Practicing Gemilut Chasadim to Change the World: Chukat-Balak
Chukat-Balak: Numbers 19:1-25:9
One of the most popular writings of the Hebrew Bible is Pirkei Avot. Mistakenly translated as “Ethics of the Fathers,” it truly means: “First Principles.” The second principle in the opening chapter, affirms: “The world stands on three things, Torah (Spiritual Learning) Avodah (Spiritual Practice) and upon Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving-Kindness).
Loving-Kindness, usually translated as chesed, is the highest of the seven lower sefirot (stages of Divine manifestation) of the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Our mystics say that this is the first sefirah (singular form of sefirot) to manifest. God emerges from emptiness into form through an act overflowing with Love and Kindness. Divine Creation is an act of love-giving that is boundless, limitless, and immeasurable. Each of us, having issued forth from that Oneness of Being, have, therefore, as our source, this unlimited capacity to love. It is our essence. Chesed manifests through us as our ability to love ourselves, to love others, and to love all of Creation. Gemilut Chasadim represents our capacity to act upon this love in ways that are selfless; devoid of expectations of return or even of gratitude.
Which leads me to this week’s Torah portion. The portion is named Balak, after the king of Moab, who fears the Israelites’ invasion of his territory. Balak had gathered his army ahead of the anticipated battle and sought to gain a psychological edge by hiring Bilam, a professional soothsayer, to curse the Israelites and assuage his soldiers’ dread. Three times Balak brings Bilam to curse the encamped tribes of Israel from three different vantage points. Three times Bilam can’t help himself and blesses the Hebrews instead. A fourth time he even offers an oracle predicting Israel’s victory over Moab. In his defense, Bilam had warned Balak from the start, telling him repeatedly: “I can only utter the words that God puts into my mouth.” The first couple of times as Bilam is about to curse the Hebrews, the Torah says: “And God manifested in Bilam” [Num. 23:4 & 23:16] as words of blessing came out of his mouth. The third time the text specifies that “the Spirit of God overtook him.” [Num. 24:2]
In many ways we are both Bilam and Balak. In the dualistic world of our separate sense of self, fear reigns supreme. We fear our “enemies” are always ready to attack and destroy us. There is always someone or something “out there” intent on “getting us.” We curse that which we don’t understand and are afraid of, and blame our failures and our ills upon being cursed by forces outside of ourselves, outside of our control. The “other” is seen as a threat from whom we have to protect ourselves, erecting ever higher walls between us in a world where everyone is left of to fend for themselves.
But when, like Bilam, we allow the Spirit of God to flow through us, when we become aware of the Oneness of Being manifesting as us, we are able to connect with the essence of our being, with the energies of chesed that are the foundation of who we are. Then, like for him, our words and our actions become ones of love, of kindness and of blessing toward others. The quality of chesed, infusing our very soul, is what comes to define us and the way we see the world. We transcend our separate sense of self by doing selfless acts of love, only motivated by kindness and generosity toward others and with the goal to support them in sustaining ways. In practicing Gemilut Chasadim, acts of Loving-Kindness, we are to go beyond what is comfortable or familiar and seek out opportunities to give even before being confronted with a need. And so perhaps, this week’s parashah is such an invitation; that we might seek out ways to practice Gemilut Chasadim and begin the process of transforming our life into a life of chesed, of love, kindness and compassion.