Understanding the True Meaning of 'Chesed'
In the latter part of the Parsha the Torah enumerates the various forbidden relationships and their punishments. Towards the end of this list the Torah states: "A man who takes his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, it is a chesed and they shall be cut off in the sight of the members of their people; he will have uncovered the nakedness of his sister, he shall bear his iniquity." (1) There is a glaring problem with this verse; the description of an incestuous relationship as being a 'chesed'. Chesed is normally translated as kindness; what kindness is involved in immorality?
In order to answer this question it is necessary to alter our understanding of what 'chesed' actually entails. It seems that chesed is more appropriately understood as a trait that is characterized by overflowing and lack of boundaries. One significant outgrowth of this is kindness in that chesed causes a person to want to unabashedly share with others, breaking his boundaries of selfishness. However, that is just one manifestation of chesed, and like all character traits, chesed has negative, as well as positive, aspects. One negative manifestation is that a person can lose his appreciation of a proper sense of boundaries. Immoral behavior involves ignoring the Torah's assertion that certain relationships break the appropriate boundaries. Consequently, the Torah describes certain forms of immorality as chesed.
Two prominent characters in the Torah represent negative aspects of the trait of chesed; Yishmael and Lot. The Rabbis tell us that Yishmael was deeply involved in immorality(2) and thievery.(3) Both of these emanated from his distorted chesed which broke the acceptable boundaries. An attitude of 'what is mine is yours and yours is mine' causes a person to believe that he has the right to infringe on other people's wives and material possessions. Lot grew up in Avraham's home and therefore became habituated to doing chesed with others, as is demonstrated by his great hospitality in Sodom. However, Lot clearly developed a warped sense of chesed. For example, when the people of Sodom threatened to abuse his guests he preferred to offer them his own daughters! He wanted to do chesed with his guests at the expense of his own daughters.(4)
Why did Yishmael and Lot so badly misapply the trait of chesed? The answer is that their chesed was not acquired through self-growth based on the Torah's guidelines, rather it came as a result of genetics and upbringing. Even a generally positive trait such as chesed has undesirable offshoots if it is not applied in the correct way. For example, a person with a natural inclination to chesed may do kindness in the wrong way or quantity. He may be overflowing with chesed to friends, but forget about sufficiently caring for his own family. Another example is that a 'chesed' person may have a difficulty with making appropriate boundaries for himself in various aspects of life; he may find it hard to be punctual or reliable because he finds it difficult to set limits on his time. Further if a person does not have well-defined boundaries then he may find it difficult to avoid falsehood because honesty requires the ability to adhere to the boundaries of truth.
The epitome of the correct balance of chesed is Abraham. He certainly had a natural propensity for chesed, however he did not merely allow his natural inclinations to lead him blindly, rather he harnessed and even negated his chesed when necessary. On many occasions throughout the Torah, Abraham was placed in situations where he was forced to curtail his chesed.(5) Avraham succeeded in these difficult tests, thereby showing that his chesed was not directed by natural inclinations but by fear of God.
Another common failing of a person naturally endowed with doing chesed is that he expects people that he helps to be equally giving to him. Consequently he may not hesitate to request that others do significant favors for him because he would do the same for them. However, whilst demanding that we give in great abundance, the Torah requires that we strive not to rely on the kindness of others. This is demonstrated in King Solomon's assertion that "one who hates gifts will live." (6) Our great leaders were overflowing with chesed and yet they often refused to take anything from anyone else. A striking example of this is the Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik: When he was the Rav of Brisk, there were a number of children whose father's identities were unknown and whose mothers were unable to raise them. No one wanted to assume the tremendous responsibility of caring for these children. What did the poor mothers do? They would come in the middle of the night and place their children on the Brisker Rav's doorstep. When morning came and the Rav found a crying child outside his door, he brought him inside. He took upon himself the task of finding someone to take care of the child. If he was unsuccessful, then he himself took care of all the child's needs.(7)
Whilst he was overflowing in helping others the Brisker Rav was extremely careful never to accept gifts of any kind, even under the most difficult of circumstances. When he first arrived in Palestine in 1941, along with the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, they were detained in the passport control offices. The delegation awaiting the two great Rabbis was told that they did not have the money with which to pay the poll tax of one-half to a full-lira (approximately 80 shekels) and it was forbidden to allow entry to anyone who had not paid. One of the heads of the Jewish Agency offered to pay the tax for the Brisker Rav, but he staunchly refused, saying, "Never in my life did I take money from anyone." After much deliberation, an old resident of Brisk had an idea - he entered the office and approached the Brisker Rav, "The members of the Brisker Community who have come to Israel want the Rav to continue serving as our Rav. We will pay the Rav a salary just as we did in Brisk. Therefore, I want to either give or lend the Rav the money to pay the tax, which will then be deducted from his salary." "That's an offer I can accept," agreed the Brisker Rav and he accepted the money.(8) The Brisker Rav may or may not have been naturally endowed with the trait of chesed. Regardless of his natural inclinations he excelled in the correct form of chesed and simultaneously avoided its negative aspects.
We have seen that chesed does not simply mean kindness, rather it represents the propensity for overflowing and lack of boundaries, and this can be utilized for the good or bad. Moreover, there is a striking difference between a person who has the trait of chesed through genetics or habit, as opposed to someone who develops his chesed within the lens of the Torah. May we all use the trait of chesed only for the good.
1. Kedoshim, 20:17.
2. Rashi, Vayera, 21:9.
3. Rashi, Lech Lecha, 16:12.
4. See Ramban, Vayera, 19:8.
5. For example, when he is told to send his son Yishmael away, and even more so when he is commanded to kill his son Yitzchak.
6. Mishlei, 15:27.
7. Lorinz, In Their Shadow.
8. Lorinz, In Their Shadow, p.261-2.