Reflections on Chesed

Adapted from remarks delivered at the first Yahrzeit commemoration for DeeDee Benel Z”L 

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: 

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and acts of kindness. 

Our sages identified chesed as one of the pillars on which the world stands. Our daily prayers emphasize the importance of doing chesed even more strongly. As part of Birkot HaTorah (the blessings over Torah study), we study a passage from the Mishna which lists acts of chesed as one of the mitzvoth which has no prescribed limit—that is, there is no end to how much chesed we can do.  We then study a passage from the Talmud which lists chesed as a mitzvah with a double reward: we are rewarded in this world for doing chesed, and also in the world to come. 

Clearly, doing chesed is important: it is a pillar on which the world stands, there is no limit to the chesed we can do, and the reward for the mitzvah is a double one. But how ought we do chesed? I would like to suggest three principles for becoming a ba’al (or ba’alat) chesed. 

I.  

On the night before Passover, while Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (lived 1820-1892,known as the “Beis Halevi” and the Rav of Slutsk) was conducting his search for Chametz, there was a knock on the door. Their son answered the door, and the visitor requested to speak with Rabbi Soloveitchik. “I have a halakhic question,” said the man, “and I’d like to know your opinion. Am I permitted to use four cups of milk for the seder instead of wine?” “Why milk?” asked the rabbi, “are you sick? If so, you may use juice!” “I am not sick,” replied the man. “I cannot use wine because I cannot afford it. I’m a blacksmith, and I’ve had much trouble making ends meet.” Rabbi Soloveitchik turned to his wife and said, “Tzirel, please give this man 25 rubles.” The man immediately protested: “Rabbi, I did not come here for charity! I came with a halakhic question, I simply want to know whether it is permissible to use milk for the seder instead of wine.” The rabbi replied, “I did not mean it as charity; I am not a rich man and I cannot afford to give you 25 rubles. It is a loan. When business improves, you will be able to pay me back.” The man took the money and went home to prepare for Passover. When he left, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s wife remarked, “why did you give that man 25 rubles? Wine does not cost that much. Five rubles would have been more than enough!”  The rabbi responded, “Tzirel, didn’t you hear the man say he wants to drink four cups of milk? That means he also has no money for meat. What kind of seder would his family enjoy?!” 

             Adapted and abridged from The Soloveitchik Heritage by Shulamit Soloveitchik     Meiselman 

The first principle in becoming a ba’al chesed is keeping our ears open to the needs around us. The individual in the story came to Rabbi Soloveitchik with what was purportedly a purely halakhic question—may milk be used instead of wine at the seder? It is, on its face, a yes or no question. However, the rabbi read between the lines and understood that there was a deeper problem: if he planned on drinking milk, there would certainly be no meat at this seder. Often, people do not ask directly for what they need or otherwise do not make their needs explicit. Sometimes, people may not even recognize that they have a need, like the individual in the story who had already resigned himself to a dairy seder. A true ba’al chesed is sensitive to their surroundings, can identify the needs around them even when they are not obvious, and knows how to respond. 

 

II 

A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalayim, I was once walking with my family in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging by their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul, based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, “If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asrot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce. . .” 

I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, “Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.” My feeling then was: Why, Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him. 

From Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting by R. Aharon Lichtenstein 

The second principle in becoming a ba’al chesed is a willingness to leave our comfort zones. Rabbi Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva Har Etzion, was the Talmudic scholar par excellence. No doubt his “natural habitat,” his comfort zone, is that of gemara, its rigorous study, and the principles contained therein. In reflecting upon the events he witnessed, though, he felt that acts of chesed outweigh both Talmudic study and Talmudic principles. If we are attuned to the needs around us and want to help, we must be willing to leave our comfort zones to help. We may need to do things we do not normally do, go places we do not normally go, and interact with people who are very different from us. We must be willing to think outside our usual categories so that we can become ba’alei chesed. 

III 

Hesed denotes, in practical terms, the vastness of kindness, contributing more than one's capacity, giving away more than one had a chance to store, accommodating more than one's narrowly bounded existential area will permit. In short, hesed means compulsive kindness, spontaneous sympathy. One is impelled to give away, to let others share his possessions, to invite strangers to partake of whatever he has. Hesed does not depend on the actual size of one's possessions, upon numbers and figures. It is, rather, a spiritual attitude, a subjective experience that whatever I have (even though my means are less than moderate if seen from an objective viewpoint) is too much for me. Whatever God gave me exceeds my capacity to utilize or store up. 

From An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night by R. Joseph Soloveitchik 

Acts of chesed may be individual acts, but being a ba’al chesed is a virtue that supersedes those individual acts. A ba’al chesed is one for whom chesed is an instinct – acts of kindness and helping others are not calculated deeds but rather natural, immediate responses. The subway often presents a good distinction between the two: when an elderly person or pregnant woman gets on a train with no available seats (setting aside the people who do not acknowledge the situation at all which is, unfortunately, often a significant proportion of the riders), some of the people contemplate getting up—they know it’s the right thing to do, they consider doing it, they look around to see if someone else is getting up, and if necessary, they do it. The ba’alei chesed just get up – they exhibit, in the words of Rav Soloveitchik, “compulsive kindness, spontaneous sympathy.” 

One of the pillars upon which the world exists, chesed is one of the foundations of Judaism. To improve our chesed, I suggest striving toward incorporating these three principles into our lives: (1) being attuned to the needs around us, even when they are not obvious or explicit, (2) a willingness to step out of our comfort zones to help others, and (3) developing an instinct for chesed that is in our very being, not just something we do but part of who we are. As we enter this new year, let us recommit ourselves to improving our chesed and, if possible, becoming true ba’alei chesed.  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Simchat Torah?

A Long Way from the Wonder Pot

Should we still recite the Prayer for the State of Israel if we disagree with its government?