Friday, November 25, 2016

The Most Important Mitzvah of All / Parshat Chayei Sara 2016-5777

Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” Can you be kind yet also deaf and blind to the true meaning of kindness? Many years ago, I met a friend at an eatery in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore. As I waited, two women came in, both wearing sheitels. One said, “I did a chesed [kind deed] today.” “How wonderful!” exclaimed her friend with enthusiasm. The second woman then asked, “What did you do?” but the first woman replied, “More zechut [merit] for olam ha-ba [the world-to-come].” Her friend responded politely but looked chagrined. The first woman had ignored her friend’s question and reflected that her kind deed would earn her a greater reward in the world-to-come. The deed had little meaning for her beyond the brownie points it would earn her with God, redeemable in the next life.

The attitude the first woman expressed is related to a teaching attributed to no less than Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, who said: והוי זהיר במצוה קלה כמצוה חמורה (“Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one”). Rabbi’s statement admits that there are “minor” commandments and “major” commandments but his reasoning establishes the motivation for attentiveness to all mitvzot: שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצוות (“for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot”). I imagine that, in his time, before the rabbinic tradition was well established and widely accepted by the Jewish people, Rabbi’s appeal to the world-to-come was a powerful motivator. It continues to be a powerful incentive for many, as it was for the first woman. But for those whose view is more expansive (the second woman), or those who do not believe there is a literal world-to-come (or aren’t sure), or those who don’t believe that religious and moral decisions should be made according to one’s selfish expectation of gain, Rabbi’s teaching is problematic.

Not surprisingly, it is but one of many teachings that have come down to us. Overwhelmingly, our tradition asserts that chesed (deeds of loving kindness) is the most important mitzvah we can perform, and this week’s parashah, Chayei Sara, illustrates what the Rabbis themselves tell us many times in many ways. Chayei Sara opens with a report of the death of the matriarch Sarah. Her husband, Abraham, undertakes to bury her; the story of how he goes about it teaches us much about chesed. The mitzvah of participating in a burial is a chesed shel emet—the truest kind of kindness—because it is entirely altruistic. The deceased cannot know and appreciate what you have done, nor ever pay you back. That is why serving on a chevra kaddisha (burial society)—washing and preparing the body for burial—is a position of great righteousness and honor in the community. Abraham purchases not merely a plot for burial, but the entire cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. He pays top dollar to acquire the cave and the field in which it sits. He spares nothing to fulfill the mitzvah of chesed shel emet for his beloved Sarah.

Kindness permeates this parashah. Following Sarah’s death, Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer has full authority to choose a suitable mate for Isaac. How does he proceed? Eliezer has a test in mind: The young woman who exhibits an inherent proclivity for chesed is the most suitable wife for Isaac. Moments later, Rebekah arrives. Eliezer races over to her and says, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” Rebekah replies, “Drink, my lord. I will also draw water for your camels until they finish drinking.” (Genesis24:15-20) Torah tells us that Eliezer, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether Adonai had showered his mission with successful (Genesis 24:21). Eliezer cannot be much in doubt, because he gives Rebekah a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets. Rebekah invites the stranger back to her family’s home, an invitation that again demonstrates her quality of chesed. And while Torah makes it clear that her father, Laban, after one look at the gold jewelry is prepared to send his daughter away with this stranger, Torah is equally clear that Rebekah’s salient quality—the one Eliezer sought and found in her—is kindness. 

The parashah closes with the death of the patriarch Abraham and here, too, we see chesed shel emet at work. Isaac and Ishmael, who separated long ago and have not seen one another since, and probably have entirely understandable bitter feelings toward one another, nonetheless come together one last time to bury their father next to their mother in the Cave of Machpelah. Their act of chesed is prioritized over everything they have experienced and feel toward one another.

Some are accustomed to thinking that tzedakah is the premier mitzvah, but the Sages teach otherwise:

 ת"ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים

Our Rabbis taught: Chesed is superior to tzedakah in three ways: Tzedakah is done with one’s money, but chesed is done with one’s money or with one’s person. Tzedakah is given only to the poor, but chesed may be given to both the poor and the rich. Tzedakah is given only to the living, but chesed may be shown to the both the living and the dead. (BT Sukkah 49b)

And in the Talmud, the Sages explain (BT Sotah 14a) that God fulfills the mitzvah of chesed, not assigning or relegating it to others, both because the mitzvah is so important and because God wants us to know that we, too, should fulfill the mitzvah ourselves. The Sages provide four examples, complete with verses that demonstrate that God performed these deeds: (1) God clothes the naked. God provided Adam and Even with coats of skins when they left the Garden of Eden. Therefore, we, too, should clothe the naked. (2) God visits the sick. God visited Abraham while he was recuperating from his circumcision. Therefore, we, too, should visit the sick. (3) God consoles mourners. God blessed Isaac in his bereavement over his father, Abraham. Therefore, we, too, should console mourners. (4) God buries the dead. God buried Moses. Therefore, we, too, should bury the dead.

The ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu, taught: “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” This is a fine reminder that kindness is dispensed in words, thoughts, and deeds, and that each has a far-reaching impact on others. The Dalai Lama taught: “There is no need for temples, no  need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.” His thinking is echoed by the Rabbis in Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:21: R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah teaches his master, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, who mourns the Temple and loss of the altar as a means of atonement that chesed is no less effective as a means of atonement. R. Yehoshua quotes the prophet Hosea, who says, I desire chesed and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).

The day before Thanksgiving, I stood on a long, long line at a dollar store. Four teens at the head of the line checking out were counting out 50 pairs of gloves, dozens of packs of tissues, and a number of other things I couldn’t see. At one point, one of them came back to the rack near where I stood on line to collect more gloves. “Who’s getting these?” I asked her. “We’re taking them to a homeless shelter in Washington, DC,” she replied. No sooner had the teens finished checking out, than one of them, consulting their shopping list, realized that they were short one pack of tissues. She asked the cashier to ring up the additional item. The cashier wasn’t sure what to do because she was  about to ring up the next customer. That customer pointed to the back of the long, long line and told the teen she would now need to wait on line again. But the woman behind him said to the teen, “Just take the tissues. I’ll have them add it to my bill. Go in peace,” and another customer on line said to this woman, “God bless you for your kindness.” 

Each day we are faced with choices large and small. Will we act with kindness and fulfill the mitzvah of chesed?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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