Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

G'milut Chassadim: Cornerstone of the World and of the Jewish Nation

The two major episodes presented in this week's parsha both revolve around giving or g'milut chessed.  Avraham, with great effort and at great cost, seeks an honorable burial place for his wife, Sarah. Rivkah, through her generosity toward Eliezer and his entourage, demonstrates her worthiness to enter into the household of Avraham.  These two events complete the recounting of the majestic life of Avraham which, being replete with acts of kindness, serves as a model of conduct for his descendants to follow.

What follows is a brief treatment of the Biblical sources of the commandments relating to engaging in acts of kindness. [Sources for further study are mentioned at the end of the article.]  In a famous statement quoted by Sifra on Parshas K'dosim, R. Akiva comments on the verse "V'Ahavta L'rei'acha Kamocha" -- "You should love your friend as yourself" (19:18): "zeh k'lal gadol batorah" -- "This is a central principle in Torah".  As noted by R. Yisrael Meir HaKohen, in his Chafetz Chaim, keeping all of the interpersonal commandments are in fulfillment of this verse.  Violating any of them also entails violation of this general commandment.  Simply speaking, this commandment serves as the source for the general concept and commandment of g'milus chassadim, acts of kindness.  In a similar vein, Hillel famously tells the prospective convert: "That which is hated unto you, do not do unto your friend" (Shabbat 31a).  Rashi, Maharsha (ibid.), Kli Yakar (K'doshim, ibid.) and others seem to assume that Hillel was referencing the commandment of "V'Ahavta L'raiacha Kamocha" even though he does not directly quote it.  Targum Yonasan and P'sikta directly link the two statements.  Questioning why Hillel phrased the verse in the negative ("That which is hated unto you, do not do unto your friend") rather than in the positive ("Do unto others that which you desire done unto you"), Maharsha answers that the commandment of "V'Ahavta" cannot be interpreted literally in a positive sense since the commandment insists upon "kamocha" -- "like yourself".  Elsewhere the Talmud indicates (Bava M'tsi'a 62a) -- in the name or R. Akiva himself! -- that "chayecha kod'min"  - your life takes precedence over your friend's. (See also N'darim 80b and commentaries there that "chayecha kod'min" applies to assets as well and not just to life.) A literal application of "like yourself" in the positive sense would preclude such a limitation.  Hence, the commandment of loving a friend must be interpreted in the negative sense where "like yourself" does indeed apply.  Ramban, in his commentary to the commandment of "V'Ahavta", based on the same question, interprets the verse as prohibiting jealousy in the sense of not wanting others to have what you have. (See the enlightening work, L'rei'acha Kamocha, Vol. 2, by Rav Dovid Ariav ("V'Ahavta L'rei'acha", Chapter 4) for further elaboration on this Ramban.)

According to both Ramban and Maharsha, an obvious question remains. What is the source of the Biblical commandment to engage in positive acts of kindness.  Clearly this cornerstone of religious life as exemplified by the Avot and Imahot is included in a specific commandment!  Two approaches have been taken in answer to this question: one including positive acts of kindness in "V'Ahavta" and another deriving it from a different commandment.  Rambam (Hilchot Aveil 14:1) states that there is a Rabbinic commandment to visit the sick, comfort mourners, escort the dead, bring the bride to the wedding, escort guests, bury the dead, and gladden bride and groom.  Rambam continues that these are aspects of g'milus chassadim which have no limit.  Even though these commandments are Rabbinic, they are all included in the Biblical commandment of "V'ahavta": "Everything you want done unto yourself, do unto others".  On a simple plane, Rambam debates Ramban's and Maharsha's view and maintains that the commandment of "V'Ahavta" applies in a positive sense as well. However, this approach is difficult since elsewhere the Rambam quotes regulations which are based on "chayecha kod'min" - that your life and needs take precedence.  Two different approaches have been taken as to the position of Rambam. One approach assumes that Rambam maintains that positive acts of kindness are obligatory and included in the commandment of "V'Ahavta L'Rei'acha Kamocha". However, they are sometimes limited by the overriding principle of "chayecha kod'min", which according to Rambam would be more limited in scope than according to Ramban.  Where there is no conflict between the act of kindness and one's self-interest, the commandment is obligatory. Another approach is that (with exceptions) positive acts of kindness are optional (mitzvot kiyumiyot) for which the rewards are great but are not binding obligations.  Some acts were made binding on a Rabbinic level. (See the periodical "Torat Ha'adam La'Adam", Volume 5, and the articles of Rav Naiman, Rav Ariav, and Rav Jungreiss for major treatments of this important topic and for considerable debate on the exact parameters of "chayecha kod'min" according to Rambam, Ramban and others.) This approach would certainly agree that in situations where "chayecha kod'min" is irrelevant, namely where assisting someone else would not in any way adversely affect the individual, positive acts of kindness would be obligatory.  It is this obligation that drives the principle of "kofin ‘al middat s'dom", "we force a person to not act in a Sodom-like fashion".  This principle is used by the Talmud to force an individual to benefit someone else if it does not adversely affect him. [See L'Rei'acha Kamocha ibid. 3:7 ff.]

