Our patriarch Avraham is renowned as the epitome of the attribute of chesed (kindness). Even today we continue to pray that G-d deal kindly with the Jewish Nation in the merit of his kindness. It is, therefore, most peculiar that the Torah’s narrative is replete with activities in which Avraham is involved, all seemingly the antithesis of chesed: he abandons his father in his old age; he fights a war against four powerful kings; he evicts his son Yishmael from his house; and ultimately attempts to slaughter his other son, Yitzchak (Isaac).
Our Sages explain that all of these activities were instances in which G-d was testing Avraham’s conviction in response to challenge, and he passed them all. But why did G-d orchestrate situations in which Avraham was forced to act in a cruel way? And if with these responses Avraham passed these particular tests, why do we refer to him as the pillar of kindness, rather than some other form of Divine servant?
The Talmud (Brachos 33b) relates that everything is controlled by G-d with the exception of the degree of our fear of Him. Orchos Tzadikim, a classic text of Jewish ethics and philosophy, compares the fear of G-d to a thread run through several pearls and gems to form a necklace, tied together with a knot at the bottom. Were the knot to break, the gems would certainly fall and scatter. The fear of G-d, he explains, is the knot that binds together all of our positive attributes.
We do not do chesed because of the sense of fulfillment we acquire from helping our fellow man. We are not merely compelled to do for others in need because they are in need. Rather, in the Jew’s lifelong quest for G-d consciousness and G-dlike perfection, he appreciates that just as G-d is merciful and compassionate so too we are merciful and compassionate (Talmud Shabbos 133b). G-d tested Avraham, the pillar of kindness, by putting him in circumstances that mandated unkind deeds. Avraham certainly performed many kind acts and greeted many strangers with hospitality, but these undertakings could have merely been an outgrowth of his giving nature. It was, therefore, necessary to test Avraham by putting him in a condition where he was obliged to go against his nature to determine whether his acts of kindness originated from a natural proclivity to give, or if they were genuinely a form of Divine service. When Avraham demonstrated that, if necessary, he would act cruelly in order to serve G-d, it served as a clear testimony that his acts of kindness were a genuine form of Divine service and a performance of chesed on the highest level.
Have a Good Shabbos!
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