This Week's Torah Portion: Kindness, the Most Important Quality

Dëvar Torah – Parashath VaYéra’ (Genesis XVII, 1-XXII, 24)

The midda, the “measure” or personal quality by which Avraham was most distinguished, is that of chesed (roughly, “kindness”).

Tittén emeth lëYa‘aqov, chesed lë’Avraham, declares the prophet (“You grant truth to Ya‘aqov, kindness to Avraham” Micha VII, 20). The Torah is at great pains to set forth and elaborate this aspect of Avraham’s character.

From the incidents in our parasha, let us try to glean some insights into this midda, as well as into why the midda of chesed (rather than, say, the pachad, “fear,” said to characterize Avraham’s son Yitzchaq, or the emeth, “faithfulness,” of Ya‘aqov mentioned supra) should be the first component of Israel’s inherited character.

Our parasha opens with one of those instances of chesed. Avraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent on a very hot day. Rashi, basing himself on the Talmud (Bava Mëtzi‘a 86b), tells us that this was the third day after Avraham’s self-circumcision at the age of 99, and he was understandably still in considerable pain. G-d took pity on Avraham, ratcheting up the heat so that the famously hospitable patriarch would not be bothered by passers-by and would be able to rest. But when He saw Avraham’s great distress at having no one to befriend, G-d relented and sent him three angelic guests in the guise of men.

Avraham, we are told, pulled out all the stops. He begged the travelers to stay, offering them water to wash up and a shady place to rest, while he directed his family in preparing a feast for them. The midrash, cited by Rashi, tells us that each of these guests had a specific mission, and it became very plain in the course of the dinner conversation that they were no ordinary wayfarers, for one of them had the mission of transmitting the good news that at long last their prayers would be answered: in a year, a son would be born to Avraham and Sara.

This startling announcement (remember that Avraham was 99 and his wife was 89) was confirmed by a direct revelation from G-d, as indeed were the missions of the other two: to destroy the cities of Sëdom and ‘Amora, and to rescue Avraham’s nephew Lot from the conflagration.

Rashi makes a surprising statement in his comment on the verse in which the arrival of these last two angels in Sëdom is recorded. Up to this point, the visitors have been called anashim (“men”) and we have been allowed to believe that Avraham thought, at least before that revealing dinner conversation, that the angels actually were men.

Now, we are suddenly told: Vayavo’u shënei hamal’achim Sëdoma (“and the two angels came to Sëdom” XIX, 1). Rashi says:

In the case of Avraham, whose power was so great that angels were as frequently with him as people, [Scripture] called them anashim, [but when they were] with Lot, it called them angels.

The implication of this is that Avraham, from the very beginning, knew them for what they were. The Ramban comes to a similar conclusion from Avraham’s language in greeting them. He used the Divine name Ad-nai in calling to them, he says, “for he recognized that they were exalted angels … and therefore he prostrated himself before them on the ground.”

But this revelation raises a question concerning the entire episode. Verse 8 tells us that Avraham not only prepared the feast, but that the guests ate of it. The passage from Bava Mëtzi‘a cited supra points out the problem: “You think the angels ate?! Rather, I would say it seemed as if they ate and drank!”

If, as the Talmud concludes, mal’achim neither eat nor drink, and if Avraham knew from the beginning that his guests were mal’achim, then what was the point of this whole charade?

As already stated above, our parasha also concerns itself with the destruction of Sëdom and ‘Amora, two cities so infamous that they are synonymous with wickedness to this day. These cities represented a perverted society that was based entirely on an ethic of cruelty (as the Ramban comments on XVIII, 20) — the complete negation and reversal of everything Avraham stood for. This society was so palpably evil that Avraham and the members of his household shunned them utterly. Yet, we find Avraham striving mightily to find some way of justifying the cities’ continued existence: perhaps there are still fifty decent people left there, forty-five, thirty, twenty, ten. But none were found.

This episode is a profound illustration of an essential quality of the midda which we call chesed.

