Thinking About Chesed

Thinking About Chesed

Counting the Omer is one of the more involved forms of observance, traditionally left to the Orthodox who check off, with certain prayers, observances, and obligations, the forty-nine days (seven weeks) between the start of Pesach and the beginning of Shavuot. Rabbi Isacc Luria suggested that these seven weeks correspond to the seven of the lower rungs on the sefirot. A common practice from everyone from Chabad to neo-hasids to liberal Jews is to use these times as a way of meditating, journaling, inhabiting each of those sefirot on the appropriate week. The first is Chesed - Loving Kindness, and so I jumped into daily reflections and quotes on this topic. At the same time I tried to observe and remember acts of loving kindness, both from myself and others, as a way of trying to learn something from this point of reflection.

I am posting here the reflections I shared with the Jewish Anarchist Union, of which I was the person who chose Chesed to start out our Omer count. If you are counting the Omer, make sure to comment and share what you are doing for your practice!

Day One

On the first day I am starting simply with this verse: "The world is built with chesed."

Chesed is itself a foundation of the sefirot, and in a sense, the foundation of the world. In our context, Chesed can itself be the foundation of a new world, one built away from despair and in pursuit of loving kindness. There is a duality in a lot of hasidic anarchist writing: the need to rebuild our material conditions simultaneously with rebuilding ourselves, a new society cannot be revolutionary unless it changes our fundamental moral character.

So as we begin Counting the Omer, and starting with Chesed, the question could be as to what kind of love are we allowed to have now? How is this different from what is possible? What kind of love would function in a community founded on a radical break with the alienation of the past?

Day Two

For the second day of the counting, we can check out this quote from the homiletic commentary for the parsha Lekh Lekha by Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl in his early hasidic work Me’or Eynayim.

“Abraham, the master of love, had to go and lower himself down to their level in order to uplift the love that had fallen there. In order to raise any person, as we know, you have to lower yourself to his rung…Abraham wanted to repair hesed, uplifting the bad forms of love from among those nations in whose midst there dwelt holy souls.”

A common feature in this era of hasidic writing is the idea of “going low so as to go high.” The tzaddik lowers themselves on the sefirotic rung so as to raise others, maybe to show them the way or share experiences with them. It can also be read as a way not just to help others, but to help ourselves as well: we have moments that have to be re-evaluated, to get to the heart of the matter.

This runs alongside the notion that all “evil urges” are really just deforming bits of light, our light, which is finding an incorrect and harmful outlet. This reminded me of the formulation that sort of paraphrases some writing from Deleuze and Guattari suggesting that all impulses to liberate are also, at their core, potentially impulses to repress. The same elements of cruelty carry with them some common features with those of loving kindness, so we can move backward to see what is at the heart of each of our failings and “raise them up.”

So what incidents in our own life are we trying to be accountable for? What runs underneath them? Is there a hurt we are compensating for? What elements of loving kindness could be running underneath that pain, and how can we attach ourselves to communal displays of love rather than lashing out?

Day Three

For the third day of Counting the Omer, I had to acknowledge where I’m actually at: loving kindness was not on my mind. Instead, it’s actually been a hard few weeks at the tailend of a hard year, and I have to live with that reality.

This reminded me of a passage from Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, which really brings out their focus on ecstatic dance.

“Sometimes when people are joyous and dancing, they grab a man from outside their dancing circle, one who is sad and melancholy, and force him to join them in their dance. Thus it is with joy: when a person is happy, his own sadness and suffering stand off on the side. But it is a higher achievement to struggle and pursue that sadness, bringing it too into the joy, until it is transformed…you grab hold of this suffering, and force it to join with you in rejoicing.”

