Saturday 30th October 2021 24th Cheshvan 5781
PARASHAT CHAYEI SARAH Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18; 1 Kings 1:1 – 31; John 4:3 - 14
The time came when Abraham had to find a bride for his promised son, Isaac. Abraham’s servant, unnamed in the text but traditionally identified as Eliezer (El-Azar – the servant of the Lord), travelled to Nahor in Aram Naharaim, northwest Mesopotamia, to find a wife for his master’s son. Abraham had not told him to look for any specific traits of character. He had simply told him to find someone from his own extended family. Eliezer, however, formulated a test:
Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one You have chosen for Your servant Isaac. By this I will know that You have shown kindness [chessed] to my master.” (Gen. 24:12-14)
His use of the word chessed here is no accident, for it is the very characteristic he is looking for in the future wife of the first Jewish child, Isaac, and he found it in Rebecca.
It is the theme, also, of the book of Ruth. It is Ruth’s kindness to Naomi, and Boaz’s to Ruth, that Tanach seeks to emphasise in sketching the background to David, their great-grandson, who would become Israel’s greatest King. Indeed the Sages said that the three characteristics most important to Jewish character are modesty, compassion, and kindness. Chessed, what I have defined elsewhere as “love as deed,” is central to the Jewish value system.
The Sages based it on the acts of God himself. Rav Simlai taught:
“The Torah begins with an act of kindness and ends with an act of kindness. It begins with God clothing the naked – “The Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them,” (Gen. 3:21) – and it ends with Him caring for the dead: “And He [God] buried [Moses] in the Valley.” (Deut. 34:6). (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 14a)
Chessed – providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, assistance to the poor; visiting the sick, comforting mourners and providing a dignified burial for all – became constitutive of Jewish life. During the many centuries of exile and dispersion Jewish communities were built around these needs. There were chevrot, “friendly societies,” for each of them.
In seventeenth-century Rome, for example, there were seven societies dedicated to the provision of clothes, shoes, linen, beds and warm winter bed coverings for children, the poor, widows and prisoners. There were two societies providing trousseaus, dowries, and the loan of jewellery to poor brides. There was one for visiting the sick, another bringing help to families who had suffered bereavement, and others to perform the last rites for those who had died – purification before burial, and the burial service itself. Eleven fellowships existed for educational and religious aims, study and prayer, another raised alms for Jews living in the Holy Land, and others were involved in the various activities associated with the circumcision of newborn boys. Yet others provided the poor with the means to fulfil commands such as mezuzot for their doors, oil for the Chanukah lights, and candles for the Sabbath.
Chessed, said the Sages, is in some respects higher even than tzedakah:
Our masters taught: loving-kindness [chessed] is greater than charity [tzedakah] in three ways. Charity is done with one’s money, while loving-kindness may be done with one’s money or with one’s person. Charity is done only to the poor, while loving-kindness may be given both to the poor and to the rich. Charity is given only to the living, while loving-kindness may be shown to the living and the dead. (Talmud Bavli, Succah 49b)
Chessed in its many forms became synonymous with Jewish life and one of the pillars on which it stood. Jews performed kindnesses to one another because it was “the way of God” and also because they or their families had had intimate experience of suffering and knew they had nowhere else to turn. It provided an access of grace in dark times. It softened the blow of the loss of the Temple and its rites:
Once, as R. Yohanan was walking out of Jerusalem, R. Joshua followed him. Seeing the Temple in ruins, R. Joshua cried, “Woe to us that this place is in ruins, the place where atonement was made for Israel’s iniquities.” R. Yohanan said to him: “My son, do not grieve, for we have another means of atonement which is no less effective. What is it? It is deeds of loving-kindness, about which Scripture says, ‘I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice’” (Hosea 6:6).
Through chessed, Jews humanised fate as, they believed, God’s chessed humanises the world. As God acts towards us with love, so we are called on to act lovingly to one another. The world does not operate solely on the basis of impersonal principles like power or justice, but also on the deeply personal basis of vulnerability, attachment, care and concern, recognising us as individuals with unique needs and potentialities.
It also added a word to the English language. In 1535 Myles Coverdale published the first-ever translation of the Hebrew Bible into English (the work had been begun by William Tyndale who paid for it with his life, burnt at the stake in 1536). It was when he came to the word chessed that he realised that there was no English word which captured its meaning. It was then that, to translate it, he coined the word “loving-kindness.”
The late 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.” There is deep wisdom in those words. It is what led Eliezer to choose Rebecca to become Isaac’s wife and thus the first Jewish bride. Kindness brings redemption to the world and, Wordsworth was right when he wrote that the,
“Best portion of a good man’s [and woman’s] life” is their “little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love.”
 Ibid., pp. 71-72.
 Bamidbar Rabbah 8:4.
 Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 44-56.
 Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, London, Edward Goldston, 1932, pp. 348-363.
 Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 4.
 From Wordsworth’s poem, ‘Tintern Abbey’.