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The Extravagant Chesed Love of God

“I will tell of the LORD’s unfailing love [chesed].  I will praise the LORD for all He has done.  I will rejoice in His great goodness to Israel, which He has granted according to His mercy and love [chesed].”  (Isaiah 63:7)

When Yeshua was asked which commandment was the greatest in the Law, He said that the first was to love God with all our heart, soul and mind.  The second, He said, was like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.

He was reiterating two core commandments of Judaism on which the Law hangs. In Leviticus 19:18, where this law is stated, the verb translated love in Hebrew is ahav.  It is an active verb; in other words, love is an action.

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Ahava, a Hebrew word for love (Photo by Talmoryair)

Interestingly enough, in order to effectively love our neighbor, we must love ourselves.  If we consider ourselves undeserving, we likely will treat others that way or set ourselves up to be treated that way.  So it would seem that our capacity to love our neighbor might be limited by how well we value ourselves.

If we detect that we have an ungodly view of ourselves, let’s ask God to help us see ourselves as He does.  Only when we do so can we be transformed into a person who gives and receives an even higher form of love, chesed (חסד).

This other Hebrew word for love is more difficult to translate into English.  Chesed is a love that cannot be sentimentalized; it has the attributes of strength, steadfastness, loyalty, and devotion that stem from a covenant between God and Israel or between people.

It has been translated as loving-kindness, mercy, steadfast love, compassion, loyalty, goodness, great kindness, favor and loyal- or leal-love.

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A Jewish man and woman exchange wedding vows under the chuppah.  (Photo by Brett Lidder)

The Chesed of Adonai

“The LORD is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in loving-kindness [chesed].”  (Psalm 145:8; see Exodus 34:6–7)

In Judaism, chesed is considered one of the thirteen attributes of God.  The Jewish sages derived this idea from God’s revelation of Himself to Moses (Exodus 34:6–7).

This attribute is akin to John’s description of God’s love:  “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  (1 John 4:7–8)

Chesed has been described as a “life-long love” that is based on a covenantal relationship — “a steadfast, rock-solid faithfulness that endures to eternity:”

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love [chesed] for you will not be shaken.”  (Isaiah 54:10)

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Israeli couple on vacation in Israel’s Negev Desert.

Chesed is a form of love that extends beyond any sin or betrayal to heal the brokenhearted and to graciously extend forgiveness:  “No one is cast off by the Lord forever.  Though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love [chesed].”  (Lamentations 3:31–32)

Chesed, in fact, is God’s kind of love.

The Bible scholar John Oswalt points to chesed as it is used to describe God in the Tanakh (Exodus 34:6) as an example of “completely undeserved kindness and generosity” granted by one who is in a position of power.

He notes how God came to the Hebrew people even though they were not seeking Him and how He was true to His covenant with Abraham even though they continually broke it.

In Oswalt’s words:  “Unlike humans, this deity was not fickle, undependable, self-serving, and grasping.  Instead He was faithful, true, upright, and generous — always.”

Modern day Israel is a testimony of God's chesed.

A little girl carries a big Israeli flag.  (Photo by Chaim Zvi)

Scripture reveals many instances of God’s chesed in action.  In Genesis 24:27, Abraham’s servant managed to miraculously find a wife for Isaac.  The servant recognizes God’s faithfulness and grace (a related concept in the New Covenant). He describes Him as one “who has not abandoned His kindness [chesed] and faithfulness to my master.”

The covenant aspect of chesed is witnessed in God’s steadfast love toward Israel. Although Israel is not always faithful, God is.  He will not let Israel go.

One cannot live in Israel without being aware of God’s chesed, and it is this chesed that preserves a nation whose enemies outnumber it by a ratio of 250 to 1.

While many men and women have witnessed God’s miraculous interventions in battle, simply getting through each day is proof enough of His chesed in a country that is constantly under attack.  Because of that, many so-called hilonim or secular Jewish citizens are also aware of God’s existence and of His grace and loving-kindness over Israel.

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Orthodox Israeli man (Israel Ministry of Tourism Photo by Noam Chen)

God’s love for the Jewish People is a true wonder.

Chesed does not dismiss the need for holiness and righteousness but, mercifully, despite failings on the part of the Jewish People, makes a way through unmerited kindness toward love for His covenant.

In fact, chesed is quite often paired with the Hebrew word translated mercy and compassion: rachum.  (see Isaiah 54:8; 63:7; Lamentations 3:22)

“And I will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness and with justice and with loving-kindness [chesed] and with mercy [rachum].  And I will betroth you to Me with faith, and you shall know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:19–20 [21–22])

“For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but my loving-kindness [chesed] will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the LORD who has compassion [rachum] on you.”  (Isaiah 54:10)

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A family looks toward the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. (Photo by Viktor Karppinen)

The Extravagance of Chesed

“For Your loving-kindness [chesed] is before my eyes, and I have walked in Your truth.”  (Psalm 26:3)

The Hebrew word chesed also appears in Leviticus 20:17 where the Law states that a man who uncovers the nakedness of his sister has committed a chesed: here it is translated as a disgrace.