To actually live with loving kindness is not to paint over our grief, but to dive in and experience it fully. Just as with the earlier idea of raising up the rungs, we can only bring joy by washing over our sadness and dealing with it fully. In a world of long work days, crushing debt, and decreasing human interaction, there is rarely a way to acknowledge, let alone deal, with grief. I am approaching my mother’s yahrzeit, eight years ago when she died just months after my father. With the bills coming due and what became years of settling their affairs ahead of me, when could I simply live in my sadness? This experience is something I hold in common with millions, that we are not given the space to simply sit in our feelings of brokenness.

So on Day Three I am thinking of the kind of love that comes when allowing ourselves and those close to us to simply exist in despair. How do we create spaces for personal and collective grieving? How do we truly show love for those in this process? How do we build institutions or projects that do this? How do those feelings of loss relate to the kind of expressions we usually call “loving kindness?”

Day Four

On the fourth day we draw on the loving kindness of explosive resistance.

“God is presented to us as a comfort, not a challenge, a rumor, as if it is nice to have Him around. But God means defiance, rejection, as well as affirmation,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The quote reminded me of the assertion found in Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism, that God is the spirit of profound change that binds all of life together and animates us towards redemption. A society founded on liberation is one that puts care as its highest ideal, nurturing is its central notion (and therefore God at its center as well). Mutual aid, care work, and loving kindness is what revolution is built on because it is the counter-valence to the social order, and our systems of power cannot exist if it is to dominate. Building up a culture of care is a form of dual power, it forces us to disown the holding of two competing visions of the world at once. Prayer is the meditative moment when we try to transcend our boundaries and rejoin that sense of communal unity, which means it acts as a weapon that can shake the foundations beneath us.

What does it mean to put love into political practice? How do we scale up care work? How do we care for care workers? How do we recenter our lives and communities on mutual aid? How do we replace our exchange culture now, and what kind of resistance would we face?

Day Five

I am thinking about the vulnerability required to truly build a life of love.

“In gratitude for the gift of life, we give to the one that underlies all existence the only thing we really have to offer: the gift of our own humanity. We fashion God in our image, making the cosmic One into a ‘Thou,’ a loving partner. But we do this in response to a deep, innate sense of the mystery that dwells both within and around us. To say it in a way that may sound playful but is meant with complete seriousness: We sense that God creates us in the divine image, and we are obliged to return the favor,” say Arthur Green in his essay “Judaism as a Path of Love.”

This reflects the idea of several others, including the partnership outlined by Martin Buber, and the journey that God makes to humans written about by Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man. The space of openness, the root of prayer, is that this ecstatic fire has the ability to actually change us. That is, that people we love can actually play a role in shaping us. That kind of vulnerability is dangerous in the world of work, capital, and state repression, we have the right specifically to be invulnerable. But this is one of the pieces that distinguishes a revolutionary worldview, to start simply with vulnerability.

“Love ultimately derives from an inner sense of oneness, a realization that the ones I love and I belong to the same greater Self that is present in each of us. Love is a strage in the lifting of that veil, of seeing the One within each other and hence transcending multiplicity,” says Green in “Barukh Atah: Reflections on the Prayer Book.”

This made me think of the role of kavanah in hasidism in particular, which had a more populist approach to the Lurianic Kabbalah. Instead of just the right words and actions in the right order, what did we think and feel? Maybe that was just as important, or perhaps more important, because they lit the symbols on fire and made them powerful. This is part of the process by which hasidism reconnected with the messianic. Martin Buber said that hasidism ridded Judaism of the messianic, yet Gerhom Scholem said it more appropriately “neutralized” it. We might be able to say that it personalized it because it brought the sefirot to the minds of every person. In this way our personal transformation is just as important as the external transformation of the world, it requires our intentions to change if we will ever be able to change the material conditions around us.

How can we be more vulnerable? What effect will our vulnerability have on the world around us? What does it mean to give back to God, to build them in our own image? What role do we have in building a messianic future?

Day Six

Day Six is when we forgive ourselves for not doing “enough” the previous five days.

