Acts of Ahavat Chinam—Baseless Love

Today is Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the head of the new month of Tammuz. As Tammuz enters, many in the Jewish community begin turning our hearts and souls to the Three Weeks—ben HaMetzarim—the time of profound national mourning for the Jewish people, culminating on the 9th of Av with a full day of mourning over the destruction of the Temples in Yerushalayim, alongside a whole host of other tragedies which befell us around this time (See here for a description of the mourning practices for this time).

The rabbis teach that the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 of the Common Era came about because of baseless hatred or sinat chinam amongst the Jewish people. There is often an emphasis on unity this time of year as a way of rectifying the brokenness that leads to the destruction of our axis mundi—sacred center of the universe. Many rabbis and others encourage people to do acts of baseless love as a means of bringing about a better world. This practice of engaging in acts of ahavat chinam—baseless love—can help us bridge the gap between our inner lives and our external work for justice. At the same time, many of us experience the random act of kindness phenomenon as diminutive at best and counterproductive at worst.

Our Mussar practice can serve as a vehicle through which we can do our cheshbon hanefesh—soul accounting. Am I engaging in this act of nedivut—generosity—from a place of wanting to bring about the spiritual and systemic tikkun our world so desperately needs? Or am I doing this because I want to feel better, feeling like I’ve gained a mitzvah point or two without the requisite action that is sustainable and geared towards bringing about justice in this world?

I have the zechut—privilege—of leading a small vaad through IOWA for folks steeped in Mussar work. We’re working on the middah of hakarat hatov—recognizing the good, but more often translated as gratitude. I have noted that when we seek to translate middot from Hebrew into English, we have to contend with the cultural and social baggage our translations carry. Gratitude is a paradigmatic example of this. Recognition of the good—hakarat hatov—is an active and intentional practice of noticing and naming that which we experience as good in our lives and in the world, without in any way pretending that the brokenness isn’t also omnipresent. Gratitude, by contrast, is experienced by many people—certainly not everyone—as a stance of being grateful for what one has to the detriment of recognizing that the world is as it should be. A well-rounded, grounded and mature spiritual life is that which allows us to recognize both. Hakarat hatov breathes life into our tired neshamot—that which we receive from Hashem and that which we receive from our fellow beings.

Hakarat hatov does not mean that we are willfully oblivious to the deep brokenness that is pervasive in our world and in our own lives. Many of us are socially located such that we experience systemic and interpersonal oppression and marginalization. Working with hakarat hatov, in my own experience, has allowed me to cease from giving up on my access to joy, to goodness and to love of life. It also has allowed me to better allocate my brain space. How much of my spiritual energy do I want to be sucked out of me due to the endless oppression of ableism, sexism and all the rest?

As we move towards the Three Weeks, the time that our calendar brilliantly gave over to holding our communal pain, may we move through this time holding the world’s goodness and the world’s brokenness. May we engage in acts of undiscriminating love as a means of building a better world for ourselves and for all beings. May the spiritual, political and physical tikkun we seek be actualized speedily and, in our days, and may we never cease from the work.


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