By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Thankfully, we live in a community that is blessed with people who perform remarkable acts of chesed. The efforts of yeshiva students and others in the wake of Hurricane Sandy were inspiring. Recently, we were witness to local yeshiva students from Yeshiva of Far Rockaway who danced vigorously to bring joy to a groom, local high-school girls (TAG) working the kitchen and waitressing a wedding, while local elementary boys (Siach Yitzchok) waitered for another simcha. Mothers of the high-school girls joined their daughters in this mitzvah as well; fathers happily provided transportation and other support. Girls returning from seminary joined up too. So impressive is the extent of the chesed in our community, that the daughter of a famous rosh yeshiva in Brooklyn who came to one of these smachot remarked, “I have never seen this level of chesed before. This should be a model for all of Klal Yisrael.”
This is just a drop in the bucket of the extensive chesed that goes on around us. In light of this remarkable activity, an overview of the general mitzvah of chesed is presented below.
The Two Gemaras
The Gemara (Sotah 14a) discusses the pasuk which says, “Acharei Hashem Elokeichem teilechu”—You shall walk after Hashem your G‑d (Devarim 13:5). The Gemara poses the question, “How is it possible to physically walk after the Divine Presence?”
The Gemara responds that it means to follow after the middos, the character traits, kavyachol, of Hashem. Just as He provides for the unclothed, so too must you provide clothing to them. The Sefer Mitzvos Gedolos states that this verse is part of the related pasuk of “v’halachta b’drachav—and you shall walk in his ways.” The verse of Acharei Hashem Elokeichem teilechu is referencing the verse of v’halachta b’drachav.
The Gemara in Shabbos (133b) discusses another entirely different pasuk, “Zeh Keili v’anveihu.” The Gemara in Shabbos understands it to mean that we must attempt to liken ourselves to Him. Just as He is kind and merciful, so too must you be kind and merciful.
The Different Concepts
It is a principle in understanding verses (Sanhedrin 34a) that while one verse can teach us multiple concepts, one lone concept is not derived from multiple differing verses.
Rav Yitzchok Isaac Sherr, zt’l, son-in-law of the Alter of Slabodka and the rosh yeshiva of the Chevron Yeshiva, concludes (Leket Sichos Mussar p. 76) that these different sets of pesukim must therefore be teaching us two different concepts. The pasuk of v’halachta bidrachav teaches us the obligation of practical chesed—actually walking in His ways.
The pasuk of “Zeh Keili v’anveihu” teaches us the obligation of feeling that the performance of chesed brings us closer to Hashem. This is on account of the Gemara’s understanding of the word “anveihu” to mean “ani v’Hu”—I and Him. This is an obligation of thought, not practice, but rather thought concerning the practice.
One means of achieving this is the further obligation that the sages placed on people to say, “When will my actions reach the level of those of our forefathers?” The forefathers personified these principles of chesed and wholeness.
The Third Concept
The pasuk in Michah (6:8) states, “What does Hashem require of you? Merely to do justice and love chesed.” The idea is that we must foster and develop a love of chesed. There are three elements to this love:
1. To love doing chesed ourselves.
2. To love and appreciate a situation where chesed is being performed by others for another or for others.
3. To love the existence of opportunities for chesed in the world.
Olam Chesed Yibaneh
The Alter of Slabodka writes that the notion of olam chesed yibaneh tells us that just as Hashem built the world with chesed, so too must we build the world with chesed.
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, zt’l, was the Gadol HaDor in the early twentieth century. After he had passed away, his notes to himself were found. He had a note that stated he should always make sure to perform at least two chassadim per day.
Power Of Chesed
The Midrash (Introduction to Eichah #24) tells us that all the Avos mentioned their merits to Hashem in order that the nation of Israel should ultimately be redeemed. Avraham Avinu mentioned the mesirus nefesh involved in Akeidas Yitzchak. Yitzchak too cried out and responded that he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Hashem only responded to Rachel because her merits involved the notion of chesed. She gave the simanim to her sister so that she would not be embarrassed. This is why the pasuk in Yirmiyahu (31:14-16) states, “A voice is heard on High. Rachel is crying for her children.”
Kavanah In Chesed
The mitzvah of chesed is a fulfillment of the Torah commandment of “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha”—Love your neighbor as yourself. Generally speaking, we rule that when a person fulfills a Torah mitzvah, kavanah is required in order for it to count. Kavanah means that a person must have in mind that he is fulfilling the mitzvah of Hashem as found in the Torah. This would seem to be the case in regard to chesed as well (see Ahavas Chesed 2:23). However, many poskim have written that although it is required ideally, if one did not have the correct kavanah, the mitzvah still counts, post facto. The Chazon Ish was of the opinion that this concept does not apply in regard to mitzvos that are between man and man (Toraso yehge, Miluim #10).
For Joy Of Chesed
There are two mitzvos in the Torah that imbue an individual with their own unique feeling of joy—the love of Torah learning and the joy of a chesed. These special joys have a Divine source to them. They emanate from the Ohr Panim kaveyachol of Hashem. In the tefillah of Shemoneh Esreih written by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah we say, “Ki b’or panecha nasata lanu toras chaim v’ahavas chesed.”
Tzniyus In Chesed
It is important to keep the chesed as pure and pristine as possible and not to show off the chesed. This is the fulfillment of V’hatzneya leches im Elokecha (Michah 6:8). Such a person is described as “v’yikrah ish emunim.” It is also the understanding of the pasuk in Mishlei (6:14) “Matan b’seiser yikveh af.” Just like in Torah, where Chazal tell us in Pirkei Avos (4:3) that we do not make Torah a crown to show off, the great roshei yeshiva have said the same thing in chesed.
At the same time, it is also important to spread the notion of doing chesed and getting others involved in the chesed. This is something that takes work—to make sure that the chesed is done lishma, with a purity, yet at the same time to help spread the notion of chesed. The tefillah that we say in the Shabbos Amidah, “Vetaher libeinu l’avdecha b’emes”—“And purify our hearts to serve you in truth” is instructive here. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.