I think many Jewish people—perhaps MOST Jewish people—know that there are two central pillars of Jewish faith and practice: TZEDAKA, charity; and CHESED, acts of lovingkindness. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Z”L, tells us that these mitzvot lie at the heart of Judaism’s understanding of mitzvoth bein-adam-le-chavero, of our interpersonal duties We recognize that every society needs laws—mishpatim—but laws are not enough. We also need acts of tzedaka and of chesed.
Every time you make a donation to the Temple, you are doing tzedakah. Often, we give in memory of a loved one, or in honor of someone who has lost a loved one. That is tzedakah, the very essence of it, by remembering someone through an act of goodness.
But tzedakah is NOT charity; it is not a magnanimous act. Rather, it is a simple act of justice, of righteousness. The obligation is not fulfilled by paying taxes. We know that Jews are among the most philanthropic of all people. For example, 24.5% of all MEGA-donors—those who give more than $10 million a year—are Jewish. Business Week’s 50 most generous philanthropists include at least 15 Jews, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s top 50 charitable donor includes 16 Jews. Bear in mind that Jews comprise about 2% of the population.
But what is especially interesting in light of the importance of these commands is that neither tzedakah nor chesed are mentioned in the Ten Commandments. We know that there are 603 OTHER miztvot, but I find it noteworthy that we are NOT told “thou shalt be kind. . . “ OR “thou shalt give charity.” So where do we get these mitzvot?
I think the requirement to do chesed and tzedakah can be found in some key passages in the Torah. In Re-eh, for example, for are told:
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. Rather, be open-handed and freely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he lacks.
The Torah also tells us that there will always be poor people among us, thereby making clear that the obligation to give tzedakah is an eternal one. We know that in the shmittah year, which falls this current year, all debts must be forgiven. There was the Jubilee in which ancestral lands returned to their original owners. There were the “corner of the field”, the “forgotten sheaf”, the “gleanings” of grain and wine harvest, and the tithes in the third and sixth years that were given to the poor. We must return the debtor’s cloak before night falls. We cannot make the widow destitute. In these ways and others, the Torah established the first form of what in the twentieth century came to be known as a welfare state – with one significant difference. It did not depend on a state. It was part of society, implemented not by power but by moral responsibility and the network of interpersonal obligations created by the covenant at Sinai. All that is truly beautiful.
But I think that you could argue that CHESED is in some ways even superior to TZEDAKAH. Tzedakah helps those in need, but chesed HUMANIZES the world. Tzedakah is done with one’s money, but chesed can be done through money or through one’s own acts of loving-kindness. Charity is given to the poor, but chesed can be given to anyone, rich or poor. Tzedakah can only be given to the living, but chesed can be given even to the dead through burial practices and our mourning rituals. Through chesed, we follow in the ways of God. We walk in God’s path. In fact, the sages believe that the Torah begins with an act of kindness—God clothing Adam and Eve—and ends with an act of kindness—God caring for the burial of Moshe.
We read of acts of chesed in this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah. The narrative opens with Abraham’s mourning of Sarah, and of his devotion to her, even after she has died. But perhaps the most moving example of chesed occurs just after Abraham, in his old age, has decided that his son Isaac must have a wife. Abraham gives his servant Eliezer no instructions other than to find a wife from “the land of my birth.” But Eliezer seems to decide on his own to create a special test for this woman. He utters a prayer:
Notice that we see the word ‘chesed’ in two places in the passage that I just read. Eliezer is looking for a certain kind of wife for Isaac—a woman who is not just from the right family but also someone who shows kindness to strangers. And Rivka is precisely that person. The Torah tells us that Eliezer had “scarcely finished speaking” when Rivka—Rebecca—came out to greet him. Not only does she tell him, “drink, my Lord,” but she also runs back to the well to draw more water for all of his camels. How many camels was that? TEN!
So, the wife of the first Jewish child, Isaac, is characterized as many things—she is strong, she is beautiful, she is modest. But, most importantly, she is KIND. She is kind to a stranger, and she provides life-sustaining water, perhaps the most precious commodity in a desert culture. And we later learn that Rivka’s goodness is all-the-more remarkable, given how deceitful and conniving the rest of her family is. In the house of Abraham and Sarah, kindness and generosity to strangers were the norm. Only a spouse that held those same values could make Yitzchak happy. The genius of Eliezer is that he understood that.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, “When I was young, I admired cleverness. Now that I am old, I find I admire kindness more.” Someone once said that “kindness isn’t doing something for someone because they CAN’T but because YOU CAN.” Rav Moseh of Kobrin, z’’l, wrote that, “A day that a Jew does not do a kindness is not considered a day in his life.”
