Judaism: Chessed, Then and Now
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu SafranRabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as vice president of communications and marketing of the Orthodox Union’s Kashruth Division. His most recent book is “Mediations at Sixty: One Person, Under God, Indivisible,” published by KTAV Publishing House. He is the author of “Kos Eliyahu – Insights into the Haggadah and Pesach” which has been translated into Hebrew and published by Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem.
Imagine this scene:
A gentleman, along in years, sits on the porch of his house on a warm, summer’s day. The sun is high in the sky. Perhaps the man, drowsy with the afternoon heat, begins to close his eyes for a brief nap. But a noise startles him. He looks up. A car coming down the road stops and three men climb out, clearly lost and in need of direction. They look around before seeing the man on the porch…
What happens next?
In our “don’t talk to strangers” society, it is possible to imagine the older man already reaching for his cell phone, ready to dial 9-1-1. Popular culture has “cued us” to suspect that these men clearly pose an imminent danger to the man. At the very least, he should retreat into his house. And lock the door!
But what does he do? He runs from his porch to the street and he greets them warmly. Not only that, he invites them into his house and has his wife provide food to them!
While jarring set in a modern setting, this is exactly what Avraham Avinu did in welcoming the three strangers into his tent. Despite recovering from his bris, he did not sit passively while the men approached. He ran to them, as if anxious to demonstrate his hospitality toward them.
Likewise, in interceding with God for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham Avinu insinuated himself in the midst of unsavory people, in a dangerous, unstable situation. And to what purpose? To try and find a peaceful and righteous solution, to save a community to which he did not belong!
To perform chessed.
In performing these acts of chessed, Avraham Avinu demonstrated by example how we are to behave in the world, how loving-kindness is to imbue our actions and behavior each day of our lives.
Rav Moseh of Kobrin, zt'l is quoted on the website, Shapell’s Darche Noam, “A day that a Jew does not do a kindness is not considered a day in his life.” (Nesivos Shalom, vol. 1, p. 99).
Such a sentiment suggests that, like Avraham Avinu, it is not enough to passively not do the wrong thing, rather, it is necessary to proactively seek out opportunities to do the right thing. That is, we are not to sit before our tents until strangers come to us but we are to run from before our tents to find ways to demonstrate our loving-kindness. It is, after all, as essential to a Jewish life as eating and praying.
We are to emulate Avraham Avinu.
God was well aware of the degree of chessed obtained by Avraham. He was cognizant of Avraham’s constant desire to reach out and aid others.
But on the day that he extended such generous hospitality to the three strangers, Avraham had earned a rest.
Our tradition teaches that, on the third day after Avraham’s bris at the age of 99, God turned the weather unnaturally warm, in order to make it impossible for Avraham to tend to the needs of others. Having fulfilled the mitzvah, the heat caused him to him feel ill and weak. He was unable to do anything other than sit before his tent and heal.
Mind you, there were countless reasons to excuse Avraham from extending himself to others; after all, he was recuperating from performing his own bris. At 99!
Who would not have “forgiven” him had he chosen to take some “time off” from performing acts of chessed? No one. Except, perhaps, Avraham himself. For Avraham, there was no excuse not to “do for others.” Avraham could simply not accept a “reality” where there were no guests to tend to, no passers-by to feed, no one to welcome and assist.
It was torment for Avraham to sit before his tent. Not due to the bris but due to his inability to do what came naturally to him, to perform acts of loving-kindness, to engage in chessed . God saw his torment and, taking pity on Avraham, God sent the three angels, in the form of men, for Avraham to welcome and assist.
But why couldn’t Avraham simply relax? Why couldn’t he simply relinquish the doing of loving deeds for even a short while?
Rav Michel Birnbaum offers an explanation is his Sichos Mussar, “Our notion of chessed, loving-kindness, is to respond and give when there is a need; give to the poor, tend to the sick, counsel the troubled, comfort the mourner, feed the hungry. In other words, to be responsive to the troubled human condition when called upon, when the need is there staring at us. When we behave in this way, we consider ourselves ba’alei chsesed, kind, considerate, giving.”
If the needs of others do not “enter our consciousness”; if they do not announce themselves; if we are so deeply entrenched in our own concerns, then certainly we are exempt from being ba’alei chessed, are we not?
Would we not be justified in doing nothing under those conditions? Could we not truthfully say, “But I did not know?”
But if we did, we would not be following Avraham Avinu’s model. In Avraham’s life, chessed was not incidental. It was not performed when the need “revealed itself.” Rather, Avraham’s actions teach us that a true ba’al chessed actively seeks out for the opportunity to perform acts of loving-kindness.
Failing to do so leaves him tormented and troubled.
The prophet Micah proclaims, “What does HaShem require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness?” It is what we are called to do in our lives. If there is no one in need within our field of vision, we are called upon to widen our field of vision. Like Avraham, we must run to those in need, seeking out the opportunity to perform chesed.
If I sit before my tent and gaze out at the world and see no chessed that needs to be done, it is not because all is right with the world but because there is something lacking in me.
In honor of our children Zahava and Seth Farbman whose chesed emulates Avraham Avinu.