Chesed shel Emeth
Is the name of the Cemetery in University City, Missouri, that was desecrated the weekend of February 18, 2017
Part 3: I look at the language
Chesed Shel Emeth, it means something like the mercy of truth, these are hard translations because the terms are fluid in one sense and in another they have depth, nuance. Truth is a harsh standard; standing alone with truth, nothing would qualify. Truth however with a measure of mercy, that’s a recipe we can live by; in the phrase chesed shel emeth the dominating noun in this expression is truth. The mercy within truth, truth modified by mercy.
In the Torah chesed and emet appear differently, as two equal nouns connected by a conjunction “and,” mercy and truth. One does not serve the other, there is no hierarchy as there is in the phrase chesed shel emet, shel indicating possession. In Biblical Hebrew it doesn’t appear at all, only as sh … and in later Mishnaic Hebrew it becomes a preposition shel, as in the mercy of truth, merciful truth, something like that. Mercy and truth is the Torah version, and an implied equality of the two terms.
And not as in hendiadys (from the Greek, “one through two” as in two notions becoming one notion as in flesh and blood for a person etc.) indicating one concept; in the Torah chesed and emet are two separate nouns connected by a conjunctive “and” mercy and truth put them together and you have what Ezra Pound referred to as the ideogrammic method that supposes a fundamental relationship between the two words. Think: mercy and truth. Mercy and truth.
What does it mean, mercy and truth? It might be like what Rashi is referring to at the beginning of Genesis when he cites Chazal that God created the world out of the standard of din, law, and it wouldn’t stand so God added mercy and we have a living breathing organism of Existence. Truth alone too demanding a standard it needed a little flexibility to endure.
Plus there are multiple standards of truth, some may be too demanding for life, so truth needs a diluting, a little cream in its cup so to speak. But the dominating noun in the phrase chesed shel emeth is emeth, the mercy of truth, truth’s mercy a possessive, and it becomes attached to our dealing with death. What I’m thinking is that it’s a worthy phrase to think of in thought, not just about death, about everything.
That’s what I was dreaming at the cemetery as I visited after the crime of desecration, I was feeling myself through the complexity of responses I was experiencing when the holy ceremonial ground was violated — the voices of the ancestors, the respect we give to those who have passed before us, our loyalty to them, to holy — all of this was a complex bundle of feelings and thoughts as I stood waiting for the ceremony at the desecrated site.
Then there was a complexity of responses from those who were or weren’t present, but to me the first response is always silence. I ascended into silence and waited for the truth to rise, this I learned from one of my heroes, ibn Gabirol the greatest of the 11th century Jewish Andalusian poets.
The chesed in the story was the cooperative effort of good-hearted people who showed up in overalls and with rakes and field tools to clean up a cemetery that on its best days needs a good cleaning, who were then delayed by the Secret Service who warned them that many of their tools could not be brought into the cemetery because the Vice President (whose name can be mentioned, Pence) was going to make an appearance.
That to me was the emet in the experience: the news story that this Administration clearly needs in a rush of almost 30 days of negative stories. Was it dominant? Emet, truth, is the dominant noun, I thought, though the mercy or the good intentions that the Governor and the Vice President appropriated was not lost on me. It was not an either-or notion, it was both beautiful in its spirit of cooperation (chesed) and it was also a sell-out in the dominant emet of the appropriation of the event by what I consider to be the voices that contributed to the atmosphere in the land that made room for such criminality.
No one can convince me that there is not much difference now than there was eighteen months ago when the current President (whose name will not be mentioned) announced his candidacy with a negative diatribe against Mexican immigration and a vocabulary of Other-ing that opened the gates in my mind on the kind of ugliness we are now experiencing as minorities in our beloved country.
That’s what I was thinking as I ascended into silence in the desecrated grave-yard of the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery, University City, Missouri. Into that silence was a sound that broke my reverie, a kind of rhythm I have come to recognize in my community. It was the sound of my landsmen patting each other on the back for the good work we were demonstrating there. Pure chesed.
We are good at patting each other on the back so I recognized the sound right away. My community loves to reward itself, each other, for obvious or even sub-standard activities, it makes us feel good. I myself have been rewarded several times the same way (the one I have most earned is Best Dressed Pain In the Ass).
I think I’m done writing about this for now, I have identified my dissatisfaction on that day: On the ritual level, too much blah blah blah, all chesed, that sound of patting each other on the back for a job well done, but the emet the truth in the Chesed Shel Emeth is that the Governor and the Vice President breezed in and out made some standard remarks and took over the event and the rest of us chesed-niks got pooked (I may have made up this word, I mean we were fooled because we had only good intentions), and what hurts is that I believe this officialdom contributes to the atmosphere that made room for this ugliness.
As I was leaving the cemetery, a young girl all chesed came up to me and gave me a lovely round piece of rose quartz. I love rose quartz, my son is a gemologist and he has taught me that rose quartz has a deep healing quality. It’s a love stone, it’s all chesed just like the young lady who gave it to me with tenderness and hope in her eyes, so I left with a good omen and the sense that the notion that may rise from these two nouns – chesed and emet in proximity – may be a matter for the future. Who was she? The future.
What will become of the energy at play in the graveyard that day, from recent months, and into the future? What will we do with what we feel, with what we know? What will rise in our time in our communities in our country that will take shape in weeks months and years to come that will demonstrate the play of these two nouns: The tough dominant standard of truth moderated by the flexibility organic sense of chesed of mercy, the trans-action of the two that will save us, or not.