Today’s learning is dedicated to the refuah sheleima of Simcha Nosson ben Zissel.
Attribute # 11 – Kindness to Avraham – חסד לאברהם
Those who go beyond the boundaries of their obligation, as did Avraham Avinu, Hashem also treats them beyond the boundaries of the law. Hashem does not exact from them the full extent of His justice, even in the “correct” way. He treats them even better than that, as they themselves behave. This is “Kindness to Avraham” – HaKadosh Baruch Hu acts with benevolence towards those who are like Avraham in their behavior. So too should one act. He should be righteous, correct and just in his dealings with all people, but he should go beyond the boundaries of the law with those who are good and pious. If he is slightly patient with other people, with these he should be much more so. He should have mercy on them, and go beyond the dictates of justice with which he acts towards others. These people should be very, very esteemed and beloved to him, and be among his companions. — Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devorah
This Attribute of Mercy focuses on the power of acts of kindness and the increased respect and tolerance we should display for those who are known to bestow kindness on others.
Although the word “chesed” is typically defined as “loving kindness,” this is only an approximation. A more complete definition can be broken down to three components:
- Choosing to feel and/or hear another person’s pain or hurt.
- Choosing to act to heal that person’s pain or hurt.
- Doing the above without any expectation of reward or calculation.
As Rebbe Nachman teaches, “You should be able to feel another’s troubles in your own heart… It is possible to recognize another’s anguish clearly, and still not feel it in your heart… If you do not feel it, you should strike your head against the wall. Meaning, you should strike your head against the walls of your heart. This is the meaning of the verse ‘You should know this day and take it to your heart’ (Devarim 4:39). You must bring the realization from your mind to your heart. Understand this well.” (Sichot HaRan # 39)
A “Ba’al Chesed” is someone who makes a conscious effort to seek out those in need of assistance. His eyes and ears are always open, as he readily awaits the opportunity to selflessly help others.
Commenting on the verse, “You shall be sacred, for I, Hashem your G-d, is sacred,” Rabbi Shimon Shkop explains the Torah is commanding us to be devoted to the wellbeing of the public. As Rabbi Efrem Goldberg explains, “Kedusha (sacredness) in this context, Rav Shimon writes, means to live as a giver rather than a taker, to be selfless rather than selfish… to care about the wellbeing of others, to extend beyond ourselves.” (This is why the following verses deal mainly with interpersonal relations, presenting mitzvos such as charity, and refraining from things such as revenge and gossip.)
Rabbi Shimon Shkop adds that Hashem’s creation of the world, and His ongoing maintenance of the world, is pristinely selfless. Hashem lacks nothing, and therefore, His kindness is purely altruistic. As we say in Ashrei, “Righteous is Hashem in all His ways, and magnanimous in all His deeds.” (The Kabbalists describe the act of creation itself as the greatest act of chesed. As we’ve discussed previously, everything runs on a benefactor/beneficiary relationship; an “awakening from below” is required to arouse an “awakening from Above.” However, before Creation there was nobody to initiate the awakening from below; it was entirely based on Hashem’s kindness and benevolence.)
For example, if we take a look at our surroundings, everything we see – whether it’s the floor, walls, ceiling, furniture, the grass, trees, clouds, etc. – is entirely a manifestation of Hashem’s kindness and compassion. Were Hashem to stop willing it into existence, it would disappear into complete nothingness.
We are taught to emulate Hashem’s ways; the Torah provides a blueprint of how that is accomplished. The Torah is also referred to as “Torah of life,” as the Torah acts as a guiding light, leading us down the path of purpose, holiness and joy. Each parsha contains a personal message for each of us, no matter what stage of life we find ourselves. As The Rogotchover Gaon said, “When I pray, I talk to Hashem; when I learn, Hashem talks to me.”
(In this weeks parsha, Hashem tells Noach, “Go into to Teivah.” The Baal Shem Tov points out that “teivah” can also mean “word” – referring to Torah and prayer. When the world around us begins to shake, and we find ourselves flooded in a sea of emotion and uncertainty, we can take refuge in the words Torah and prayer. The Torah is our shelter.)
