I write this message during a season of endings. The secular year is coming to its close, and this Shabbat we fittingly will read the concluding parashah of B’reyshit, the Book of Genesis. Our Torah Reading is Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28-50:26, which depicts the ends of the lives of both our Patriarch Jacob/Israel, and also his son Joseph. The haftarah for this Shabbat is 1 Kings 2:1-12, the deathbed charge of King David to his son and successor, Solomon, and the death of the aged monarch.
The Torah portion opens with the words: “Jacob lived 17 years in the land of Egypt, and his lifespan was 147 years. So the time for Israel to die approached, and he called for his son Joseph. He said to him, ‘If I have found favor with you, place your hand under my thigh [and swear to me], that you will treat me with chesed v’emet (kindness and truth): Please don’t bury me in Egypt.’ ” (Genesis 47:28-29.)
Chesed v’emet literally translates to “kindness and truth.” Our rabbinic sages were puzzled by this wording.
“Is there a false kindness that Jacob had to say chesed v’emet? … It was like saying, ‘If you treat me with kindness after my death, that will be chesed shel emet (true kindness).’ ” (Midrash Rabah, B’reyshit Rabah 96:5; hence the name of many a Jewish cemetery, including two locally, is either chesed v’emet or chesed shel emet.)
In his comment on Genesis 47:29, Rashi made the matter even clearer: “The chesed (kindness) which is done for the dead is chesed shel emet (true kindness), for one cannot expect any reciprocation or repayment.”
As Rabbi Harold Kushner comments in “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary,” in later Hebrew, the words for this phrase come to mean “true kindness” (chesed v’emet). Jewish tradition defines true kindness as a good deed for which no reciprocal favor can be anticipated, such as tending to the needs of the dead. Adherence to this sacred practice is one reason why the volunteer burial society in a community is known as chevra kadisha (the sacred society).
As Kushner suggests, chesed v’emet is not only to be shown to the departed.
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes in book “Love Your Neighbor”: “When someone does something for another person so that the person will in turn do him favors, the action cannot be considered true kindness. Rather, it is a form of bartering in which the merchandise is not objects but favors. Whenever you do something for others, have their benefit in mind, not your own.”
“What is chesed?” asks the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in the book “To Heal a Fractured World”: “It is usually translated as ‘kindness,’ but it also means ‘love’ — not love as emotion or passion, but love expressed as deed. … Where tzedakah is a gift or loan of money, chesed is the gift of the person. … More than anything else, chesed humanizes the world.”
Thus, our tradition often speaks of G’milut chasadim (acts of kindness), frequently rendered as “acts of loving kindness.”
Among innumerable beautiful anecdotes and teachings, the Babylonian Talmud contains this one, a particular favorite of mine:
“Rabbi Simla’y gave a d’rash: Torah begins with an act of chesed and ends with an act of chesed. The act of chesed at the beginning is, as it is stated, ‘The Eternal God made garments of skins for the human beings and clothed them.’ [Genesis 3:21] And the act of chesed at the end is, as it is stated, ‘Then God buried him [i.e., Moses] in the valley.’ ” [Deuteronomy 34:6] (Sotah 14a.)
I love Simla’y’s notion that the Torah begins and ends with lessons of kindness. This idea also applies to the book of Genesis, for Joseph accedes to his father’s final request and returns the Patriarch’s body to the family burial place, the Cave of Mahpelah in Canaan.
Now, I know that chesed is not the sum total of Judaism, that being a Jew is not just about doing acts of kindness, and that a person doesn’t have to be Jewish to be kind. I’m also well aware that I am not always kind as I should be, and that chesed alone won’t solve all the world’s problems, bring about peace, cleanse and renew the planet, feed the hungry, raise up the poor, heal the sick, or end racism and oppression.
But, surely, I’ll be a better Jew and a better human being, and the world will be a better place, if I live and act with chesed, if I ever and always strive to be truly kind.
It is a season of endings, but with endings also come beginnings. Among my many prayers for the New Year, I fervently pray that we are entering the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
I also pray that I can begin to act and to interact with chesed v’emet — true kindness — every day of 2021 and always.
Rabbi Lane Steinger is rabbi emeritus with Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.