However, Ramban does not seem to concur with Rambam in this regard since he interprets the verse as being a prohibition against jealousy.  According to Ramban, presumably the main source for acts of kindness is the verse, "V'Halachta BiDrachav", "and you shall walk in the His [G-d's] ways" (Ki Tavo 28:9). [Other similar verses appear as well, e.g. D'varim 8:6, 13:5, 30:16.]  Two different complementary interpretations of this statement are recorded by our sages.  Sifrei (D'varim Piska 49) quoted by Rambam (Mitzvot ‘Asei 8 and Hilchot Dei'ot 1:5-6) interprets the verse as meaning "just as He is merciful, so too you be merciful; just as He is compassionate, so too you be compassionate".  The Talmud in Sota (14a) interprets a similar verse as meaning: "just as Hashem clothes the naked, so too you should; just as G-d visits the sick, so too you should, etc.".  Whereas the first interpretation focuses on Divine-like qualities, the second stresses G-d -like actions.  Of course the two are linked: one who develops these positive qualities will act accordingly, and, conversely, one who acts in these Divine-like ways will foster these positive qualities.  Indeed, the Talmud in Sota introduces its list by stating: "to follow in the qualities (midotav) of Hashem" and then proceeds to list actions.  Perhaps Rambam who includes positive actions in the commandment of "V'Ahavta" therefore mentions the development of proper chararcter traits as the focus of the other commandment of "V'Halachta BiDrachav".  Ramban, by contrast, who does not seem to include positive actions in the commandment of "V'Ahavta" would include them in "V'Halachta BiDrachav" as indicated by the Talmud in Sota.  [Although see Ramban in his critical notes to Rambam's Seifer HaMitzvot (Shoresh 1) where he seems to agree that positive actions are included in "V'Ahavta".  This seems at variance with his commentary to Chumash.]  As pointed out by Rav Jungreiss (ibid.), the commandment of "V'Halachta" is primarily focused on character development.  Performance of specific actions are necessary for the development of and as a reflection of proper midot.  Consequently, even in light of the principle of "chayecha kod'min", the individual must engage in acts of chessed regularly and not always place his self-interest first. [See also L'rei'acha Kamocha, ibid. 1:7 and fn. 9.]

What emerges then are two sources for the commandment to perform acts of kindness:  "V'Ahavta L'rei'acha Kamocha" and V'Halachta BiDrachav".  Included in these commandments are  five aspects. 1) An obligatory component - not to act in a "hated" manner; 2) Another obligatory component - to act positively when the action does not conflict with "chayecha kod'min; 3) A general obligation to be a "ba'al chessed" -- to "volunteer" acts of kindness often even when in seeming conflict with "chayecha kod'min"; 4) Specific Rabbinic obligations concerning Chessed; 5) An optional mitzva - each times one performs a chessed - however big or small - even when not obligated, one is in fulfillment of the commandments of "V'Ahavta" and "V'Halachta BiDrachav".  In addition, the Torah commands certain mitzvot which certainly obligate one to devote time, money and effort to acts of kindness, such as charity, returning lost objects, and saving people's lives and assets. Although these commandments are also somewhat affected by the principle of "chayecha kod'min", its application is certainly more limited in scope than concerning the general commandments of "V'Ahavta" and "V'Halachta". [See sources below for further elaboration on this point.]

"Great is kindness since the Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness" (Sota 14a).  May the paradigm of our unique ancestors and continued study of the laws of Chessed - both the obligatory and the optional - serve as a motivation to fill our lives with these most basic of G-d like qualities and actions. 

[For further presentation and analysis of the halachot and hashkafot related to G'milut Chassadim, see Ahavas Chessed (Rav Yisrael Meir HaKohen), The Right and the Good (R. Daniel Feldman, Aronson), "L'Rei'acha Kamocha" (R. Dovid Ariav), Mishp'tei HaShalom (R.Yitzchak Silver, L'Or), Journey to Virtue (R. Avrohom Ehrman, Artscroll/Mesorah), Olam Chessed Yibaneh (2 vol.) in the Sidrat Tikkun HaMiddot series, and the enlightening books and periodicals published by M'chon Torat Ha'Adam L'Adam in T'zfat.]

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