Acts of Loving-Kindness
The foundations of Jewish service learning
[The medieval commentator] Rashi's comment on this line succeeds in communicating the essence of their thinking. He writes that the actual giving of money or goods is tzedakah, and the tirkhah (the care, the bother) is the hesed. For example, when a person takes the trouble to give a poor person money in a compassionate manner and at a time when the poor person can use it well, he or she has brought hesed to the act of tzedakah. Rashi further states that hesed is when you give your heart and mind to the well-being of the poor person. Hesed occurs when there is understanding between two people and when the command to "love your neighbor as yourself" is fulfilled (see Mishneh Torah, chapter 14).
Acts of hesed are the active representation of a covenant among people, a social contract. This, as noted above in the discussion about Lot, has the mythic power to actively engage God in the covenant as well. This is not about simply getting a request in the mail for funds and writing a check, or bringing a can of soup to a box at your JCC or synagogue. It is not even about showing up once a year at the homeless shelter or soup kitchen or writing letters to Congress to effect social policies. Those are truly important, relevant acts, but they fail to engage people in relationships of understanding. It is when we become engaged with real people and communities on the other end of our giving of time and resources that we realize the covenantal aspect of hesed.
The Meaning of Suffering
There is much we can learn from these initial texts. On a practical level, a person who has received love and aid is far more likely to be able to pass on hesed to another person. Through acts of hesed (supported by tzedakah) where you treat someone like a human being, b'tselem elohim (in the image of God), with the respect they deserve, that person can be restored to the community. He or she can overcome the stigma of poverty, frailty, disease, or loneliness and can themselves become engaged, empowered actors of hesed.
The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 127a) that the reward for gemilut chasadim is in this world. How can we begin to understand this? Emanuel Levinas teaches that the meaning of suffering is in the opportunity for the other to respond to that suffering, to embrace the sufferer and, through doing so, bring God into the world. Suffering is meaningless for the sufferer. It only holds meaning when considering the perspective of the observer. The only meaning for suffering is the redemptive power it may have for the person who may bear witness to that suffering; indeed, our responsiveness to suffering may be our only means of redemption. When we respond to the other at a time of need, we fulfill our humanity and can find existential meaning in life.
Practical Suggestions: Jewish Service Learning
Jewish service learning does not call for a straightforward curriculum of Jewish teachings on how we treat a sick person or our responsibility to respond to those who are hungry or homeless. We need to create a communal consensus around the notion that volunteering is part of living a Jewish life. Hesed, like Torah Lishmah [studying Torah for its own sake], is meaningful in and of itself, but it is also rich with opportunities for learning and connecting with community.
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