Commenting on the opening verse of the Torah, Rashi questions why the Torah begins with Sefer Bereishis, which relays the events of the world’s creation, and of the lives of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov (rather than beginning with the first mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, which is not introduced until Sefer Shemos). Rashi answers that it was meant to ensure that the Jewish nation would be able to solidify their claim to Eretz Yisrael by showing the Torah to the other nations (where it states that Hashem created the world and chose to give the Land to the Jewish People).
However, the Ramban points out that Rashi’s interpretation still does not fully answer the question… We can now understand why the Torah begins with the details of creation, but why was it necessary to tell us about the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs?
The Slonimer Rebbe, in Nesivos Shalom, explains that while the details of Creation reaffirm our rights to Eretz Yisrael, the stories and events of the Avos and Imahos teach us about the kind of lives we are to live while in the Land. The Slonimer Rebbe bases his answer on a comment of Rav Chaim Vital, the student of the Arizal. Rav Chaim Vital asks why there is no formal mitzvah to develop positive middos. As Rabbi Moshe Schochet explains, “If there is so much emphasis on the value of working to refine ones character traits, shouldn’t that be included in one of the 613 mitzvos? Rav Chaim Vital answers that ensuring that one has refined middos is the basis for all mitzvos. It’s not necessary to list it as a separate mitzvah because it is embedded in the very fabric of every mitzvah we perform. Based on the insight of Rav Chaim Vital, the Slonimer Rebbe explains that Sefer Bereishis and the first two parshiyos of Sefer Shemos are included for us to learn from our Avos, Imahos, the Shevatim and Moshe Rabbeinu about how to develop positive character and personality traits.”
“As the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 25a) tells us, Sefer Bereishis is referred to as Sefer HaYashar, the book of the straight (or upright). Hashem wants us to work on ourselves before receiving commandments, and ultimately the Torah itself. It is for this reason that the stories of our ancestry are included prior to introducing the mitzvos. The Slonimer Rebbe is highlighting a critical and important lesson in serving Hashem: derech eretz kadma l’Torah, respect precedes Torah. While we certainly must go to great lengths to ensure that we perform each and every mitzvah in the best way possible, we must also approach developing positive character traits and middos as a prerequisite for observing mitzvos within the appropriate framework.”
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg elaborates, “The Netziv, in his introduction to Sefer Bereishis, explains that the lives of the Avos and Imahos as told in Sefer Bereishis provide us with a model of yashrus, of ethics and morality. They dispensed chesed even to those whose conduct they found objectionable. They lived among pagans, morally bankrupt people, but they nevertheless treated them kindly and compassionately. Sefer Bereishis thus reaffirms for us not only our rights to Eretz Yisrael, but the purpose for which we are given those rights – to build a just, moral, ethical society that creates a kiddush Hashem.”
As we’ve previously quoted, Rebbe Nachman teaches us that Torah learning and compassion go hand in hand. He tells us, “To be a righteous person, one must be both a Torah scholar and a chassid, performing acts of kindness. It is necessary to be a Torah scholar, for as our Sages state: A boor cannot fear sin (Avos 2:5). But to be only a Torah scholar without good deeds is equally worthless. A person must be both.” (Likutey Moharan I, 31:9)
(Additionally, the Talmud states, “With regard to the Torah, its beginning is an act of kindness and its end is an act of kindness. Its beginning is an act of kindness, as it is written: ‘And Hashem made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them’ (Bereishes 3:21). And its end is an act of kindness, as it is written: ‘And he (Moshe) was buried in the valley in the land of Moab’ (Devarim 34:6).”)
Similarly, the Torah is referred to as Torahs Chesed, therefore says Rabbi Dovid Feinstein zt’l, “When Yidden get up after learning a sugya (topic or subject in Torah), they should be more compassionate, kinder, with more room in their heart for others. If that doesn’t happen, then they didn’t really learn it and should sit down and learn it again.”
