From NISHMA UPDATE December 1990

Dvar Torah

The Essence Of Chesed

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, North York, Ontario

 

Rambam states in Hilchot Matanot Aniyim, Chapter 7, that we are commanded to give tzedakah according to the needs of the 'poor person'. "If he has no wife, arrange a marriage for him...Even if it was the manner of this ani to ride on a horse with a servant running before him and he became impoverished, buy him a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him, as it is written according to his need." The Halacha is, obviously, presenting us with a unique perspective on our responsibilities to others.

In viewing Maimonides' words within this chapter, he stresses that our obligation is according to the need. This would seem to be obvious. Why does Rambam iterate and re-iterate this point? The answer to this question may also serve to explain why the purchase of "a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him" is also part of the mitzvah.

In Micha, Chapter 6, Verse 8, we are told the following: " ...what does Hashem require of you but to do justice (mishpat), love benevolence (chesed) and to walk gracefully (ha-tzneh) with G-d." The choice of words is particularly significant. We are told to love chesed but to do mishpat . It would seem that the ideal in action is justice while the goal for our emotions is benevolence. Why?

When an action is decreed by justice, it is a deed that is based on equality. The employee is paid because he deserves the payment. The employer is fulfilling an obligation that is based on mutual benefit. When someone, though, performs an act of chesed, by definition, the parties are not equal. The recepient is in a position of weakness. He does not deserve, according to strict justice, what he is accepting. In this light, one must recognize that whenever an act of benvolence is performed, it must be accompanied by the sadness of this reality.

We are called upon, in the ideal, to do mishpat, to be involved with society, with others, sharing with them as equals. To desire, though, to do acts of chesed, neccessitates one accepting others in a weakened state. In the extreme, if one gains pleasure in the performance of deeds of chesed, that person is almost declaring a need for someone to be in need. The Boy Scout who helps the little old lady across the street, whether she wishes to go or not, in order to perform his good deed, is not that far from this individual's reality. Our desire must, instead, be for the absence of need. We must not wish to perform the good deed, but rather to see that the good deed is no longer necessary.

True chesed, therefore, rests in the passive, not the active. Of course, if called upon to act, as Moshe Rabbeinu was when he had to others, sharing with them as equals. To desire, though, to do acts of chesed. necessitates one accepting others in a weakened state. In the extreme, if one gains pleasure in the performance of deeds of chesed, that person is almost declaring a need for someone to be in need. The Boy Scout who helps the little old lady across the street, whether she wishes to go or not, in order to perform his good deed, is not that far from this individual's reality. Our desire must, instead, be for the absence of need. We must not wish to perform the good deed, but rather to see that the good deed is no longer necessary.

True chesed therefore, rests in the passive, not the active. Of course, if called upon to act, as Moshe Rabbeinu was when he had to kill the Egyptian, one must act. That, though, is not the Torah's ultimate desire, not an action we should enjoy or wish to do. We should rather feel happiness in seeing that everything is fine. Moshe Rabbeinu is again the model. When G-d told him that the Jewish people were to be saved, he was content. Which human being served to perform the act was irrelevant. Moshe had no desire to perform the action; the pleasure of chesed is not in the act but rather in the sensing that everything is in a satisfactory state.

The key to being a 'ba'al chesed' is therefore not in action, an enjoyment in helping others, but in sensitivity, feeling for others and experiencing happiness in the other's cheer. - and feeling when the other needs help. We must, then, unfortunately act because another unfortunately needsassistance. Maimonides is telling us that the call is to be sensitive. We then act because we must but not because we feel this pleasure in doing these deeds. Let us experience a greater happiness in feeling that everyone is alright. Doing chesed must always involve a sadness that we must do.

Rambam's words are now perfectly clear. We are called upon to be sensitive to another's pain. Someone who had a 'a horse' who now does not feels lacking. Is it a priority? Perhaps not, but it is a reflection of a world that is not perfect. The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Brachot declares that even if someone thinks he has a certain amount of money in his pocket but then discovers he has less, that pain is still considered to be significant. We are called upon to be sensitive to any pain.

That is chesed. That ability is what the prophet calls upon us to love. We want to be able to be sensitive even thought in this world it will bring us sadness. We hope, though, for a time where we will feel complete happiness. we never, though, wish to enjoy the giving of inequality.

This idea can also explain why the opening of Breishit begins solely with the attribute of justice. This is the ideal, when the world deserves G-d's Good. Chesed is introduced, thankfully, because of the world's weaknesses. It is our task to remove the deficiencies, so that we may again deserve.

(Another interesting development upon this theme is found in Rabbi Soloveitchik's "Prayer As Dialogue" in Reflections of The Rav.)


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2002 NISHMA