“Chessed (kindness) begins at home.” This saying has begun making its way around Jewish schools, seminaries, and cloture over the past decade or two. I remember vividly hearing it after many years of studying in Yeshiva, at the time I had begun dating. Out with a young lady who had studied in the finest of seminaries in Israel, I was told: “chessed begins at home.” Since then I have heard it several times, and it struck me as odd every time I heard it. No one argues that one should make sure to be responsible for those around them before seeking other opportunities for kindness. The problems begin when “chessed begins at home”, becomes chessed also ends at home. Why is it a problem? Because if chessed began and ended at home, the Jewish people would never come into being.
In this week’s Parasha we learn about the search to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac.
“And the servant took ten camels of his master’s camels, and he went, and all the best of his master was in his hand; and he arose, and he went to Aram naharaim, to the city of Nahor. And he made the camels kneel outside the city beside the well of water, at eventide, at the time the maidens go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today, and perform loving kindness with my master, Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the water fountain, and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water.” (Genesis 24)
There he is, a stranger in a strange place attempting to find out who would be best suited to marry the heir to the throne, the son which will continue the legacy of the world’s first Jew. So what is it that he chose to focus on? What guidelines will he follow? Eliezer makes his preconditions clear, in a quick chat he has with himself, and with God:
“And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, ‘Lower your pitcher and I will drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac, and through her may I know that You have performed loving kindness with my master.” Now he had not yet finished speaking, and behold, Rebecca came out… and her pitcher was on her shoulder. and she went down to the fountain, and she filled her pitcher and went up. And the servant ran toward her, and he said, “Please let me sip a little water from your pitcher.” And she said, “Drink, my lord.” And she hastened and lowered her pitcher to her hand, and she gave him to drink.and she finished giving him to drink, and she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they will have finished drinking.” And she hastened, and she emptied her pitcher into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.”
There are so many questions he could have asked; what her thoughts on God might be, what her convictions, passions, hobbies, or friendships are like. Eliezer did none of that. He wanted to know if she was kind. He was not trying to find out if she can be kind to her own family, nor did he want to know if there were any duties she was neglecting at the time. The most important parameter for entering the Abrahamic faith was a commitment to kindness. Of course, this does not mean we should, or may, neglect our responsibilities to our immediate surroundings; it also means we may never limit kindness to those around us.
What is the connection between Abraham’s monotheistic belief and kindness being a prerequisite to join his family? Is the connection between monotheism and kindness merely arbitrary? Absolutely not.
In November of 2012, shortly after the Hurricane Sandy hit the New York coastal region hard, leaving many homeless and disposed, I wrote the following:
“While many members of earlier societies maintained favorable relationships with one another and even helped the weak among their own group (clan, people, co-believers), monotheism was the first to introduce an unrelenting, demanding and proactive kindness towards the “other.” No longer should one only demonstrate “protective kindness,” reserved only for members of the in-group. Monotheism set a new standard–the pursuit of kindness. It was only once monotheism entered the ballpark that the individual was excepted not only to be complacent to acts of kindness but to pursue it; to go out of one’s way to help the other, the stranger, the wretched, the dispossessed.
Embedded in the monotheistic belief is the notion that none of us have the “right” to exist. There is no earned entitlement that has brought humanity into existence; we are all created and put on this earth prior to the wages we earn and the goods that we may produce. We were all placed here by a kind and benevolent God who has created us all in His image, all of equal value, and continuously sustained by His kindness, no matter how productive, strong, or deserving we are.
Abraham, a productive and wealthy man himself, recognized this and hastened to follow in the path of his Creator. When God confided with him his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah, the patriarch, who had already expressed his dislike for these people, came to their defense, risking angering God in order to express his compassion for the possibly innocent people who might live there (Bereshit 18:23). Caring only for one’s self would be a sharp deviation from the path of charity, benevolence, and of goodness with no expectation for a return. On the other hand, however, acting with kindness and following in this path of kindness and charity is a deep recognition of God’s existential benevolence and unmitigated goodness.”
While kindness should never skip those who are closest to us, if it remains confined to our immediate surroundings it looses all meaning; it becomes another form of tribalism and caring just for our own. Of course, there will always be some devious cases of people who are kinder to those in their outer circle than those they are responsible for. Judging by human nature, the danger of falling into blindness to those outside our circles is far greater.The lesson Rebecca teachers us is that kindness does not begin at home. It should most definitely go through home and never skip it, but it must never end there. We must never allow kindness to be completely outsourced to charitable organizations or other individuals. Kindness must be the beginning middle and end of everything we do, for it is for this that we have been tasked for posterity. “For I have known him [Abraham] because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Abraham that which He spoke concerning him.” (Genesis 18)