In writing “chesed,” it suggests that the man has crossed a Divine line, giving chesed the added sense of being “characterized by overflowing and lack of boundaries.”  (Aish)

In this case, chesed is given a negative connotation.  But when holiness is the connotation, the intent is that the one who loves does so without boundaries — an act of love characterized by overflowing grace, mercy and giving.

With this kind of love there is no thought of “what’s in it for me?”

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Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah, by William Blake

Ruth 1:8–20 gives us an example of chesed.  When Naomi decided to return to Israel after her husband and sons died, her daughters-in-law were faced with a decision:  go back to Moab or go to Israel.

“Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home.  May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness [chesed] to your dead husbands and to me.’”  (Ruth 1:8)

Orpah went back to Moab, but Ruth went with Naomi and gleaned in the fields of Israel to look after her.  This was more than just kindness.  She demonstrated chesed, a loyal love that goes beyond the requirement of familial duty.

While in Israel, Ruth did not go after young men but married Boaz as a way to help her mother-in-law.

We see here that chesed goes beyond the call of duty, beyond compliance with contracts.  It is extravagant.

It is not dependent upon feelings or mood; it is something that we do to provide for what another person needs.  It is motivated by compassion and ahava (love).

“‘The LORD bless you, my daughter,’ he replied. ‘  This kindness [chesed] is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor.’”  (Ruth 3:10)

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Ruth and Boaz, by Moeyaert

The Mitzvah of Gemilut Chassadim

“O give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good: for His mercy [chesed] endures for ever.”  (Psalm 136:1)

Jewish tradition teaches that to be a chasid (pious one), we must acquire the attribute of chesed (chasid comes from the word chesed).  More simply put, chesed should characterize the lives of those who know God.

Chesed is a core pillar of human behavior; as Pirkei Avot 1:2 states, the world rests upon three things: Torah, avodat (divine service: i.e. sacrifices, prayer), and Gemilut Chassadim (giving of chesed).

Gemilut Chassadim is the performance of acts of loving-kindness.

Although performance of the mitzvah (command) of tzedakah is usually the giving of money to the poor, Gemilut Chassadim is the performance of loving-kindness (usually personal service) for anyone.  This concept is very broad and includes all relationships between people.  (Chabad)

The following are examples of the personal obligations covered by this term:

  • grant free loans (of money or any other object);
  • provide hospitality;
  • visit and comfort the sick;
  • give clothing to those in need thereof;
  • assist and gladden brides and grooms;
  • attend to matters of the dead;
  • comfort mourners;
  • reconcile those who are at odds with each other.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu-chesed

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a wounded Israeli soldier.

In performing these chassadim (plural of chesed), the rabbis say we are emulating God on earth.  Though none of the following acts are specifically commanded in the Torah, the rabbis point to certain Scriptures that suggest God desires these actions:

“As God clothes the naked [Genesis 3:21]… as God visits the sick [Genesis 18:1]… as God comforts mourners [Genesis 25:11]… as God attends the dead [Deuteronomy 34:6]… as God attends brides and grooms… so you are to do also.” (Sotah 14a; Sifre, c; Midrash Tehilim 25:10; Kohelet Rabba 7:6f; Pirke deR. Eliezer 12 and 16f; Avot deR. Nathan ch.4; Hilkhot Avel 14:1)

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An IDF soldier gives tzedakah to an elderly man in Israel.

While tzedakah (charity) refers to fulfillment of the most basic obligation or commandments, chesed speaks of excess.

Chesed is an overflow of beneficence toward someone who has no rights at all to claim it from us, as well as an overflow of beneficence toward someone who deserves it but in a greater measure than he deserves.  (Chabad)

Performing chesed is no small thing.  It can have a powerful redemptive effect on those who feel no worth of their own, those who are often shunned and shamed by their community.

“Through acts of chesed (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 chesed,” the My Jewish Learning website states.

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An elderly man begs for coins in Jerusalem.

We see this principle of chesed effectively at work in many Bible-based recovery programs where even momentary sobriety is celebrated by lavish acts of grace and kindness that are only possible when one sees the value that God has placed in another

And we see this principle of chesed at work in the redemption of our sins through Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah) who lavishly gave up His own life to become the perfect sacrifice so that we can be restored back to God as heirs, sons and daughters, of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

“This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.”  (1 John 4:9)

May each of us strive to know God’s chesed toward us, to value ourselves as He values us so we can freely share His chesed with others.  When we perform chesed, we trigger an awareness of God’s chesed, which has the power to change someone’s life for the better.

“I desired chesed and not sacrifice, and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  (Hosea 6:6)

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