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
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