Mr. Nice Guy
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The Torah portion of Vayera begins with the well-known story of the angels visiting Avraham during his convalescence after his circumcision. Many of the commentaries discuss this act of kindness, or chesed, on the part of God. Indeed, the very Jewish ideal of visiting the sick is drawn out from this incident. One could go as far to say, as we shall see, that the core idea of chesed and its primacy is extrapolated by various opinions from this incident. There is an almost reflexive attitude when it comes to discussing why chesed is so important; after all, being kind is generally considered a good trait by the world. The Torah is built on a system of infinite wisdom, and as such, the idea of chesed surely must be a deeper idea then a “mere” act of kindness.
The Midrash explains that the Torah has the trait of chesed in the beginning, middle, and end of the Torah. The beginning reference refers to God assisting Adam by creating his wife Chava, as he was alone. The middle refers to the visit to Avraham during his recuperation. The last act of chesed recorded in the Torah is God’s burial of Moshe after his death.
This Midrashic explanation is expanded in the Talmud (Sotah 14a ). The verse in the Torah commands us to follow God; yet, how is a person to follow the Divine Presence? Rather, the Talmud explains that a person should follow the traits exhibited by God. For example, God dressed Adam and Chava, covering their nakedness. God visited Avraham when he was sick. He comforted Yitchak as he was mourning over the loss of his father. Finally, He buries the dead, as demonstrated with Moshe.
What we see from this first section is twofold: the idea of “emulating” God’s actions, and the one trait that seems to take prominence, namely chesed.
The Talmud continues with the familiar echoes of the Midrash: the Torah begins with chesed and ends with chesed.
We should try and understand why chesed occupies such an important place, serving as both the only example listed of following God’s lead, as well as the fact it bookends the Torah. On a simple level, one could easily say “being nice to other people is an important virtue”. No doubt it is. However, as will be demonstrated, there is a deeper concept at here, one that reveals why chesed is so critical to the overall perfection of the individual.
Let’s take a look at some of the examples above. We see the idea of clothing someone who is naked as a demonstration of chesed. When a person lacks clothing, his very sense of self-dignity is threatened. He is in a weakened psychological state. Illness befalls a person, where he is physical enfeebled. When a person mourns the loss of a loved one, he dwells in solitude, searching for a way to understand the magnitude of the loss. All of these examples share one theme: vulnerability. A person in each of these situations experiences an intense feeling of being helpless. Thus, one could posit at this point that the greatness of chesed is assisting someone in this vulnerable position. However, this would be an incomplete explanation for two basic reasons. One, the act of chesed does not by definition remove the person from being vulnerable. A visit to the hospital does not cure the person of his or her disease. Furthermore, it is difficult to consider someone who is deceased as being vulnerable. Yet, both the Midrash and Talmud stress the importance of chesed as it applies to burying the dead.
It is possible we must go a bit deeper to truly understand this idea. The idea of being vulnerable is obviously very troubling for an individual to experience, dredging up a slew of extremely powerful and unsettling emotions. It conveys a sense of human weakness, as if the person is inferior in his humanity as compared to his peers. All of the examples above (except for the deceased) certainly share this imagery. From the observer’s perspective, the weakness and vulnerability are on full display. This person, whether he be sick or mourning or unclothed, appears to be “less” of a person. His humanity has been degraded. When a person sees this state in his fellow man, a level of discomfort often initially emerges. A contrast ensues, comparing one’s “complete” humanity with his weaker counterpart. It is at that moment that chesed becomes so critical. On a very base level, the idea of weakness in someone else might produce discomfort in one’s own overall security in his personal strength of person. Weakness is not a trait valued in most societies. When a person engages in chesed, he faces his own misguided feeling of invulnerability. Visiting someone sick brings to light the reality of the frailty of the human condition, where you are in truth no different than the person ill. A call to someone’s home during their period of mourning centralizes the concept of mortality in one’s mind. Chesed, in a way, is the great equalizer of humanity. This approach then helps us understand the importance of chesed and burying the deceased. It is difficult to consider the deceased being any type of recipient of chesed. Instead, there is a profound effect burying the dead has on an individual. Why is this so important, rather than allowing the natural process of decomposition to take place? On a purely biological level, an argument could be made that the body of a deceased is merely a collection of dead cells and non-functioning organs. It is no longer the person. However, we identify with the specific individual through the body that housed that specific individual. There is no greater expression of vulnerability to the observer than the body of the deceased. It is the ultimate expression of feebleness in man – we cannot escape the inevitable end. Nobody is naturally comfortable with this truism, and as a result, the idea of allowing the body to decompose would buttress the contrast between one’s complete humanity with the weakness of the individual who succumbed to death. We treat the body with respect, reflecting a rejection of the idea that somehow one’s condition of humanity is somehow superior to another’s.
No doubt, then, chesed is critical. A foundation of Torah is the correct perspective man has of himself in relation to the Creator. Another is the correct perspective of one individual, a tzelem Elokim, with another. The outsized sense of importance and grandeur counters what God desires of man. Engaging in chesed reinforces the proper perspective man must have of the self, that in truth we are all vulnerable creatures, and that reality ultimately helps us to serve God on a higher plane. The Torah is the path of proper life given to us by God, the true and only path to perfection. It is therefore clear why the Torah begins and ends with the idea of chesed. This trait is the paradigm of a proper personality. The Torah beings and ends with this to demonstrate its objective: that man be directed man to achieve perfection in this world. Chesed is more than just being a nice guy. It forces someone to face who he really is as a person, and this reality allows the individual to live his life in line with God’s objective.