Light for People in Darkness

Abraham Skorka

Georgetown University, Washington DC 

According to the rabbinic tradition (b. Rosh Hashanah 17b), God has thirteen attributes. The rabbis derived them from Exodus 34:6ff: “The Lord! the Lord! a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” The Hebrew word translated here as “steadfast love” is hesed, which does not have direct cognates in other languages. It has been rendered in many ways, including steadfast love, lovingkindness, mercy, grace, unexpected gift, and covenantal love.

We find in the Talmudic text b. Sukkah 49b: “The Sages taught that for three reasons acts of hesed are superior to those of charity [tzedakah, which can also be rendered righteousness or fairness]: Charity can be performed only with one’s money, while acts of hesed can be performed both with one’s body and one’s money. Charity is given to the poor, while acts of hesed are done for both the poor and the rich. Finally, charity is given to the living, while acts of hesedare performed both for the living and the dead.”

The rabbis also described the character of a person who seeks to embody God’s hesed. Such a person is called a hasid. Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi in his Talmudic discussion of the Pirkei Avot (2:5:1; 2:8:5), as well as Rabbi David Kimchi in his exegesis on Psalms (4:4), explains that a hasid is someone who relates to everyone beyond the bounds of rote justice and seeks to imitate the divine virtues of goodness and mercy. According to the opinion of another sage, to be a hasid means to obtain the highest of the attributes of God (b. Avodah Zarah 20b). Thus, in Jeremiah 3:12, the prophet, speaking for God, declares: “I will not look on you in anger, for I am compassionate [hasid] — declares the Lord; I do not bear a grudge for all time.”

Jesus as a Jew understood the importance of hesed as a divine virtue. This is evident, for example, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), in his saying, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and in the phrase he instructed his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us (Matthew 6:12). These thoughts come to my mind as I see my Christian friends preparing to commemorate the birth of the one who, according to their faith, brought the Good News of the hesed of God to the wider world.ḥ

Dreadfully, neither hesed nor tzedakah — lovingkindness nor charity/fairness — characterize our world today. Hatred and violence blind the minds and spirits of many, and attitudes of peace and reconciliation do not prevail over destructive madness. The savagery of our times poisons minds and desensitizes hearts. After a painful pandemic that killed millions, a pall of darkness and pessimism seems to have descended on humanity. Nature itself seems to protest the lack of human care and respect for it.

I believe we live in a time that demands everyone who cherishes the divine attributes of hesed and tzedakah to join together to herald a world in which weapons are set aside and justice and peace are the pillars of existence.

There is a passage in the prophet Habakkuk that the later rabbis in b. Makkot24a thought was the ethical essence of the Hebrew Bible. That verse, which also informs the Christian New Testament, reads, “the righteous person [tzadik, from tzedakah] will live because of his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). The prophet Isaiah also speaks of “The people that walked in darkness have seen a brilliant light; on those who dwelt in a land of gloom light has dawned” (9:1[2]). These cries of the ancient prophets remind us who are living in a time of darkness of the importance of following in the ways of the lovingkindness and merciful justice of the ever faithful One who gives us life. The light of God illuminates our way, if only we will turn to it.

May the lights of Hanukkah and Christmas lighted this month inspire our respective peoples to renew our dedication to the world of hesed envisioned by the prophets and proclaimed by Jesus.

Merry Christmas!