The Pillar of Chesed

The rosh yeshiva was in a quandary. What was he going to do? Rav Yisroel Grossman, mechaber of seforim and close confidant of Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rov, was in a very uncomfortable situation. He had been approached by an askan, a mover and shaker in Yerushalayim, to help him. A great talmid chochom had to undergo an emergency operation and lacked the funds for it. The askan wanted Rav Yisroel to approach the Brisker Rov and ask for a large donation.

“Ask the Brisker Rov for a large donation? Where would he get the money from?” wondered Rav Yisroel.

The Rov lived a very simple life and most certainly did not have spare cash lying around. But the askan would not accept this as an excuse. He was very dedicated to any project that he undertook and was persistent. Once an idea popped into his head, it was very difficult to dissuade him from it. Rav Yisroel had no choice but to do his bidding and was afraid of what the Rov’s reaction would be.

He went to the Rov’s house and presented the askan’s solicitation. As anticipated, the Rov expressed wonder at this audacious request. “Where does he see my riches? From my table? From my chairs?”

Rav Yisroel apologized profusely, explaining, “That is exactly what I told the askan, but he wouldn’t leave me alone until I agreed to go. And I only consented because he said that it was a question of pikuach nefesh.”

Early the next morning, Rav Yisroel heard movement just outside his door. He opened the door and standing there was the Rov’s son, Rav Refoel, who handed him a large sum of money and explained: “The entire night, my father was not at peace and could not rest because you said that this was a question of pikuach nefesh. So he went out and secured a loan for the entire amount you had asked for.”

This was the strong sense of achrayus that the Brisker Rov had for helping others.

The Rov was wont to repeat the following thought on this week’s sedra. We learn that Eliezer, the servant of Avrohom, davened that Hashem send him a shidduch for Yitzchok. “And it was when he had not yet finished speaking and suddenly Rivkah was coming out… The servant ran toward her and said, ‘Let me sip, if you please, a little water from your jug’” (Bereishis 24:15-16). Rashi explains that Eliezer ran toward her because he saw that as she was approaching, the spring of water rose up to her.

The Bais Aharon, Rav Aharon Karliner, asked: If so, why was it necessary for Eliezer to test her if she would do chesed for him? He saw this amazing sight, a three-year-old girl nearing the spring when suddenly the water rises to greet her. This was certainly a supernatural occurrence. Why wasn’t he amazed at this alone? Why wasn’t this, in and of itself, proof that this girl was someone fit to marry into the family of Avrohom? Why did he have to first see if she would pour water for him and his camels?

The Bais Aharon answered that Eliezer was the trusted servant of the household of Avrohom Avinu. He knew very well that the foundations of the house were built on the pillar of chesed. Since this was of such importance to the house of Avrohom and he could not know that Rivkah possessed this middah from miracles alone, he felt obligated to test her by asking her for water.

This correlates with the conduct of Yitzchok Avinu regarding his marriage to Rivkah. The posuk says: “And Yitzchok brought her into the tent of Sarah. He married Rivkah, she became his wife, and he loved her, and thus was Yitzchok consoled after his mother” (Bereishis 24:67). Targum Onkelos explains, “And Yitzchok brought her into the tent and he saw that her deeds were as righteous as those of Sarah, his mother, and he married Rivkah.” In the posuk right before that, it says, “The servant told Yitzchok all of the things he had done.” Rashi explains that he related all of the miracles that happened to him – that the land jumped toward him and that Rivkah emerged right when he was davening to Hashem to show him the right woman. In addition, Besuel, her father, tried preventing the shidduch from happening, so a malach killed him.

All of this happened by the word of Avrohom: “He will send an angel before you and you shall take a wife for my son from there.” Yet, with all of these miracles, says the Brisker Rov, Yitzchok only consented to marry her when he himself checked and was assured that she was as virtuous as his mother, Sarah. When something is of such importance, then even open miracles do not suffice. Yitzchok had to see it in actuality.

