context of the saying is judicial: God prefers mercy over justice. But, taken more broadly, the words carry a different and more universal meaning: God turns to those places where kindness is found; wherever there is loving-kindness, God is manifest too.

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