The ‘opening scene’ of our sedra, Vayera, sees Avraham Avinu braving the pains of his bris milah in waiting outside of his tent an anticipation of potential guests he could welcome.
Indeed, he leaves HaShem’s Presence (HaShem came to visit and heal Avraham) to run out to greet the 3 ‘men’ in the distance, ushers them into his tent, has a lavish meal cooked for them…and as they say, the rest is history. The middah specifically associated with Avraham Avinu is that of chesed; as manifest in acts of kindness like this. In fact, Rav Pam notes that Avraham did not just give his guests a small snack, but rather a full-meal and more; he gave each of the 3 ’men’ one whole cow each (rashi 18;7 quoting the gemarra), as well as bread, etc.
Now, Avraham himself was certainly not one to indulge in such a meal when alone without any guests, but when dealing with guests he defined his actions by his view of their wants/needs as opposed to his wants. This is true
chesed; both the personal want to give, and the giving in accordance with seeing what’s best for the receiver.
Let’s develop this idea a bit further…
Rav Dessler defines zechus avos as middos which are imbued in us because they were imbued in our avos. One can see this in our days; for example, arguably Avraham’s two most famous achievements (bar the akeidah) were performing the bris milah and his chesed. Similarly, nowadays, Jews of all walks of life; religious or nonreligious (or ’not yet religious’ as one Rabbi put it) are involved in chesed and tend to keep to bris milah.
One can have an extremely anti-religious, secular Jew, who is not particularly fond of any mitzvos, yet will give his baby boy a bris, and will donate significant (well over the average) sums of money to charity. Why is that so? For that is zechus avos; it‘s our second nature. [As an aside, I once heard a story about a Jewish man who noticed that his kids had been playing the same game of monopoly for days. He kindly reminded them that the aim of the game is to make a player go bankrupt and thus the number of players is supposed decline as the game goes on.
They replied by informing them that they had set up a system; when one player goes bankrupt, the other players get together and open up a gemach - a free loan fund - and lend that player the money so that he can get back into the game!]
In what way can we work on our chesed?
In all mitzvos and one’s world in general, there are two components; the act and the personality - ‘what I do’ and ‘who I am.’ For convenience purposes, let’s name the act as the maaseh and the personality aspect as da’as. For example, the act of the 4 minim on sukkos would be shaking a lulav, but its effect is to affect and improve an aspect of one’s self and personality.
The point to grasp here is that, though it’s true that the way to perfect one’s personality is via acts of mitzvos, it is the da’as part that is more important than the ma’aseh aspect at the end of the day.
For example, an ape putting on tefillin will not be classed as a ’good act’ for it does not have the personality/daas which goes with that act to be affected. Consequently, the few mitzvos that are more or less purely in the realm of da’as eg ahavas & yiras HaShem, emunah, etc are constant mitzvos and not confined to a particular time of day or year; indicating their primacy (as pointed out by the chovas halevavos). There are several other examples of this;
Tosafos (Kiddushin 31a) explains the reason for the rule that one gets more reward for doing a mitzvah that they were commanded/ obligated to do (gadol hametzuveh ve’oseh…) by saying that someone who is commanded, will worry more about performing that mitzvah, ie that the worry itself and thus the sign of caring about the mitzvah is a primary facet of it. Moreover, it is the da’as aspect which will precede the doing of the action (one mentally decides to do any given action before physically carrying it out), and dictate which action will be done and how. Thus, if the da’as aspect is spiritually damaged, then this will reflect itself in the performance of less mitzvos, whilst if one mitzvah is damaged, this will not necessarily cause a major impact upon future/other mitzvos.
But how is this relevant to our discussion about chesed?
Well, let’s introduce this via a question. The mishna (avos 5;21) lists the traits of Avraham Avinu as ’a good eye, humble spirit, and a meek soul’ (ayin tova, ruach nemucha, nefesh shefalah). T
he question can be asked, why isn’t chesed mentioned if that’s Avraham’s main middah? And the answer is that there are two aspects to chesed (as with any other mitzvah as discussed above); an act of chesed, and a personality of chesed (ie doing an act of giving vs. being a giving person). The mishnah is listing those aspects of Avraham which caused his chesed; but not merely acts of chesed, but rather his entire character as a man of [being/living] chesed. These two things have been termed chesed and ahavas chesed; chesed represents the act of giving, whilst ahavas chesed represents having a personality that is imbued with chesed and as a consequence one naturally loves to give to others.
Thus, a major way of working on our chesed is via the quality of the acts of chesed we do; to do them with feeling and meaning; to greet someone with genuine warmth, or to notice that one is doing a mitzvah of chesed when giving someone a lift somewhere, when giving the phone to a family member who has received a call, and other everyday acts of chesed that go by unnoticed.
Have a great Shabbes, and pG we should be given the assistance to go from people who do acts of giving to people who are givers,