True Chessed – Parashat Vayechi

 

One of the problems of translation of languages is that not every word has an exact translation.  One example of that is the word “Chessed” חסד in Hebrew, which is variously translated as “Kindness”, “Loving-kindness” “Benevolence”, or “Grace”.  But none of these translations have the authentic feel and usage as the word Chessed does in Hebrew.  Chessed is helping someone who is in need, and the best form of Chessed is doing it without any ulterior motivation, and without thought of getting something in return.   That is true Chessed.  And in its truest form it is doing the final Chessed for someone in burying them upon their death.

 

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Ya’akov Avinu is on his death bed, and summons Yosef to his side to have him swear that he will not bury him in Mitzrayim, but rather in Hebron in the burial cave where Avraham and Sarah are buried, Yitzchak and Rivka, and Ya’akov buried Leah there.  Ya’akov has Yosef swear using the phrase: “You will do for me Chessed and Truth” (חסד ואמת)  The Midrash is puzzled by this phrase: (Bereshit Rabba 96:5) “Can there be Chessed of falsehood? Why did he say Chessed and Truth?  There is a parable amongst the simple people, “If your friend’s son dies, then take up the burden of the burial. If your friend dies, leave him.”   The person who died will never be able to pay you back.  Someone does the work of the burial is only doing it out of altruistic motives, not of getting a reward from the person.

 

But it doesn’t exactly end there.  There is a reward for doing true Chessed.  In the Tractate of Sotah, the Mishna (8b) says that a person is judged, and given reward or punishment, according to his acts, measure for measure.  One of several examples of getting reward measure for measure is Yosef burying his father Ya’akov (9b) Yosef earned merit by burying his father, and there was none among his brothers greater than he; as it said:  “And Yosef went up to bury his father…” Yosef was the leader in Mitzrayim, and he took personal responsibility for the funeral.  Who, in the Jewish People was greater than Yosef? Moshe, who took personal responsibility for bring the bones of Yosef out of Mitzrayim.  Moshe, in his turn, was also rewarded for his act of Chessed, and deserved to be buried by One greater than he.  Who was greater than Moshe? Only the Holy One Blessed Be He, who occupied himself with the burial, as it says: “And He buried him in the valley.”(Devarim 34:6)

 

The burial of Moshe was the last thing to happen in the Torah.  In this Rabbi Simlai saw in this a basic principle of the whole Torah, as he expounded: (Sotah 14a) Torah begins with an act of Kindness11  and ends with an act of Kindness. It begins with an act of Kindness, for it is written: And the L-rd G-d made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them;  and it ends with an act of Kindness, for it is written: ‘And He buried him in the valley’.

 

There is a bit of a discrepancy between the example of Kindness at the end of the Torah with the one in the beginning.  The burial of Moshe is 6 verses from the end of the Torah, and essentially closes the action of the Torah.  But the example of Chessed from the beginning of the Torah comes only in the 77th verse, after the story of the Creation, the story of Gan Eden, of the sin of the forbidden fruit.  If the point of Rabbi Simlai was to show that the Torah started with Chessed, surely he could have found an earlier example.  In fact, the very Creation of the world was the biggest Chessed possible, as the Holy One Blessed Be He created the world for the very purpose of bestowing good onto something other than Himself, as the Ramchal writes in Derech Hashem.

 

Rather, Rabbi Simlai picked the example of Chessed of fashioning clothes for Adam and his wife to teach us an important lesson.  The Chessed that Moshe received at the end of the Torah was something that he richly deserved, for doing that Chessed for Yosef, who in turn richly deserved it for doing it for his father Ya’akov.  But with Adam and Chava, if they hadn’t sinned with the forbidden fruit they would not have needed the clothes.  Not only were they not deserving of this kindness, but it was their own fault.  In such a situation we may have the tendency to not want to do the Chessed because the person brought it on himself. “You made your bed, you sleep in it.”  What Rabbi Simlai is telling us is not to be swayed by such faulty thinking.  Rather, the True Chessed is helping someone who is in need, whether they deserve it, like Moshe, or whether they don’t, like in Adam and Chava.

 

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