Parshas Chayei Sarah; Camels of Chesed

In our sedra, Avraham’s servant Eliezer[1] devises a test on his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak; whichever maiden offers to give water to him and his camels is the one. Why did Elizer decide on chesed to be the test for finding a wife for Yitzchak; why not pick any other mitzvah, like saying ‘whoever has not been involved in immoral acts, or who pays their workers on time, or observes the seven Noachide laws shall be the one for Yitzchak?’ Rashi[2] answers this by saying that Eliezer was looking for someone who would be fitting for the house of Avraham, whose domineering trait was chesed. We shall suggest an answer which seems different, but is actually merely a different aspect of Rashi’s answer.
Each of the Avos had their defining trait; Avraham’s was chesed, Yitzchak’s was gevurah (to be explained), and Ya’akov’s was emes/tiferes. The Immahos also had their defining traits, and these were the traits

which complemented their husbands; Sarah’s was gevurah, Rivkah’s was chesed, and Rachel and Leah’s matched Ya’akov. At this point we shall explain what the trait of gevurah is and why it complements the trait of chesed. Chesed as a trait [this is distinct from the mitzvah of gemillus chesed] means the attribute of unlimited giving. The only problem that this can have is that giving without limits can be harmful. As every parent knows, giving a sweet to their children is nice, but too many sweets will cause tooth decay. Similarly, the Torah labels certain forbidden incestuous relationships as being ‘a chesed’[3] for this is when one’s desire for love and giving has spilled over and has not been contained or limited appropriately. This is where the trait of gevurah comes in. Gevurah limit’s the outflow of the trait of chesed to give it solid boundaries and essentially bring it into positive fruition - it is the ‘strict/harsh’ setting of limits. Thus, a man is said to be towards the pole of chesed, whilst a woman’s trait tends to be one of gevurah,[4] for the man provides the unlimited spark of giving/inspiration, whilst the woman gives this definitive plans and limits in bringing them into fruition in the world. This is all mirrored biologically in the process of birth; the woman is the one who provides the form to the baby and brings it into life. Let’s go back to the Avos and Immahos and see how the two opening pairs of chesed and gevurah play out.
Avraham epitomised the trait of chesed, which comes at the beginning of the process. It is the first step of unlimited giving, and is clearly seen in his lifetime of constant physical and spiritual giving to others, even at the risk of his own life. This is one reason why the test of the akeidah was such a difficult one; for taking away human life contradicted his very nature of a man of chesed. Avraham’s chesed was complemented by Sarah’s gevurah. It was thus Sarah who recognised that Yishmael had to be removed from the home and disinherit him as Avraham’s heir, both of which were examples of the need to limit the constant giving of Avraham. Furthermore, in order to solidify Avraham’s mission of making HaShem known in the world, his son Yitzchak - whose task it was to continue his father’s mission - was characterised by the trait of gevurah. Consequently, we are told of few of Yitzchak’s actions in the Torah - for his job was not to start anything new, but to solidify and define what his father had started. Thus, we are told that Yitzchak re-dug the wells that his father had had dug and the Philistines had filled in[5], which is a fitting metaphor for Yitzchak’s mission in general. The other major event of Yitzchak’s life was the akeidah, in which he was not active, and again, was playing the role of facilitating Avraham’s spiritual efforts in passing his test. And since Yitzchak was a man of gevurah, Rivkah gravitated to the pole of chesed. This is why Eliezer decided to use the test of chesed in order to find a wife for Yitzchak, for he knew that Yitzchak embodied gevurah, and an appropriate wife would be one who displays the trait of chesed.
This solves another problem. The pasuk[6] says that as soon as Eliezer saw Rivkah, he ran to her. Why? Rashi cites the midrash which says that Eliezer noticed that the water from the well rose up to Rivkah. The problem here is that Eliezer still went on with his test to see if Rivkah gave water to the camels. Why did he not scrap the test here and now after seeing such a miracle for this woman; obviously she had a spiritual character?[7] According to our explanation above, Eliezer could not stop the test after witnessing this miracle, because he still needed to ascertain that this woman possessed the trait of chesed to be fitting for Yitzchak’s trait of gevurah.