Just how important chesed was to Avrohom Avinu can be seen in the words of the Alshich Hakadosh. The Ramban says that Avrohom committed a sin by leaving Eretz Yisroel when there was a famine and going to Mitzrayim. Because of this, it was decreed that his progeny would be in exile in Egypt. This is based on a Zohar Hakadosh. But the Alshich disagrees and says that since the famine is listed by Chazal as one of the ten nisyonos that Avrohom withstood, obviously he acted correctly.

Why, indeed, did he leave Eretz Yisroel and not rely on Hashem to give him sustenance? The Alshich explains that it is well-known that the world stands on three pillars: on Torah, on avodah, and on gemillus chassodim. The Medrash says that until Matan Torah, the world stood on only one pillar: chesed. The pillar of Torah first came at Har Sinai and the pillar of avodah with the building of the Mishkon. Before that, the world was held up by only the pillar of chesed.

Avrohom Avinu realized that it was his avodah of chesed alone that kept the world going. He did this by inviting guests to his tent and teaching them about Hashem. Now that there was a famine, he had no food to serve others and he could not fulfill the mitzvah of chesed to hold up the world. For this, he hurried to go to Mitzrayim to be able to acquire food and perform chesed with others.

According to this, we can also understand why Avrohom, on the third day after his bris milah, was adamant that he had to entertain guests. Chazal tell us that on that day, Hashem removed the sun from its cover so that travelers would not disturb Avrohom. Avrohom sent out Eliezer to find guests. Eliezer looked all over, but came back empty-handed. Avrohom did not believe Eliezer and he went out looking for them himself. That is when he saw that Hashem came to visit him.

Let us picture Avrohom’s situation at the time. He was 99 years old at his bris and this was the third day after, a time of great pain. One would think that in this state and especially in an intense heat wave, Avrohom would take it easy, but this was not the case. According to the Alshich that Avrohom knew that he was holding up the world with his chesed, this is understandable.

This is one of the traits passed down to us by Avrohom Avinu, recognition that the world stands on chesed. Today, with the darkness of golus as deep as it is, there is a need to reach out to others. This can take many forms, whether monetarily, offering a helping hand when necessary, guiding someone when they are having a problem, or just lending them an ear as they vent about their difficulty.

But there is a misconception about chesed – that it is all about helping others. About the posuk, “One who pursues righteousness and kindness will find life righteousness and honor” (Mishlei 21:21), the Medrash says, “One who pursues righteousness… This refers to Avrohom Avinu, who performed a chesed for Sarah his wife by burying her” (Bereishis Rabbah, Noach).

The Alter of Slabodka would often quote this Medrash to show that one fulfills chassodim with his very own family. We mistakenly think that because we have a natural feeling of love for those close to us that our providing for their needs is instinctive and not a special mitzvah. But this, too, is doing chesed for a tzelem Elokim and is no less a chesed than providing a service for others.

One often hears people expressing a feeling of inferiority because they are so bogged down with family responsibilities that they don’t have the time or energy to participate in chesed projects outside of the home. But isn’t cooking for the family and maintaining the household with all of the various chores it requires doing tremendous chassodim? The aforementioned Medrash teaches us that even the last honor that Avrohom accorded Sarah by burying her was a great chesed. Surely, then, the acts of kindness that a husband and wife do for each other while they are alive is most important. It is the foundation for the world that they are creating…the beginning of future generations.

Be kind to yourself and you are also doing chesed. The Medrash tells us that the talmidim of Hillel once asked him where he was going. He replied that he was on his way to do a mitzvah. “Which mitzvah?” they asked.

“I am going to the bathhouse.”

“What kind of mitzvah is that?”

“If the statues of kings are placed by stadiums and theaters and people are paid to wash and clean them, then surely I, who have been created in the image of Hashem, will receive reward for bathing myself” (Vayikra Rabbah 34).

Yes, even being kind to ourselves is a chesed. Of course, we must try to do as much chesed as we can for others. At the same time, however, we mustn’t forget that every day we perform hundreds of acts of chesed both with our families and ourselves. Every time we greet a friend with a “good morning,” we are fulfilling a mitzvah. Everything we do for our families is a mitzvah of veholachta bidrochov, walking in the ways of Hashem. With a bit of thought invested in all of these deeds, we can elevate our spiritual level immeasurably.