Enter our father Abraham who, in Jewish tradition, is the paramount example of chesed, loving kindness. Chesed often denotes “giving”, and Abraham’s reputation is derived from the Torah’s description of his enthusiasm for offering hospitality. He loved to receive guests and to treat them with outstanding graciousness.
However, there are other details about the life of Abraham that seem at odds with this reputation.
To begin with, Abraham deserts his elderly father; he puts his wife in a precarious situation – not once but twice. He separates from his nephew, Lot, whom he had once considered his own heir. He becomes embroiled in regional conflicts and goes to war. He capitulates to Sarah’s demands and banishes the maid, whom he had impregnated. Later he casts her, and their child, out of his house. He performs circumcision on his entire household. Even when he negotiates with God to save the city of Sodom, he does not seek mercy for the sinners. His argument is that it would be improper to kill the righteous along with the wicked. Last but certainly not least, he is prepared to slaughter his own beloved son.
Surely, each of these episodes can and should be studied and analyzed. However when listed as we have just done, it would seem that these events and decisions would cause us to question the traditional image of Abraham. A good number of these instances seem to be incongruous with a man of kindness.
How can we reconcile the apparent contradictions?
At heart, we can be quite sure that Abraham was indeed a man of profound kindness. The conflicts in which he so often found himself were not of his own choosing but rather were “tests”, designed to mature and purify his personality.
In addition, perhaps we need to reconsider our concept of Chesed. What is kindness really? To some it is non-violence and pacifism, but the fact is that some acts that may appear to be kind may in face be motivated by something altogether sinister; and other actions that appear ‘violent’, may in fact be profoundly the opposite.
The Torah definition of Chesed includes the possibility that at times we may have to fight for peace. When Abraham went to war to liberate Lot, both his motivation and the results of his actions were Chesed even though the means used to achieve his goal may seem to us to be at odds with our own perception of what kindness means.
Perhaps a better description of Abraham’s personality would be that he was a man deeply engaged and involved in the lives of others. He consistently displayed a personal concern for the welfare of others. He sought to make his world a better place,one person at a time. He did not isolate himself or disengage from those who did not share his worldview.
Our ability to discern the Chesed in all the episodes of Abraham’s biography requires us to think below the surface and to refrain from impulsive judgments. Careful meditation on Abraham’s words and deeds can empower us to live with deliberate kindness toward our fellow man. True chesed is not pacifism, nor is it moral relativism that seeks to attain peace at the expense of truth.
True biblical kindness can only be meaningful when it springs from the deep desire to emulate God’s own attributes and share God’s blessings with others.
In Tune with Torah this week = consider: kindness towards our fellow man is fast becoming a lost art in the fast-paced society of today. How are we doing in this area? With our family, our friends, our co-workers? Do we take the time to show kindness, patience and to be personally interested in others? Or have we become so self-absorbed that thoughtfulness is quickly becoming a lost art?