I had lofty ideas about how I would transcend myself while Counting the Omer, but at this point, beyond journaling and prayers, I wasn’t doing as much as I’d hoped I would be. Chesed is also about self-acceptance without judgment, at least having the capacity to sit with ourselves. So we have to be real about who we are and let that be enough, otherwise there is nothing else we can change, try, experiment with, or challenge.

“The soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store certainly did not experience time as either homogeneous or empty. Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance--namely, in just the same way. We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter,” says Walter Benjamin, to close out “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

While seemingly disconnected from the focus on self-love, Benjamin’s view of history, particularly his relationship to kabbalistic sacred time (Heschel’s Sabbath also floated around my head) did seem relevant to the sense of “nowness” necessary to some kind of self-care. The word “self-care” itself seems like a betrayal, a commercial buzzword used to sell mindfulness apps and spa packages. But to really offer loving kindness to ourselves we need to allow for a kind of stillness and self-acceptance so rarely afforded by a world dictated by precise outcomes and printed job descriptions. I thought about Benjamin while reading the first issue of Baeden: A Journal of Queer Nihilism, particularly in relationship to Guy Hocquenghem and others, looking at the way that unprescribed pleasure itself is revolutionary by challenging the basic conditions of our social arrangements. How do we break out of the dictates of the families that came before? How do we break not just abusive cycles, but even entire modes of being? How do we dissolve the self we no longer want and become a new self, one we are just now meeting?

So when thinking about how to care for ourselves, I am thinking of this moment as one to commit to “hereness” (doikayt for Bund-stans) and allow our own needs and desires to simmer so they can help us redefine our own space. Only when we actually allow for ourselves can we share that kindness with others. That kind of love doesn’t just emerge naturally from capitalism, it comes only in the cracks, and our actual self-care strips those cracks open further.

What can we do to allow ourselves the space to just be? What can we ask from others to make this a reciprocal, communal relationship? How does this kind of self-care relate to caring for others? How can pleasure destroy the structures of repression around us?

Day Seven

On the final day of Chesed, and as we prepare for the forty-two days coming up, we headed back to one of the central elements that connects loving kindness to a more disruptive, divisive revolutionary project: mutual aid.

Mutual aid is founded on the notion of common struggle, but not just in the way that organizing or undefined “solidarity” is: it is the creation of a gift economy so that we can share amongst each other, create systems of survival and flourishing, so as to strengthen the rest of our work, create an alternative to capitalism, and also ensure that we are there to support everyone when the current structures of power fail to care for them. This distinct from charity, it has little to do with the top-down structure offered by most c3s and is instead a collaborative, horizontal, and loving process: we care for others just as they would care for us, and we don’t want to end simply with bandaids for society’s failures, but instead demand “survival pending revolution” programs, as the Black Panthers explained.

This brought me to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the final Rebbe of Chabad who changed their movement into a more public facing project (there seems to be a Chabad house every ten blocks or so). Schneerson was known for handing out dollars to people who visited him, which was then meant to be used to help another, perhaps through what we de facto call “charity,” or something greater. He had the idea that when two Jews talk, a third person should benefit. He himself had little use for charity since it did little to unseat the current conditions. Chabad has an app for Counting the Omer (they have an app for just about everything), and Day Seven’s wisdom from the Rebbe seemed particularly relevant.

“Do not give charity. Charity means being nice. It means the other guy doesn’t deserve it and you don’t have to give it, because you have what belongs to you and he has what belongs to him. And nevertheless, you give anyway.

But Jews don't give charity. Jews give tzedakah. And tzedakah means setting things right.

Tzedakah means the money was never really yours, that you’re just the treasurer and the money was put in your trust to be disbursed for good things, both for you and for others when they will have a need.

Tzedakah is something you receive every day, because the One Above has no obligations towards you, yet He provides you constantly with all you need.

