Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Chaye Sara (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Kindness Explained

This week’s Parsha begins with the sad tiding of Sara’s death. Abraham goes through a complicated negotiation in order to purchase a burial spot for her as well as delivering a eulogy. The Midrash applies a verse to these kind deeds: He who pursues charity and kindness will find life, charity, and honor. (Proverbs 21:21).

Abraham is known to be the paramount man of kindness. Testimony to his benevolence is seen by the fact that he opened his tent on all sides to accommodate total strangers who might be traveling through the desert; he even did it a few days after his circumcision when he was ninety nine years old. In addition, he prayed for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah even though it was a cruel place and represented the opposite of what he stood for. He clearly was a kind person yet the incident that earned him the accolade “He who pursues charity and kindness” is when he buried his wife. This is peculiar because burying one’s spouse is a basic courtesy expected of any decent person; it’s not considered a magnanimous act, whereas accommodating strangers and praying for people who are on the opposite end of your value system seem to be much greater acts of kindness than burying a wife. What is so special about burying Sara that the Midrash refers to Abraham as a man who “pursues charity and kindness?”

True chessed (kindness) is when humiliation of the one receiving the kindness is minimized. For example, imagine a man who just lost his job whose wife needs surgery and is in need of emergency financial assistance. If you make a public appeal in the synagogue, the family will be embarrassed. As wonderful as chessed (kindness) is, it may involve shame on the part of the recipient. When is chessed performed without shame? When it is expected. When a mother makes breakfast for the family she is doing a huge act of chessed, and no one feels disgraced but if the same woman cooked at a local shelter, the recipients might feel dishonored because they had to get their meal at a soup kitchen. When viewed this way, chessed done to one’s family is more precious than when it is done to strangers. Perhaps this explains the priority in Jewish law for giving tzedaka to one’s immediate family, then to relatives, afterwards to the community and finally every other important Jewish cause throughout the world. (Note: Israel is considered one’s community).

This gives a new perspective in chessed. The degree of its pureness is determined by the connection of the donor and the recipient. If the donor disregards the feelings of those who are dependent on him or her (e.g. family) or if he sets his priority in giving to those who are distant from him, his giving is not as pure. I have known people who are recognized as generous with their time, money, and attention, and known to be understanding of their coworkers, clients, or patients but their family members feel this same charitable person doesn’t have time for them. What good is it to be recognized as a kind and compassionate person if your own family doesn’t think or feel it?

We might not always be pure in the chessed we do but Abraham was. The man renowned for compassion and humility is called kind because he took whatever measures were necessary to give his wife a respectful burial. When he invited three strangers into his tent to wash up and eat after a scorching journey in the desert, they would have felt indebted to him. So too concerning people of Sodom and Gomorrah; had he been successful in saving them, they too would have owed him a debt of gratitude. When he buried Sara, there would be no one indebted to him, nor would anyone be disgraced by his benevolent acts. It was a pure act of kindness.

Two important lessons can be derived from this Midrash. (1) When you are doing an act of chessed , do your best so that the recipient doesn’t feel guilty or indebted. The classic Jewish work Duties of the Heart (11th century) states that one of the reasons G-d creates infants without a developed brain is because if they knew how helpless they were, if they knew how much they depended on others for every aspect of their lives, they would be shamed and depressed due to their awareness of how much they rely on and receive from others. (2) We shouldn’t think that kindness done for family members is of no great significance because it is expected. Rather, we should look at it differently: the chessed one shows for family members is one of the purest forms of chessed because it is expected. Which is harder for a doctor; rushing to the hospital to see a patient or spending time with her at-risk daughter who was just released on bail for being suspected of possessing drugs in order to sell them? Any decent mother would be there for her daughter and because of that she will receive no accolades or parent of the year awards; it is precisely for this reason that her chessed is pure. The heroine doctor who puts down everything to tend to a patient’s needs is the one everyone praises.

The Almighty has created a world that bestows innumerable acts of chessed each day. We eat, breath, digest and excrete food, we taste and enjoy our food, we think, we walk, talk, and do so many other things that we take for granted. G-d, the ultimate granter of kindness, has done it in a way that we aren’t ashamed. We should remember this model every time we do an act of kindness and realize that kindness isn’t always for the recipient, it has intrinsic value for the giver because it facilitates the Jewish mission to transcend our selfish inclinations, which in turn allows us to reach our potential. We weren’t put in this world to receive; we are meant to give. By doing so, every relationship and aspect of life becomes more meaningful and people will want to radiate in the light we shine.   

(Sources: Breishis Raba 59:9; Alter of Slabodka in Ohr Hatzafun I, Nesivos Hachessed)