We shall aim to make this a bit more practical. Until now we have been talking about the trait of chesed, but much can be related to the mitzvah of chesed. The mitzvah of chesed is called gemillus chassadim. The word gemillas comes from the word vayigamal, meaning to wean[8]; when a baby begins to be fed other foods as opposed to relying solely on the mother’s milk. Though this may seem to be stopping kindness of the mother giving milk to her child, in reality it is a real kindness, for the baby cannot feed from the mother forever, and is making steps towards a fuller diet and even self-sufficiency. This is gemillus chasadim too; it does not mean constant outpouring of acts of giving, for that is not necessarily good for the receiver. Rather, it means a clear, measured, and sometimes limited amount of giving. As an example, though it is a kindness to hold one’s child’s hand so that they can walk, real kindness is letting go so that they may learn to walk unaided. Thus, the gemarra[9] says ‘the left hand should always push someone away and the right hand should bring them near’ - the message being that the mainstay of one’s character should be of kindness, but this is to be balanced with strictness when necessary. This mirrors the relationship between the traits of chesed and gevurah mentioned above.
The point has a deeper level to it. Unlimited giving means that the stress is on the giver; he has a want/need to give, and so gives without limits. Giving with the appropriate limits means that the giving is focussed on what the receiver needs. This is real giving, real gemillus chassadim; to focus on the other people’s needs, and not just oneself. In fact, the source for the mitzvah of chesed is ‘you should walk in His ways’ (Devarim 28;9) - that just like HaShem acts with kindness towards people, so should we. And, one may add, that just like HaShem’s chesed to others is not for Himself and His own ‘needs,’ so too is our chesed to be focussed on others and not be done for ourselves. [Of course, doing chesed to feel good about yourself or because you have a need to give is better than not doing chesed at all.] This point about the mitzvah of chesed being centred around caring for others’ needs can be seen in a mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5;22), which describes the three central traits of Avraham Avinu as ‘a good eye, a humble sprit, and a meek soul.’ What happened to Avraham’s central trait of chesed? The answer is that since chesed is rooted in focussing on others and not oneself, these traits were the precursor for Avraham’s excellence in chesed, for these three traits negated selfishness and self-centredness.
We live in a generation which appreciates chesed. We have quoted the Kotzker Rebbe before that chesed is the defining characteristic of the generations preceding the Moshiach, and Rav Dessler that this trait was instilled particularly strongly within the Jewish people by Avraham Avinu as part of the concept of zechus avos. However, people see chesed as a dry, raw act of giving to others, and miss out on the point of focussing and caring about the receiver as opposed to performing chesed for one’s own self-gratification as an expression of their own self-centredness or for personal ulterior motives. Let us quote the social psychology research of Snyder et al. (1974) which found that a man is more likely to stop and help a stranded motorist if they are female. Similarly, Przybyla (1985) showed that men spent an average of six minutes helping a woman than an average of thirty seconds helping a man. There are clearly ulterior, selfish, motives for these ‘acts of chesed.’
We’ll end with a story. Someone once came to the Satmar Rav explaining that he needed to raise ten thousand dollars for a certain important cause. The Satmar Rav took out nine thousand five-hundred dollars, and gave it to the person. After this person had left, one of his Chassidim asked the Rav why he had stopped just short of the full amount. The Satmar Rav replied that had he given the full ten thousand dollars, the man would have left upset that he did not ask for more, now knowing that the Rav was prepared to give the full amount of whatever he was asked for. ‘Now that I gave the man five hundred dollars less than the full amount, the man will go away happy thinking that this was the maximum I could have given him, and that he has come near to his fundraising target.’ This is a shining example of doing chesed with a focus on what others want and need.
HaShem should help us to do chesed for others, not only for ourselves,
Have a great Shabbes

[1] Who was actually the evil king Nimrod’s son, according to Targum Yonassan. [2] 24;14 in his first comment
[3] Vayikra 20;17
[4] The Ben Ish Chai uses this to explain why women are generally exempt from positive time-bound mitzvos (eg shaking lulav), because positive mitzvos are rooted in the trait of chesed (Ramban Shemos 20;8), whilst women naturally are more connected to the trait of gevruah.
[5] Bereishis 26;18
[6] 24;17
[7] Rav Chaim of Volozhin would actually answer that ‘all tzaddikim have miracles performed for them. But not all people who have miracles performed for them are tzaddikim,’ and so the fact that this woman had a miracle performed for her did not necessarily mean that she was righteous. As a young baby, Hitler y’s was miraculously saved from certain death after the doctor had told his mother that there was no hope.
[8] As in last week’s sedra, 21;8
[9] Sotah 47a three lines up from the wide lines

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