Friday, November 14, 2014

Parashat Hayei Sarah and the Eternity of Hesed: In Honor of My Father's First Yahrtzeit

Avraham’s central trait – what he brings into the world that helps begin the process of fixing it – is hesed, loving kindness. We have already seen other acts of his hesed -- reaching out to others to invite them into his home and interceding on their behalf in war and in prayer – but in this week’s parsha we catch a glimpse of the ultimate act of hesed, one that can never be reciprocated --- burial, the final kindness shown to the dead.

Burial teaches us something important about the nature of hesed – hesed keeps going; it has no end. A person dies and you think – that’s it. The love, the connection, the relationship is over. But no – the fact that you can still do an act of hesed for the dead, the fact that this act is considered the purest form of hesed there is teaches us that hesed does not die, that something of a connection of love always remains in the world.

Of God’s hesed, we say ki le’olam hasdo – it is forever, and I think this is inherent in the nature of hesed. It is not just love, but a loyal love that says – I will stick with you through thick and thin and never leave. That’s why God praises our ability to follow Him in the desert as hesed -- zakharti lakh hesed ne’urayikh -- I have remembered the hesed of your youth – how you followed Me – were steadfast and loyal to Me through the difficult period of the desert. That is what hesed is – a love that continues, keeps going, even, it turns out, after death. That is also why Ruth’s actions are called hesed -- she is said to have acted with hesed toward both “the living and the dead.”

Hesed is love that never ends. It is love that has an overflowing quality to it – like Rivkah’s pronouncement that she will draw water not just for Eliezer, but also for his camels – that is how hesed works. It doesn’t stop at Eliezer, just as it doesn’t stop in time – it overflows, keeps giving.

It keeps giving because it sets into motion a never-ending chain of hesed. The parsha’s two big deaths – that of Sarah at one end and that of Avaham at the other end – frame for us the continuing life that emerges in the middle – how Rivkah continues this hesed and a new couple, a new generation of hesed, is begun, born out of the hesed of the last generation. Love breeds more love. They continue, we continue the legacy of hesed -- hesed does not die, but is constantly growing and building more hesed in the world.

Olam Hesed Yivbaneh (Psalms 89:3)-- the world is built out of love. God created the universe out of the stuff of love, and He and we continue constantly to build it out of love. Love is what makes the world go round. It is the past, the present as well as the future, the ground we walk on.

I ask myself two questions, now, after a year of my father’s absence: 1) what is missing for me, and 2) what remains of the relationship – and the answer to both is the same – love. What is missing is the love, and also what remains is the love.

I miss his special way of zero-ing in on me and supporting me and loving me like no one else can.

At the same time, I carry that love with me. Lying next to my youngest son, Asher, at bedtime one night, I feel the intensity of my love for him and think – what good does such love do? What does he get from it? And then I feel what my own parents gave me, and know the answer – love is a protective shield, an aura, an angel, we carry with us. Does it protect us? Not outwardly. We can still get sick, we can still have troubles. But in some deep way, it surrounds us and buoys us and carries us through life and helps us stand and withstand.

We say that God is magen Avraham -- a shield for Avraham, and therefore, in some sense, a shield for us all. There is a Hasidic notion that every act of hesed a person does draws down God’s hesed from above. Avraham created a shield of love through his acts of hesed in the world.

What remains after someone dies? Love remains because it is eternal. Through his love, my father brought down for me God’s love, and I will always carry this love with me, like a protective cloud, wherever I go.