From time to time, I want to share more of my thinking about the verse from the prophet Micah that I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah.
I translate this powerful verse as
Do justice, act with love, and walk humbly. (Micah 6:8)
If you do an internet search for this verse, you will find that many translators share a common understanding of “do justice” and “walk humbly.” (Though, literally, the verse ends with “walk humbly with your God.” But that is a different topic.)
At the heart of Micah’s message is a phrase of two simple Hebrew words: ahavat chesed. These are the most challenging words to translate, because they are, in a way, synonyms, both of which can mean love. Here are a few of the different ways English Bibles have translated this phrase:
treasure the Lord’s gracious love
embrace faithful love (Common English Bible)
be compassionate and loyal
love kindness and loyalty
The variety of translations demonstrates just how complex this idea is. Perhaps because love is a feeling, not an action. Perhaps because love is hard to summon up on demand. Perhaps because we are inclined to love some people and not others. I think that this complexity further emphasizes its centrality in the passage
How did I choose the translation “act with love” above all others?
The Hebrew word ahavah means simply “love,” a noun. Ahavat means the love of—the love of what? Here is the word the translators are struggling to pin down.
Chesed. The love of chesed. Chesed is not an object, a thing to love.
Chesed is often translated as lovingkindness. Well, that clears things up, doesn’t it? Is it love? Is it kindness? Is it kindness that flows from love?
If it means love, then you might translate the phrase, “Love love.” But it’s not that simple. What kind of love are we talking about? Romantic love? Parental love? Or perhaps a more abstract, more universal love for all humanity? Or all creation?
Let’s look for its earliest use. In the Torah, chesed is a term often used to describe the loving relationship between God and the people of Israel. Rabbi Ivan Caine, my first Bible teacher at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), taught that this relationship is characterized by covenantal loyalty. God’s love is covenantal, enduring, fulfilling an eternal promise, much like the covenant of marriage. And like marriage, it is faithful love. Love expressed in loyalty.
In Torah, chesed is also used in relationships between two people. Most often, an act of chesed does not describe marital relationships, but the relationship between strangers who become friends or allies. Ruth performs acts of chesed for Naomi. Abraham and Abimelech, former foes, become allies through acts of chesed.
What is the loyalty, the promise, which exists between strangers? Here, I substitute “unconditional love” for ”covenantal loyalty.” The nature of this love is an abiding love of and respect for other human beings. We are bound to love one another as beings created in the image of the Divine. The Torah instructs “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Many other translators aim to capture this kind of love through words like faithfulness, kindness, mercy and goodness. In fact, the Christian idea of grace comes closest in meaning to chesed. Not grace, as we might describe a dancer or basketball player, but grace meaning the unending flow of love that surrounds us all the time, without asking for it, without working for it, but simply, the unconditional overpowering force of abundant love of God for humanity, and by extension, of one human for another. “We are loved by an unending love.”
Ahavat chesed may be the most important part of Micah’s message, because it contains the prescription for healing the breach between justice and humility.
Micah urges us to build relationships on that underlying, undying love. Chesed holds the power to unite humans with the divine, and to transform strangers into allies. Ahavat chesed, act with love, walk humbly, and we will join together to do justice.