Lonely and painful winter days invite nostalgia for days of hesed—days of loving kindness and compassion. So says the poet, Yehuda Amichai:
“Those were days of hesed,” I heard them say once
on a winter street during days of loneliness and pain.
Even for days of hesed we need at least two,
one to give hesed and one to receive it.
When they are separated the hesed does not abide
or it is spilled into the street as if from a broken pipe.
Religions do not do hesed, they only remind
empty time, with a bell, with a muezzin’s call,
with a siren or a shofar, with knocks on the door
during days of penitence: God they are
unable to remind or his hesed.
Since the day that sacrifices ended
Each person is left himself
(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)
It stands to reason that a world without hesed is cold and lonely. After all, hesed requires community. Without people to give and to receive, hesed vanishes or leaks away, a useless spill. Hesed is the work of people in community. For Amichai, religions are but frameworks for hesed. By all evidence, God is indifferent to hesed and his attribute of hesed remains distant. The ritual connection of God above and people below—sacrifice—does not have the impact of hesed’s human connection.
Hesed is not in heaven. It is as grounded as a water pipe, plumbing the human depths of need and responsibility.
According to Amichai, hesed does promote sacrifice, but not ritual sacrifice to God: Since the day that sacrifices ended, each person is left himself to sacrifice. It is self-sacrifice, the giving of oneself, that is a feature of hesed. Says a modern Jewish philosopher: Self-sacrifice for another individual, value, or collective seems key to much of ethical life. (Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice).
Both philosopher and poet are consistent with an ancient teaching that the ruined Temple’s ritual sacrifice to God has been effectively replaced by hesed’s sacrifice for the sake of community:
Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem and Rabbi Yehoshua, who was walking with him, took note of the ruined Temple. Said Rabbi Yehoshua: Woe is us on account of that which is ruined, that place in which we might atone for the sins of Israel! Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai replied: My son, do not be troubled. We have another means of atonement that is its like. And what is that? Gemilut hasadim/deeds of kindness, as it is said: For I desire hesed/kindness, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).
(Click here for midrash in Hebrew and English)
In a world without the Temple and its altar-atonement, it is hesed—kindness and compassion—that offers community the possibility to renew an open ended future.
Another jarring yet astute observation of Yehudah Amichai on the tradition, this time on chesed vs. sacrifice.
Yet I would argue that the two are not so detached from each other as they might appear at first glance. Although we are accustomed to thinking about sacrifice in terms of giving something up, it is important to remember that the Hebrew term for sacrifice, korban, actually means “to bring near,” and the idea of sacrifice is not to give up, but to create what Rabbi Irwin Kula has termed “cosmic closeness.” Thus, korban and chesed are very intimately connected, though in the context of human relationships, can “sacrifice” be considered “korban” if chesed is not involved?