Love is an Action
“Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 14-year-old stepson who I first met when he was a toddler. He spent weekends with his father and me until he was 7, when he moved in with us because his mom moved out of state and we were awarded physical custody. When we got married several years ago, I asked him what he wanted to call me, and he said “Mom.’ He is smart, bright, funny, generous, and has a heart of gold. He deserves to have present, loving parents as much as every single kid out there does. And yet, I do not love him.
I go through the motions of what I know a parent is supposed to provide her child. I do the things, buy the stuff, spend the time, ask the questions, try to engage. And I feel none of it. I know the difference because his father and I have our own biological children now, and what my heart feels for my own is everything that I don’t feel for my stepson.” The letter writer goes on to express her pain at not being able to give him the love he deserves and her fear that her lack of affection will damage him permanently."
This heartbreaking letter was published a few days ago in Slate.com’s parenting advice column, and the columnist, Nicole Cliffe, wrote a very compassionate and wise response. She concluded, “[L]et me remind you (and all my readers) that love is also an action, and by doing what you describe as ‘going through the motions’ in asking the right questions, showing interest, showing up, you are, in fact, loving your stepson. It’s the truth.”
Love is also an action. It’s a very Jewish idea, though I don’t know if Nicole Cliffe is Jewish or not. We have a Hebrew word for it, in fact: chesed. Chesed can be translated as “grace,” “love,” “kindness,” or “lovingkindness.” It describes acts of love performed in the context of a relationship. Just a few examples from the Bible: Sarah does an act of chesed for Abraham when she pretends to be his sister instead of his wife so that King Avimelech won’t kill Abraham in order to take Sarah as his wife (Gen. 20:13); Jacob asks his son Joseph to do an act of chesed and not bury him in Egypt, but instead take his bones back to the land of Israel to be buried with his family (Gen. 47:29); and Ruth shows chesed to her mother-in-law Naomi by marrying her kinsman Boaz in order to redeem the family’s land (Ruth 3:10). But the primary, eternal source of chesed and the inspiration for our human acts of chesed is, of course, God; in the words of the Psalms, “Hodu L’Adonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo. Give thanks to the Eternal, for God is good. God’s chesed is everlasting” (Psalm 118:1).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates chesed as “covenantal love.” He writes, “What is chessed? It is usually translated as ‘kindness’ but it also means ‘love’ – not love as emotion or passion, but love expressed as deed. Theologians define chessed as covenant love. Covenant is the bond by which two parties pledge themselves to one another, each respecting the freedom and integrity of the other, agreeing to join their separate destinies into a single journey that they will travel together, ‘fearing no evil, for You are with me’ (Tehillim 23:4). Unlike a contract, it is an open-ended relationship lived toward an unknown future” (To Heal a Fractured World, p. 45). As Rabbi Sacks suggests, the journey to this unknown future is made both easier and richer when we are accompanied by others. The bonds between us are made and sustained through acts of chesed.
In this context, we can better understand how the Torah, which famously values “deed over creed,” action over belief, can obligate us to love God, as the V’ahavta dictates, and to love other people, as in the commandments to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and to “love [the stranger] as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). As Dr. Steven Harvey explains, “The commandment to love one’s neighbor aims at an ideal to which all Jews should strive--a sincere and unbounded desire and concern for the well-being of others. But this sort of love cannot be commanded, although one can be commanded to endeavor to attain it. What can be commanded is the performance of acts of love, of treating others as one would if one truly cared about their well-being…. Moreover, the praxis of love is the surest path to the ideal.” Or to put it in slightly less academic terms, fake it ‘til you make it. In the Torah, ahavah, love, can be expressed even without the feelings we normally associate with the word “love.” But the hope is that the actions will eventually lead to the feelings. Chesed is what happens when the feelings and the obligations of love are joined.
In the examples I mentioned earlier, you may have noticed that the action described is difficult or unpleasant. Sarah suffers the humiliation and potential danger of pretending to be an unmarried woman, available to be taken into Avimelech’s house by force. Joseph has to schlep his father’s bones all the way from Egypt to the family burial plot in Canaan. Ruth marries Boaz, an older man she doesn’t know that well, to ensure the redemption of her mother-in-law’s land. In these cases, love isn’t expressed through bouquets of roses or Hallmark cards. Love is expressed through sacrifice and selflessness.
You might also notice that in the cases I mentioned, the one who performs the act of chesed is asked to do it. Sarah agrees to lie for her husband after he pleads with her. Joseph agrees to bury Jacob in Canaan after Jacob makes him swear an oath on his deathbed. Ruth offers herself to Boaz only at Naomi’s urging. We might be tempted think less of these acts because they are not offered freely but only agreed to, perhaps reluctantly. But I think there is a special beauty and a special poignance in these acts of love as response to another’s request. It is easy, or at least easier, to be loving and generous when we get to decide how and when to express that love. When we’re in good spirits, or have had some good fortune, it is only natural to want to share our joy with those we love, to make them happy as we are happy. But chesed isn’t dependent on being in the right mood or in the right situation. In fact, true acts of chesed are often performed exactly when we don’t feel like doing them, but do them anyway.
Chesed for us may not look like it does in the Bible; let’s hope we’re not called upon to risk our own lives to save our spouse. But chesed emerges in more modest ways, every single day. Chesed is getting down on the floor to play with a small child, even when it hurts our knees or back and even when the game we’re playing isn’t interesting to anyone over the age of 3. Chesed is attentively listening to a friend talk about a hobby or passion at length just because we love him or her, not because we care about golf or birdwatching or transcendental meditation. Rabbi Marder gave a sermon about faith a few years ago, but, if I may be so bold, I think what she describes as faith could also be described as chesed. Here’s what she said:
Faith is when a son goes to visit his elderly parents after work, and helps with the shopping and the bills and the medications, and listens to their stories and their complaints and tries to preserve their dignity, because these are the people who gave him life. Faith is when parents hang in there and refuse to give up on their teenage son or daughter, no matter how painful it is. Faith is when people stand by a friend who has cancer and travel with her all along the way, even when they’re afraid. Faith is when a wife takes care of her husband through many long years of illness because she remembers the handsome, smart and loving man who gave everything to her when he had the ability to give…. Love is an emotion, but faith is what keeps you going. Faith is hard. Faith is demanding. Faith comes from inner strength.
The same is true of chesed. Chesed is not found in the fleeting emotion, the grand romantic gesture, or the fair-weather friendship. Chesed, like faith, is born out of a constancy, a commitment to a covenant that binds us to one another.
The Sages questioned why the Book of Ruth should be included in the Tanakh. There are no miracles or prophecies in the story, no mystical revelations or sources for halakhah, Jewish law. But as Rabbi Zeira concludes, “Why is it written? To teach us the greatness of the reward for acts of chesed” (Ruth Rabbah 2:13). And what is that reward, you might ask? The Book of Ruth ends with Ruth giving birth to a son, and we read, “They named him Oved; he was the father of Jesse, father of David” (4:17). Because of the steadfast devotion of a poor, foreign, widowed woman to her mother-in-law, King David is born into the world, and with him, the hope for the future Messiah and an age of peace, tranquility, and harmony. In other words, chesed gives us a taste of heaven on earth. And it tastes even better than a box of Valentine’s Day chocolates.