Rivka, like Abraham before her, does not hesitate to treat strangers with kindness. She, like Avraham Avinu, thinks of how she can lighten someone’s burden, how she can give light in an otherwise dark world. Let us pray that we can find the strength to give that strength—or at least a part of it—to others, so that they might bless us and so that we might walk in God’s path
“It came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.”
(Genesis 22:1 – 2)
Our reading of the third of the triennial sections of this week’s portion ends with the Akedah (“the binding”), one of the most difficult and challenging stories in the entire Torah. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. God decides to put Abraham to the test. God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, and offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain. That mountain, Moriah, eventually became the holy place where the Temple was built.
The story emphasizes the closeness of father and son as well as the enthusiasm of Abraham to carry out God’s command. Twice it says, “the two of them walked together.” At the crucial moment when Abraham binds his son, an angel puts a stop to the sacrifice. Abraham sees a ram to sacrifice instead of his son. Seemingly Abraham has passed the test. But this is already problematic. The father and son should have walked down the mountain together as they walked up together. But the Torah says that Abraham walked down alone. Where was Isaac? This is a great mystery. Perhaps the story is telling us that there is estrangement between father and son.
Jewish tradition teaches that this was the great act of faith. Abraham had passed the test. He was willing to go so far as to sacrifice his beloved son to obey God’s command. Obedience to God is the ultimate value. This is the reason we Jews read the story not only this week but on the Second Day of Rosh Hashana, one of our holiest days of the year. This is a story about faith; a faith in God so deep that Abraham could set aside his ethical scruples.
Not only Jews but the other Abrahamic religions see the value of this story. The Koran speaks of Abraham almost sacrificing Ishmael rather than Isaac. Ishmael was the father of the Arab nation. And the Christian existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard made this story central to his philosophy. In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard calls Abraham “a lonely knight of faith.” He was willing to suspend the ethical in order to live in the presence of God. The truly authentic life is based on what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.” He attacked what he called the ethical life as inferior to true religious faith.
But is Kierkegaard correct? Did Abraham truly do the correct thing? Should we be reading this story on Rosh Hashana? Perhaps the fact that Abraham walks down the mountain alone, never to encounter his son again until he dies, is a hint that there was something wrong. Earlier, Abraham argues with God and bargains to save the two evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham says to God, “Should the judge of all the earth not do justly?” Abraham is willing to call God to an account when God does something not just. Why did he not argue with God here?
Perhaps Abraham failed the test. Perhaps religion is not about suspending the ethical as Kierkegaard would say, but rather living by the ethical. Even God must live by the ethical. And if God commands us humans to do something unethical, our job is to argue with God. Perhaps Abraham should have told God, “No, I will not offer my son as a burnt offering. It is wrong.” The story would have been a lot less interesting, but it would have made a point. Religion demands ethical behavior.
Today we see unethical behavior among many faiths done in the name of God. People believe that God is on their side and therefore all kinds of atrocities are justified. It is not simply Islamists who create acts of terrorism or Christians who murder doctors they believe performed abortions. I see in our own faith, religious Jews who harass and arrest women who dare to bring a Torah or sing their prayers at the Western Wall.
Perhaps the lesson of the Adekah is that faith in God is important, but doing the right thing exceeds even that in importance.
We are told that our father Abraham underwent ten tests over the course of his lifetime, and that he passed all ten tests. Though there is no consensus on what those ten tests were, we do know that the first was at Ur Kasdim, where Abram (as he was then known) was thrown into a fiery pit for his refusal to pay homage to the idols of that society. He survived that furnace, and emerged not only physically unharmed but also committed to his monotheism. In addition, we know that the second test Abram faced was God’s command to LECH LECHA, to “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
As we know, he passes that test as well.
So why do we hear so much more about the second test than the first? In fact, the Torah is almost totally silent on the first test, the only mention being a quick reference in Lech Lecha to UR. It would seem that surviving a fiery furnace would warrant more attention than a journey, a departure from one’s home. And yet the fiery furnace is barely mentioned and comes to us mostly through midrash. Why?
One scholar believes that the trial at Ur Kasdim was barely mentioned because that experience was of Abram’s own choosing. He was an iconoclast in his own day and time, and his devotion to monotheism required that he be willing to give up his life for his belief. On the other hand, this scholar claims, the command to “go forth” comes directly from God, and that makes that test even more important because it was divine. Therefore, it is worthy of more time in our text.