The great 17th century rabbi of Prague, the Maharal, explains it as follows:

… For all things are considered from the point of view of the recipient, for judgment [is understood] in terms of the recipient on whom there is a judgment [to be pronounced], and even mercy [is perceived] from the point of view of the recipient, when one has mercy upon another, except for chesed.

It is in terms of itself; for G-d, may He be blessed, showers good and chesed upon the world on His own initiative. He does not do this in terms of the recipient, but rather from Himself, due to the fact that He is good (Nëthivoth ‘Olam, Nëthiv ha‘Avoda 18).

Rabbi Shëlomo Carlebach, 20th century mashgiach of Yëshivath Chayyim Berlin, clarifies the Mahral’s message in his Maskil liShlomo: Chesed is unique among the middoth which comprise one’s character in that its nature is not defined in terms of the person who benefits from the chesed, but rather in terms of the ba‘al chesed himself. Rachamim, “mercy,” for example, is defined in terms of the mërucham, the person receiving the benefit. But one may be motivated by feelings of chesed to do good, even if one is unsuccessful, or the recipient is unaware that he has a need.

The distinction is subtle, but it can be grasped if we consider the first act of chesed in history — the creation of the universe.

Before the Creation, nothing existed save the eternal, unchanging reality of Ha-Shem. Ha-Shem brought the world into existence in order to have recipients of good. There was no pre-existing need to which He was responding, no recipients. We were created in order to become recipients of His constant shower of chesed, which continues without regard to our desserts or merits. In recognition of this, King David sang, Ki amarti ‘olam chesed yibbane (“For I say with finality that the world is constantly being built up through chesed” Psalms LXXXIX, 3).

Both of the incidents in our parasha are demonstrations of pure chesed chinnam, “groundless chesed,” which was Avraham’s hallmark. In the second case, this is very plain. The denizens of Sëdom and ‘Amora were worthy of neither pity nor mercy. Vicious and cruel, they tortured and killed wayfarers unfortunate or ignorant enough to fall into their hands. There is a chilling passage in Shabbath 55a which makes crystal-clear that even complete tzaddiqim who are resident in a corrupt and depraved society can be held liable with the rest if they did not protest the actions of the rësha‘im with sufficient vigor.

Avraham recognized the justice of the sentence, but as a ba‘al chesed he could not leave matters there. “Will You cause even a tzaddiq to perish with a rasha‘?” XVIII, 23). He did not know any tzaddiqim of Sëdom, they had not sought his help, but he could not let it go unchallenged that someone whose personal conduct was not reprehensible should suffer the fate of rësha‘im. Purest chesed.

In the first episode, that of the visitation of the mal’achim, the Ba‘al haTurim notes two allusions which suggest that the underlying justification for creating the world involved the eventual appearance in it of Avraham. In Genesis II, 4 we read: Élle tholëdoth hashamayim vëha’aretz bëhibbarë’am, which can be translated as: “These are the results of the heavens and the Earth when they were created.”

The Ba‘al haTurim notes that the letters of bëhibbarë’am (בהבראם) are in fact an anagram of bë’Avraha (באברהם), “through” or “because of Avraham,” indicating that “in Avraham’s merit were the heavens and Earth created.” Then, at the beginning of last week’s parasha (Genesis XII, 1), he deduces from the use of the word vayomer to introduce Ha-Shem’s command to Avraham, the very word which introduces the Divine utterances during the Creation, that the world “was only created in Avraham’s merit.”

Since, as King David proclaimed, the creation of the universe and its inhabitants was the act of primal chesed, it stands to reason that that tzaddiq who most exemplifies the midda of chesed, whom the holy sources term the merkava, the “vehicle” of chesed in this world, Avraham, validates that creation and makes it worthwhile. And since the world of chesed was created according to the “blueprint” of Torah, it is logical that the primary component in the Torah-nation’s make-up, the foundation on which all else is built, had to be chesed.