VaYera: Moderating Chesed

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Judaism eschews extremism. This obligation to be moderate is codified into law by no less an authority than the Rambam; it is, as he points out, "the path of G-d" (Deot 2:7). Furthermore, the goal is not limited to the development of traits of moderation in our attitude towards money, food, or honour; it is to make them second nature to us.

When it comes to character development, our role model par excellence is Avraham Avinu, founder of our faith and the epitome of chesed, kindness. Whether welcoming guests, making peace treaties, rescuing his relatives or even burying his wife, his compassion and concern for others was always uppermost.

Character development does not come easy. We often lack the desire, the discipline, and the determination to act in the proper way. Even when we overcome these barriers, our execution often misses the mark—usually because we aren’t doing enough, but at times because we are doing too much. One can become too extreme in the application of chesed, not realizing that there are times when justice demands that chesed be put aside; i.e. "And you shall destroy the evil from your midst" (Devarim 17:7). If we fail to root out evil, we may fall into the category of "those who are merciful to the cruel will be cruel to the merciful". Our attitude towards evil is summed up in Mishlei 10:7, “And the name of the wicked shall be blotted out”.

This appears to have been a lesson that took Abraham a lifetime to learn. Abraham grew up and spent much of his life surrounded by people whose values he did not share. His parents in Ur Casdim, the native Canaanites, the cultured Egyptians—even  his own nephew, Lot—represented a lifestyle foreign to Abraham. To counteract their potential negative influences, Abraham developed his character trait of chesed to an extreme; so extreme that he even beseeched G-d to save the people of Sodom, people who "were wicked and sinners before G-d exceedingly" (13:13). Abraham's sense of chesed was such that he did not realize that it has no place in dealing with such perpetrators of evil. Thus, unlike Moshe, who successfully beseeched G-d to forgive the sinning (but not evil) Jewish people, Abraham's pleas fell on "deaf ears". G-d demonstrated to Abraham that, save for Lot, not a shred of goodness could be found in that town.

At times, even those who are far from evil must be denied their cherished acts of chesed. Despite his worry about Yishmael's negative influence on Yitzchak, Abraham was reluctant to take decisive action against his son. Only G-d's direct command to listen to Sarah enabled Abraham to expel Yishmael from his home. And how difficult it must have been to personally banish his own son and the mother of his child from his home! In this instance, a proper environment for one of our founding fathers superseded the obligations of chesed.

There was one more lesson in the application of chesed that G-d wanted to teach Abraham. "Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac... and bring him as a burnt offering" (22:2). How could G-d command the killing of an innocent child? Perhaps this most philosophically challenging part of the Bible is meant to teach that ultimately, it is only G-d who determines what is and is not chesed. What appears cruel to us can be an act of chesed in G-d's master plan, a plan we may never understand in this world.

The akeidah story teaches us that ultimately, G-d abhors human sacrifice, but we witness the suffering endured by countless children the world over. While we must do our utmost to put an end to all suffering, as believing Jews we must accept—in ways that defy our understanding—that G-d's ways are just and merciful. G-d may practice chesed differently than the way we are commanded to perform it, but it is G-d who defines the parameters of chesed.

Abraham was the master of chesed, and if one must err, it is better to do too much chesed as opposed to too little. His son Yitzchak represents the trait of gevurah, strength, a trait that in many ways is the opposite of chesed. It is only the proper combination of chesed and gevurah, of Avraham and Yitzchak, which can produce emet (truth), a trait that was to become so central in the life of Yaakov. "The signature of G-d is truth" (Shabbat 55a); the path to G-d begins with chesed.