By Tony Gleekel
I have been a member of a va’ad at Temple Israel for two years. Self-awareness and personal evolution are central to my life. The desire to do better and be better is hollow without action. The desire to do and be better in a meaningful way is difficult. What I truly appreciate about Mussar is the focus on understanding and practicing middot. For me, a mindful Mussar practice, elevates me in small accumulating increments with each bechirah point. My Mussar va’ad, study and practice continues to result in gaining skills to make choices that feel right and that perpetuate my personal evolution.
My focus middah the past year or so has been chesed/loving kindness. Acts of everyday kindness, such as a smile to a stranger or lending a helping hand, are vital to civil society. Such acts are proven to improve mental health for the giver and recipient. Every act of kindness is important, no matter how small. I try to practice small acts of kindness every day. While everyday kindness is extremely important, practicing chesed is much more.
In Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis digests Rabbi Eliyahu Dressler’s conclusion that the trait of chesed is the primary root of spiritual life, as Morinis concludes:
Whenever the equation is calculated to work for our benefit, or even if it comes
out square, that can’t be chesed. Giving in the way of chesed requires that we go
beyond the boundaries that are familiar and comfortable to us. We have to stretch
into chesed or else it simply isn’t chesed.
This ‘spirit’ of chesed intrigues me and when I have the choice to practice loving-kindness, it elevates my life, not as a benefit to me in the cost/benefit equation Morinis alludes to, but how I feel when I realize, after the fact, the choice I made. It’s not a ‘pat on the back’ feeling, but instead a feeling that I am headed in the right direction. It sits with me and becomes part of me, so when the next bechirah point appears, I hope that I am ready.
Recently, I was presented with an opportunity to practice chesed, and truthfully, I missed the mark. I sat down with a close relative to convince them to make a decision that benefits me; but was not what they wanted. I actually explained the middah of chesed and suggested that doing what I wanted would be chesed, because they did not want to take my preferred action. My action was a failure to practice Emunah/faith. While the matter was resolved in a different fashion, the realization that letting them make the decision they wanted, notwithstanding the impact on me, would have been an act of chesed. That realization is a meaningful step in my Mussar practice.
I adore the amazing poem Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye. In her poem, Nye views kindness ‘as the deepest thing inside’ that arises from sorrow:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
It is chesed, as a spiritual root of life, that Nye may be referring to when her poem concludes with these words that follow her vivid picture of sorrow:
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
Giving chesed means subordinating my needs, time or resources to those who need chesed. I have experienced sorrow and I believe that the mindful and spiritual practice of chesed is growing inside of me. Giving chesed means to do so without thought, because it’s always within me like a shadow or a friend.