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Chayei Sarah: The Power of Chesed

11/10/2021 09:26:38 AM

Nov10

Rabbi Ezray

My stepdaughter Emily, who has given me permission to share this story, is now in a great relationship with a wonderful man, Mike, who has the Abba and Mom seal of approval. But before she met Mike, she was often attracted to a certain type: someone who was a little edgy, interesting, connected to the arts; all good qualities. But as Mimi and I would hear about them, we would gently ask, “Is he kind? Will he there for you in difficult moments? Does he care about your soul and essence as much as he cares about his own passions?” 

          Once she was telling me about a relationship that seemed compelling, “Abba, he reads poetry to me at night. We listen to music and share how it touches us. He is so sensitive and smart.” And I would say, “That’s good.” And the question always there for me was: “But is he kind?” And then we would hear what we hoped we would not hear but were not surprised when we heard it: “I wasn’t feeling good, and he disappeared. He is off skiing in Colorado, and I haven’t heard from him.” And it was an opening to gently suggest that for all that there were magnetic pieces to this person, there is no substitute for kindness in relationship and friendship. It is what we should seek in others and develop in ourselves.

          Rabbi Joseph Telushkin teaches that parents should reserve their highest praise for when their children are kind. So often, we praise grades and being smart. We praise performance or participation in extra-curricular activities; sports, drama. While academics and extra-curricular are important and worthy of praise, Rabbi Telushkin urges that we reserve our highest praise for chesed, the Hebrew word for acts of kindness. Let’s think about our messages to our children and grandchildren; about our friendships, who we choose as friends and why; what we look for in our workplace and community and what we strive for in our personal behavior. Let’s nurture kindness in ourselves; seeking to make chesed our essence.   

          Chesed plays a key role in this morning’s Torah portion. After the death of his wife Sarah, our forefather Abraham tasks his servant Eliezer to find an appropriate wife for his son Isaac. Abraham gives simple and straightforward directions: (Gen. 24:4) “Don’t take a wife for my son from the daughter of the Canaanites among whom I live - but go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” Abraham’s criteria are crystal clear; the only thing that matters is where the woman is from. The servant, Eliezer, follows Abraham’s instructions, but makes a unilateral decision to prioritize other factors. Look at Gen 24:14: “Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Then I will know you have shown chesed – kindness, with my master.” Eliezer is looking for kindness! It is not just normal, everyday chesed, but chesed that goes above and beyond. He is looking for someone who will not only see human needs, but also the needs of the thirsty animals. Eliezer cares more about who this woman is than where she comes from and finding the right character for Isaac is the kindness Isaac needs.  

          What a message: Choose partners and friends who act with sensitivity to the needs of others and who see where where kindness is needed. Let’s administer the camel test; seek out someone who is kind and sensitive enough to see where else kindness can extend. Let’s be people who pass the camel test. 

          One more Emily story. In high school, she wanted to be with the popular crowd. She knew how to make those connections and nurture those friendships.  She succeeded in becoming part of the “in” crowd. Now she reflects, sometimes that group was not kind to others. In retrospect, she wishes she found the strength to confront the meanness and the wisdom to seek out kindness.  Thankfully, she is making up for it now and has found a partner who nurtures this piece of her heart.

          Let’s follow Rebecca’s example. In a recent People magazine article, I read about Brian Taylor. Before COVID, his pet care business was booming, but COVID shut everything down. He had to furlough his employees and scale back operations. Just one month later, he lost his uncle and a close friend to the virus. 

          "It was dark times," he says. Then he had an idea. "Each night, people were cheering for first responders," he recalls. "I was at the window with my pots and pans and thought, 'What can I do to help?’” That is the question to ask: What can I do to help. And then Brian realized there was something he could do. He began offering free dog grooming from his van. Other volunteers joined him and at his first New York event in April 2020, he groomed 100 dogs in two days. That summer he took his Pup Relief tour around the country, teaming up with local businesses to offer free services to the pets of homeless people, senior citizens and others who couldn't afford to keep their dogs bathed and trimmed. We too can embody Brian Taylor and Rebecca, beginning with the question: “What can I do to help?”

          And there is more that Rebecca teaches about chesed. Sometimes choosing a path of chesed requires courage. Rebecca’s family notes the expensive gifts Eliezer gave her. After the wedding match is agreed upon, Eliezer is ready to leave and Rebecca’s family says, (Gen. 24:55). “Let her stay another 10 days.” 

          What is that about? Maybe they really want more time with her, but many commentators point to how they notice the gifts she received and suggest they are they trying to squeeze more money and gifts. When Eliezer insists on leaving, they say (vs. 57). “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply?” You assume she will be loyal to her family and participate in their plans. And what does she say?  Ai’lech – I will go. It is translated: “I will,” but the Hebrew means I will go. It echoes Abraham using the same verb Lech, Go! Rebecca’s decision to leave her homeland and her family, go to a new place and new circumstances reminds us of Abraham who also left everything following his inner truth. We walk in Abraham and Rebecca’s footsteps when we find the courage to leave a place where kindness is absent and journey to a new place where chesed can flourish. 

          Robert F. Kennedy reminds us of the power of embracing chesed.  In a famous speech (with some changes for inclusive language) he said: “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he, she or they sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Kindness ripples! Each small choice helps create something grander that we could never imagine. This is what we need right now in our world.

          As we jump to the end of the story, Isaac and Rebecca join in marriage and in Gen. 24:61 we read that Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. Her lovingkindness opened Isaac’s heart and for the first time in the Torah we read the word love connected to a couple. Chesed changes everything! To know how my heart has opened through the love and chesed of my wife and to see Emily thrive through the power of chesed is beautiful. I am blessed to have my in laws and my mother at this service, all who lived chesed and implanted it in our hearts through their examples.

          I close with two more famous quotes, first, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, “When I was young, I admired cleverness. Now that I am old, I find I admire kindness more.” Kindness changes lives. It is who we are meant to be and who we should look to be with. And I conclude with a paraphrase of the poet Wordsworth: “The best portion of a good person’s life is the little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love.” Let’s define ourselves by chesed.

Sat, May 21 2022 20 Iyyar 5782