It All Begins With Chesed 1
Chesed is chief amongst good midos. It is also the central principle, around which all other principles of Creation are predicated. All elements of chesed and love contribute to the upbuilding of the world; all forms of cruelty give rise to destructiveness.
Things could have been different, claimed the brother of the Maharal . “Olam chesed yibaneh” – the world will be built upon chesed. There is no a priori reason why this had to be. HKBH could have chosen one of His other midos, and spun a world revolving around it. He chose chesed because it is closest to His Will. Similarly, when we are instructed to imitate His midos (as fulfillment of the imperative “You shall walk in His ways” ), Chazal limit this obligation to the midos of chesed, but none other . It is through chesed alone that we attach ourselves to Him.
We can perform acts of chesed with our property and our selves. Greater still is when we rise to the level of becoming the very embodiment of chesed, when we become chesed personalities. We then share in the Torah’s description of Avraham, the quintessential person of chesed. About him the Torah writes, “And you will be a berachah.” This means, say Chazal, that anyone who was touched by Avraham, or who dealt with him, or even saw him was blessed, because Avraham himself had become a berachah. Indeed, the true person of essential chesed feels for the other, and gives him his entire heart. When his friend is racked by pain, and his spirit collapses within him, the chesed personality fulfils with him the spirit of “I am with him in his trouble.” At times of his friend’s joy, he stands with him as a partner. The chesed-person influences all who enter his orbit. He gives everyone his attention, because he loves every Jew as himself. An aura of love and fraternity accompanies him; it seems as if his entire being is given over to assist the other. The chesed– person’s being is shaped by the special nature of chesed, which ishispashtus. Thus, chesed and love emanate and extend from him, reaching both near and far. By contrast, the person who lacks chesed is, by nature, contracted and limited. Whatever capacity he has to love, he contains narrowly within him, and applies it only to himself.
Besides all of this, an added benefit attaches to chesed. When a Jew conducts himself in the spirit of chesed, Heaven deals with him as well with the midah of chesed. The Besht, as well as others, emphasized that HKBH relates to people according to midos with which they live their lives. If they practice cruelty, the midah of Hashem’s judgment is aroused against them, regardless of the validity of their justification. Maharal shows at length that when a person attaches himself to the Goodness of Hashem by directing some of it to others, Hashem directs some of that very good to the person himself.
Yesod HaAvodah writes that a person should view an opportunity to do chesed to another as if he found great treasure. Exercising such an opportunity is a key to successful level, as was pointed out by the Rebbe of Kobrin. He taught that a day in which a Jew does not perform some favor or kindness for another is a day not really lived.
One who diligently studies Torah but does not occupy himself with acts of chesed “is as if he did not have a G-d.” What he lacks, explains Rashi, is Hashem standing over him protectively. Without that protection, he lives his life as if he did not have a personal relationship with G-d. Were he to practice chesed as well, his affairs would be conducted from Heaven through protocols of chesed. Thus, his umbrella of protection would be more complete, working to assure his safety even when he did not otherwise deserve to be spared.
tikun – the long process of bringing a flawed world back to the rarified state of Gan Eden before Adam’s sin – began with Avraham. He started the process of reestablishing spiritual order to a world of chaos, of sohu va’vahu. His work was followed by the six Shepherds who distilled other midos.
His contribution, of course, was the perfection of the midah of chesed. chesed is associated with no figure in Chumash as strongly as with Avraham. Why, then, does chesed not appear on the Mishnah’s short list of characteristics of Avraham’s disciples? Instead, the Mishnah speaks of a generous eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul.
We might answer that when the Mishnah speaks of disciples of Avraham it refers to Avrahams-in-training, those who aspire to become like him. The Mishnah doesn’t describe Avraham so much as how a person should position himself to be able to imitate his great chesed. The three traits mentioned by the Mishnah are the important precursors to chesed activity. Similarly, when the Mishnah describes the polar opposite traits and links them to Bilam, it assigns the blame for stunted chesed development to those traits. (Their common denominator is a heightened sense of self. Nothing stands in the way of true chesed as anochiyus, attaching great importance to ones own self. And nothing allows the natural chesed within us to flower and flourish as much as diminishing that sense of self.)
This analysis is appealing, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The facts indicate otherwise. It may seem reasonable that we need a generous eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul to do chesed, but arguably this is not so. We note much chesed performed by people who are far from these traits.
The Mishnah, of course, is correct – and so is our interpretation. What we see does not amount to a counterexample to the Mishnah’s thinking. The Mishnah speaks specifically of those who wish to become chesed personalities, whose chesed flows from their essential selves. People can perform chesed for reasons both more and less laudable. People who have not yet become full chesed personalities can be moved by circumstances to respond with chesed. That does not make them master of chesed, and certainly not chesed personalities. They are not walking in along the path of our forefather Avraham.
In a word, ordinary people can do chesed, but only special ones are chesed at their cores. (To be continued.)
Based on Nesivos Shalom, vol. 1, pgs. 98-101
Tehilim 89:3 Although the verse literally means “Forever will your kindness be built,” it is often used the way it is above to illustrate the centrality of chesed.
See, similarly, Maharal, Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Gemilas Chasadim, chap.1, and Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah 31:4-6, 15
 Tehilim 91:15
 Spreading out, or extension. Some midos are focused narrowly, usually within. Others – especially chesed -force the person to extend his world beyond himself.
Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Gemilas Chasadim, chap. 3
Avodah Zarah 17B
All together, they number seven, and are familiar to us as the Ushpizin, the spiritual guests in the Sukkah. Each corresponds to one of the seven lower sefiros.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org