In the entire scope of the Hebrew Bible, less than 9,000 words are used. Does that sound like a lot? Well, considering that modern Hebrew has more than 33,000 words, contemporary English lands closer to a quarter of a million words, and the “romance” or Neo-Latin languages all count upwards of a 100,000 words in their dictionaries, the Hebrew Bible is remarkably tightlipped by comparison.
Of course, verbosity is not necessarily superiority. Most of us would trade tens of thousands of useless, frivolous words for a few morsels of substance and meaning. This is where an economy of conversation is an advantage, and where the limits of the Hebrew language become a treasure.
For example, take our word “peace.” There are hundreds of synonyms for this word in English ranging in meaning from “an end to hostilities” to simply “silence” (English just isn’t that precise). But in Hebrew the equivalent word is “shalom.” On the Jewish ear, this isn’t the quiet at the end of the day. It is the wish, hope, and prayer that life be as it should be between people and before God. Fewer words, yes, but it is a much richer linguistic tradition.
And there is another word I have never forgotten from my elementary Hebrew studies years ago: “Chesed.” Used more than 200 times in what Christians call the Old Testament, it is throaty and guttural, strange and harsh to those of other languages, but it’s one of the more beautiful words on the face of the planet.
English Bibles often choose the phrase “unfailing love” as a translation, but that is woefully inadequate. It is love, to be sure, but it is also strength and truth. It is grace and kindness. Chesed is not just love, but steadfast love; not just compassion, but dependable compassion; not just affection, but affection that works for the individual and the community’s best interest.
Chesed is the holy ground of all patience, goodwill, humility, forgiveness, restoration, justice, and self-giving sacrifice in the universe. Is it any wonder that we English speakers need half a dictionary to describe this ancient, single, infinitely deep concept that might just be the best word in the world!
And it’s a word for the taking, not the reciting; a word for the experiencing, more than the defining; and it’s a word for obtaining instead of studying. Chesed, this remarkable word for the atmospheric buoyancy around us, can only be received as the gift it is and lived in a spirit of gratitude.
After all, love can never be forced, coerced, demanded, or hustled. It can only be awakened. It can only be evoked or kindled in the hearts of those who are are ready for it. Chesed – this fusion of all that is strong, kind, and good – can only be born of love itself. As the Scriptures say, “This is the message we have heard from the beginning: We love because God first loved us. Therefore, we should love one another.”