And since the One Above mirrors all that you do below, you feel a need to give more than you are required to give, so that He will give you more than you deserve to get.” - Likutei Sichot, vol. 2, Pg. 410

It’s not just that our lives should be built on loving kindness, they already are. Our relationships are filled with the kind of sharing that comes from non-commercial, non-transactional interactions, and it is only the larger structures of capitalism and the exchange economy that seeks to change it. This is the encroaching effect of capitalism into everyone’s lives, eliminating the non-quantifiable, non-commercial ways of sharing. This has become even more pressing with the further advance of capital into what was previously thought of (for some of us) as non-commercial areas of our lives: lending out a guest room (Air BnB), giving someone a ride (Uber), and many others.

That said, there has been a dramatic shift in mutual aid work around the country. Where I am in Portland there is a “bloc” for every kind of mutual aid. A group that gives people rides to court, that picks them up when they meet bail, that helps people apply for jobs, dozens that help with food, one that supports people in finding mental health therapy, street medic blocs, the list goes on (there is even a great bunch of folks in the Matzoh Bloc doing similar work). Mutual aid is growing through a combination of need and accessibility of tools, and the pandemic put these efforts into overdrive as capitalism and the state so immediately failed to meet our community’s needs. These conditions will only accelerate with climate change and social and economic precarity, and so that dialectic will only grow, demanding more and more mutual aid. That model relies on a certain amount of faith, that we trust that we can depend on others as they would depend on us, instead of simply returning to the older models of resource dispersion. This has more in common with tzedakah than it has with charity, because together we are obliged to share in the project of world healing. To do this requires us to acknowledge our profound brokenness and to look towards a future of profound change, to jump off the cliff and show up in profoundly vulnerable ways.

I once heard a hasid describe his Judaism as “setting his soul on fire every day.” When I think about that, I think back to the distinctions made around kashrut. While the pagans sanctified the natural world (it was already and always is sacred), and the Christians thought the world was destructively profane (so it must be escaped), Jews saw it as profane as to be made sacred. What makes something sacred is the performing of ritual and incantation (mitzvot and prayer) that transform it from being mundane into something mystical. The hasid approach to God’s immanence is to bring God into the most mundane of activities, such as eating, by performing constant mitzvot. When doing so, God consumes the entire world, turning all that was prone into sacred.

If we see tikkun olam as one of the highest mitzvot, then what would it mean to ritualize all our interactions? To turn every moment into an act of giving, of mutual aid? What if the way we ate, shared, labored, everything was turned into a gift economy of mutual healing? Would the flame of mitzvot turn into a fire, an inferno that would consume the entirely new world? What would exist then? Would we be healed? And thinking of Isacc Luria, and the perfect performance of Mitzvot that can assure in the Messiah, would the results of this mass care itself be Messianic?

Yehuda Ashlag saw the urge to give and receive as the heart of simsum, which then turned us into open vessels who can have love poured into, so as to return it. The infinite and divine light was about giving and the unquenched effort to do good with others. (Hayyim Rothman outlines Ashlag’s take on simsum beautifully)

“The Torah was not given to them before each and every Jew asked whether or not he accepts the commandment of loving the others….as himself in the fullest sense. That is, that each Jew accepts the responsibility to be concerned with and work for every other member of the people, to satisfy all of his needs in a measure not inferior to the concern a man naturally show for his own needs…this general responsibility exempted every individual of the concern for his own well-being and enabled him to fulfill the commandment to love one’s fellow as as one loves oneself in the fullest sense, to give everything on owns to whoever needs it,” wrote Ashlag, saying that the responsibility was not just between Jews, but the entire world. “The ultimate rectification of the world will take place when all its denizens have been initiated into the secret of divine service.” (Translation by Hayyim Rothman)

A revolutionary society is one founded on mutual aid, if not, it’s not revolutionary, it's not a break with the past. To fully love others is to share that communal need, to survive and heal together, to fully live out the mitzvot, a mitzvot so numerous and overwhelming that to observe it would completely burn away the old world and leave something sacred in its ashes.

What can we do right now to support mutual aid? What can you do with your capacity? What is most effective? How do you avoid the trappings of charity? (A bigger question of how to set boundaries will come later.)