I want to propose a slightly different reason. I think it’s clear that being willing to stand in a fiery furnace is a BIG test. I’m not sure too many of us could do it! But that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it was GLAMOROUS. A little like the trials of Hercules or some other spectacular super-hero. In contrast, the journey that Abraham undertakes is one that is on-going, and not the least bit glamorous. In fact, he doesn’t even know where he is going—God tells him “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Now there’s faith! No sense of what that end destination might be. And the Torah tells us, “And Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him.”
Think about how hard it is to leave one’s childhood home. No matter how much we might resist the strictures of our parents and older adults, there is a certain safety in being someone’s child and in remaining a child. There is safety in what we know, in being cared for. No doubt Abram felt that safety as well, even though he must have hated living in a land of idolaters.
But that isn’t all. Abram doesn’t simply leave his childhood home. He leaves without any knowledge of what his destination might be. That journey is one of seeking, not one of exile (like Adam and Eve), and the mystery of that journey demanded enormous faith of Abram.
So much of life is like this, isn’t it? Life often feels like a journey whose end is uncertain, where even the mileposts along the way might not be marked for us. Where we are headed somewhere, and we often don’t know exactly where. Where we might have even less information than Abram did—remember that God tells him that he and his descendents will be blessed, and that his enemies will be cursed.
Unlike Abram, we never know whether blessings or curses follow us as we journey on our way. So much of that journey requires a leap of faith, a trust that we will be OK. And, often, if we try to control our circumstances, the “best-laid plans” often go awry—we end up realizing that the more we try to exercise control, the less control we actually have.
Maybe some of you have read or heard about some of the predictions people have made about the future. For example, Charlie Chaplin once said that “the cinema is little more than a fad. People want the flesh and blood of the stage.” Margaret Thatcher once said, “A woman will never be prime minister during my lifetime.”
Marconi, famous for his invention of the radio, thought that radios would make warfare impossible. Economist Irving Fiske predicted that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Anyone want to guess what year that was? Yes, it was 1929, actually THREE DAYS before the market crashed. Popular Mechanics in 1959 said that computers might some day weigh less than 1.5 TONS. And my personal favorite: in 1924, Science and Invention Magazine predicted that there would soon be a MATING machine that you and your partner could be hooked into to determine if you’re compatible.
Dealing with mystery is tough and challenging. Under some circumstances, it can be terrifying. I don’t want to minimize that reality. But, sometimes, when we open ourselves up to the mystery of the future, we find that we are truly blessed in ways that we did not or could not imagine.
Let us pray that we can have the faith, like our father Abraham, to trust the future and to go forth . . .
We read of the Great Flood this week in the Parsha of Noach.
With the Flood, nature seemed to change. The Chatam Sofer explains the defect which occurred in the creation in the period after the Flood. The people in the generation of the Flood sinned because they were bored and had nothing to do. They did not have to labor in planting crops and raising children. Now the Holy One, blessed be He imposed upon mankind the cares of the world. People now must sow and reap, and “they will not rest.” They will not yawn because of excessive boredom. They will therefore not sin and indeed Noach immediately began to live according to the new order of things (9:20). “And Noach, the man of the earth, began and planted a vineyard.” The Malbim claims that our Sages saw three basic changes in nature. Until the Flood, people had to sow once every 40 years. Now they had to work all the time. Secondly, until then the sun circled the equator and it was always warm and light. Now there were seasons in the year, with all the effects on Man’s nature and health. Thirdly, from then on people no longer had the opportunity to rest; they would not be free to do whatever they wanted.
In telling the story of the Tower of Babel, the Torah wished to explain the reason why there are a multitude of languages today, although Adam was born alone. No doubt there was a failure in civilization and Hashem directed the people to become separated and many languages were developed immediately. The Abravanel points out that the expression that they traveled “from the east” meant that they moved away from the ancient days of old. The type of government that existed was evil and forbidden, yet the Torah never prohibited it. The Abravanel says, “When Hashem saw that Adam and all his descendants had immersed themselves in all the lusts for luxury, and had defiled themselves with them, He did not forbid His people… but encouraged the Children of Israel to behave in those matters with justice and in a proper manner, not in a despicable manner.” In any event, the purpose of the world according to the Abravanel is for it to be as it was before, before humankind ruined it by progress and by building the city and the Tower. The ruination of mankind by making technology into a god is also seen in the words of our Sages in the Midrash that at the time of the generation of the separation “if a man fell and died no-one would pay attention to it, whereas if a single brick fell they would sit and cry exclaiming when will there be another like it.” Technology, which was created to serve mankind, appeared as a goal, upon whose altar man was to be sacrificed, and that was the failure of this post-Flood generation.