Chayei Sarah: Chesed in Jewish Tradition by Dr. Richard H. Schwartz

One test of kindness is doing positive things, even if not asked, or doing more than is asked, something that Rivkah did in abundance, showing how hesed was such a central part of her character.

A main focus of parshat Chayei Sarah, which discusses the finding of a suitable wife for Abraham’s son Yitzchak (Isaac), is chesed, kindness . In his old age, Abraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer to find the proper woman from his extended family. While Abraham did not specify any character trait to stress, Eliezer, knowing that his master was a paragon of chesed, set up a test based on seeking kindness in a prospective bride.

Rivka (Rebecca) passed that test admirably, not only drawing water for Eliezer but also for the ten thirsty camels with him that had just crossed a desert. One test of kindness is doing positive things, even if not asked, or doing more than is asked, something that Rivkah did in abundance, showing how hesed was such a central part of her character.

Judaism teaches that every word in the Torah is valuable. Yet, the story of Eliezer and Rivkah at the well is told four times in the parshah. First it tells of Eliezer’s plan, then how it was carried out, then how he explained his plan to Rivkah’s family, and, finally, how he told them of what actually happened. It is the largest narrative in the Torah, driving home its emphasis on the importance of chesed.

The Shmita year, too, involves many aspects of legally mandated chesed. This is expressed in kindness to poor people in terms of remission of debts and the permission to eat freely from the products of the fields; kindness to animals with that same permission; kindness to slaves, who regain their freedom; and kindness to the land and the environment; in terms of permitting the fields to remain fallow and improve its fertility. 

The idea of chesed, and acts of gemilut chasadim, lovingkindness, is central to the Jewish tradition:

    • The Jewish sages said the three most important Jewish character traits are modesty, compassion and kindness  (Bamidbar Rabbah 8:4).
    • Kindness is the theme of the book of Ruth, which involves Ruth’s kindness too Naomi and Boaz’s kindness to Ruth.
    • The Talmud (Sotah 14a) teaches that the purpose of the entire Torah is to teach gemilut chasadim (loving kindness). It starts and ends with such acts. For “The Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), and the final chapter of the Torah indicates: “and He buried him (Moses) in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6).
    • The sages interpret “acts of loving kindness” to include many types of gracious actions, such as hospitality to travelers, providing for needy brides, visiting the sick, welcoming guests, burying the dead, and comforting mourners. Chesed has become a fundamental aspect of Jewish life  in modern society, with all of these acts stressed.
    • Gemilut chasadim is deemed superior to acts of charity in several ways: No gift is needed for it but the giving of oneself; it may be done to the rich as well as to the poor; and it may be done not only to the living, but also to the dead (through burial)   (Sukkah 49b).
    • One who gives a coin to a poor man is rewarded with six blessings, but he who encourages him with kind words is rewarded with eleven blessings  (Baba Batra  88b). Of course, providing both money and blessings is best.

May we continue to learn throughout  the shmita year from the wisdom of our tradition and continue to act with chesed to the earth and to each other. 

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Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World; Revitalizing Judaism; Judaism and Vegetarianism; Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet; and Mathematics and Global Survival; and over 250 articles at He is President Emeritus of Jewish Veg, and associate producer of the video “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.”

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