Am Yisroel: The Nation with Chesed in Our Bones

We have written in these pages before about the genetic makeup of Am Yisroel (“Are We a Race and Are We Racists?”). At the time, we quoted from a New York Times article (March 25, 2018) by Dr. David Reich, a respected Harvard Professor of Genetics. After much research, he had come to the politically incorrect conclusion that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among races.”

We mentioned then that although this was considered a bombshell in scientific circles, for us it was not a chiddush, since the Torah speaks much about the various traits of different nations.

Furthermore, most importantly, Klal Yisroel is clearly defined in terms of its natural inclinations and proclivities.

The tide has apparently now turned again, this time against Professor Reich. A new book, reviewed in last week’s New York Times Book Review (November 1, 2020) claims the exact opposite. David J. Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, writes in his book called Unique that “There is no evidence for racial group differences in genes that have been linked to any behavioral or cognitive trait.” I do not know if Professor Linden has been influenced by what Professor Reich termed political correctness or is genuinely convinced that there are no character traits generic to various races. However, since we are now learning the parshiyos about the creation of Am Yisroel, it would be appropriate to revisit Chazal’s view of this subject, particularly with regard to our nation.

The Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha’ezer 2:4) rules that “one who is brazen, cruel, hates people and does not perform acts of kindness is suspect of being a member of the Givoni people.” The source seems to be from the Gemara (Yevamos 79a), which states that Dovid Hamelech forbade marriage with anyone stemming from the Givonim because their traits were antithetical to those of the Jewish people. We are a nation that has three genetic hallmarks: compassion (rachamonim), a sense of modesty (bayshanim) and those who perform acts of loving-kindness (gomlei chassodim).

Interestingly, the Ramban (Devorim 23:5) teaches that the ban on the nations of Amon and Moav was placed because their ancestor Lot had benefitted from our ancestor Avrohom who saved them, yet they did not exhibit gratitude to us. Some poskim (see Rav Dovid Cohen, Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim 7:90) derive from this Ramban that the children of someone who was the beneficiary of kindness must show gratitude to the children of their benefactor. Anyone who does not, such as Amon and Moav, cannot enter Klal Yisroel.

Of course, this discussion raises the question of whether nations indeed have genetic traits and predispositions toward particular traits. Chazal manifestly declared that Klal Yisroel does indeed possess such tendencies. But intellectual honesty demands that we address the sensitive point that this seems to smack of racism.

Actually, as we discussed earlier, it was Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l who addressed this publicly at a Torah Umesorah convention, when someone stood up at one of the rosh yeshiva’s Thursday night question-and-answer sessions. He inquired, “Rebbe, how do we answer people when they ask what is the difference between us and the Nazis, lehavdil? We believe that we are the Am Hanivchar and they believe that they and they alone are the Aryan race?”

Rav Yaakov, in his usual perceptive way, picked up on the fact that the questioner himself was bothered by the issue and he was not just asking dispassionately and hypothetically.

“You must know and understand,” Rav Yaakov answered the struggling fellow, “that the Nazis claimed to be the Aryan race in order to subjugate and destroy others. We want to be the Am Hanivchar so that we can have more obligations, more restrictions, and, if necessary and Hashem so decrees, to suffer for our beliefs.”

All of us who heard the devar Hashem from Rav Yaakov that day will never forgot the essence of our uniqueness as a nation and what it means to be different. Nor could anyone listening ever consider being a racist for a moment. The rosh yeshiva ingrained in us all – and I am sure all present did so into their own talmidim over the past four decades – that while every nation carries its own DNA, ours requires us to be avdei Hashem and answer to a higher spiritual calling. In a sense, at least some representatives of contemporary science seem to be coming around to Rav Yaakov’s prescient teaching. Indeed, everyone is not the same. We must recognize those differences even as we accept that our own come with requirements far beyond those of the rest of humanity.

Chazal spent thousands of pages and millions of words illustrating how to do chesed. In fact, they demonstrated that chesed entered our bones because Hashem Himself does chesed and we merely emulate His example. Hashem clothed Adam and Chava, visited the sick (this week’s sedra), comforted the mourners (Bereishis 25:11) and even buried the dead (Devorim 34:6). And so, the Torah begins and ends with chesed. How could we not do the same (Sotah 14a, Kesubos 11b)?

Let us explore these genes of ours a bit, so that we know what those requirements are on a practical basis. One of the greatest chesed mitzvos is that of pidyon shvuyim, redeeming captives. The author of the Shevet Sofer records that his father, Rav Avrohom Shlomo of Izhmir, would deposit every Erev Shabbos a unique type of bail to the local prison warden so the Jewish prisoners could go home for Shabbos. Sometimes, in fact, the prisoners did not return and the rov lost all the money. At other times, he did not have sufficient money for the Shabbos “bail,” and he spent Shabbos in prison so everyone else could spend Shabbos with their families.

It was well-known that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the famed rov of Brisk and founder of the Brisker derech in learning, taught his children that all visitors and travelers had priority seats and beds in his home. His son, Rav Velvel, later known as the Brisker Rov as well, testified that he would arrive home and end up sleeping on the floor because a meshulach was in his bed.

Regarding orphans, our gedolim knew no bounds in their chesed. Rav Akiva Eiger, who never wasted a precious moment from his Torah learning, checked on all the orphans after his morning shiurim. He made sure that their beds were comfortable, that they had enough food to eat, that they had warm clothing for the winter, and that they were generally well taken care of (Toldos Rav Akiva Eiger, pages 31, 66). Once, he travelled all night, in a freezing Polish winter, just to make sure that a poor family had a proper bris for their new son. When the rebbe noticed that the baal aggalah (wagon driver) was wearing wet socks, Rav Akiva Eiger took off his own socks and gave them to the astonished driver. Only later did the baal aggalah discover that the great gaon had given away his own socks. The driver thought it was the rebbe’s spare (Chut Hameshulash 201-205).

Rav Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement, was a paradigm of chesed. He was extremely punctual, but one day he was quite late for the daily shiur. Some talmidim went looking for him and found him on a bridge speaking to a weeping young woman. It turned out that when Rav Yisroel crossed the bridge between his home and the yeshiva, he noticed the young woman about to commit suicide. He grabbed her as the Gemara (Sotah 21b) teaches us to do, talked her out of the act, and promised to get her husband a horse, since the old one – the source of their parnassah – had just died (Tenuas Hamussar). The city of Kelm, where Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, grew up, was arranged around doing chesed. Every talmid in the yeshiva had to refill the kli for the next person after washing his hands. Havdalah was made next to the door so no smoke or fumes would, G-d forbid, cause someone to choke or cough (heard from my rebbetzin’s bubby, Rav Elyashiv’s cousin, and Rav Nochom Velvel Dessler, son of the Michtav M’Eliyahu).

These stories and teachings are just the tiniest glimpse into the Jewish chesed gene, which we all inherited from Avrohom Avinu, later being enhanced by all the avos and imahos. While we may not know the essence of every other nation, we certainly are aware of our own. Let us work on those wonderful traits of rachamanim, bayshanim and gomlei chassodim so that we make a kiddush Hashem wherever we go and will be proud to have Moshiach recognize us very soon, iy”H.