(Parenthetically, Rebbe Nachman teaches that the opposite is true as well; increased love towards each other leads to increased love for the Torah. Rebbe Nachman teaches, “Every single Jew has a letter in the Torah, for there are 600,000 letters in the torah, corresponding to the 600,000 Jewish souls. When there is a lacking in any Jew, there is a lack and something is missing in the torah, because that’s where the root of all Jewish souls are, and therefore it’s impossible to love the Torah wholeheartedly. But when one is careful not to speak negatively on any Jew, and not to find any lacking or shortcomings in any Jew, there is no lack or anything missing in the Torah, and then he will surely love the Torah very much, and then he will pursue learning with great love. (Sichos HaRan, 91))
When the Reb Yechezkel of Kuzmir was in shul on Tishah B’Av, he overheard a blind person asking someone to lead him home. The man said that he could not be of assistance since he had not yet finished reciting the kinos. R’ Yechezkel said to that man, “Instead of just reciting the kinos for the Churban (ruin) of the Beis Hamikdash, you should bewail your personal churban – you don’t know that helping a blind person takes precedence over reciting kinos.” As Rabbi Elimelech Biderman concludes, “The Talmud states that lack of consideration for others contributed to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Therefore, performing chesed can help restore it.”
A community near Radin asked a learned student to join them for Rosh Hashanah so he could speak to the people of the town and rouse them towards repentance. The student declined the request, as he wished to be with the Chofetz Chaim on Rosh Hashanah. Upon hearing this, the Chofetz Chaim told the student, “A mentch leibt nisht far zich — man doesn’t live for himself.” We came to this world so that we can help others in need.
Similarly, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin zt’l taught, “This is the entirety of man: not for himself was man created, but instead to help others to the extent of his ability to do so.”
Avraham Avinu was the quintessential ba’al chesed. He made it his mission to spread kindness throughout the world, even to the guilty, helping them return to do the will of Hashem. Avraham longed to spread awareness of Hashem’s Oneness. He was pained and distressed when he lacked the opportunity to help others. He was generous even to those who were unworthy, thus inspiring them towards repentance.
The Torah tell us that on the third day of Avraham’s circumcision, while he was still recovering, he prayed for guests so that he can provide aid. Later, he risks his life to save Lot from the four kings, goes out of his way to pray for the city of Sodom, and even sets up a hospitality center.
Regarding Avraham, the verse states, “He planted an orchard in Be’er Sheva and publicized there the Name of Hashem, G-d of the world” (Bereishes 21:33). Avraham offered his food and resources to those in need, while speaking to their hearts and implanting seeds of faith, until they eventually returned to the true path. Knowing that Avraham sought to benefit even terrible sinners, Hashem revealed to him His plans to destroy Sodom, so that Avraham would be able to pray on their behalf, as indeed he did.
When severe famine struck Eretz Yisrael, Yitzchak readied himself to travel towards Egypt, where he hoped to find relief (as did his father Avraham). Hashem then appeared to Yitzchak and instructed him to remain. “Do not descend to Egypt. Dwell in the land that I will tell you.” In the end of this revelation, Hashem blesses Yitzchak in the merit of his father Avraham, “Since Avraham heeded My voice and kept My guard, My commandments, statutes and instructions.” The Midrash interprets the verse to mean that Avraham took personal responsibility for Hashem’s tasks by spreading Hashem’s kindness throughout the world. Hashem’s Attribute of kindness ascended before Him and praised Avraham’s deeds. “As long as Avraham is in the world, I do not need to work. Avraham practices kindness in my place.” (Sefer Bahir # 191)
In closing, Rabbi Shmuel Meir Riachi explains, “When people are forgiving towards others beyond the dictates of justice, and walk in the kind ways of Avraham Avinu, Hashem acts towards them in the same way. He forgives them, forgoing the dictates of justice beyond what would be considered a fair response. This is the Attribute of ‘Kindness to Avraham,’ through which Hashem deals with special kindness towards those who walk in the ways of Avraham.”
The Talmud (Yoma 23a) states that whoever forgoes his reckonings with others, the heavenly court in turn forgoes punishment for all his sins. Similarly, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt’l said, “I was young, and have become old, and have never seen a mevater (someone who concedes) lose out.”
With Hashem’s help, in the following post we will discuss the various types of chesed, how to overcome some of the obstacles that may stand in our way, and the great reward promised for those who walk in the ways of Avraham.
TO BE CONTINUED…