The story is told of a stately Israeli ‘Rebbetzin’ who was heading home on the bus after a trip to the supermarket. After she stepped off of the bus with all of her packages, she asked some young seminary students if they wouldn’t mind helping her with her groceries to walk them the short distance to her apartment. “We’d love to”, one of them replied, “but we’re already late to chesed….”.
We’d love to…..but we are already late to Chesed…
Of our forefathers, it was Abraham who is known as the scion of “Chesed” or kindness. The classic depiction of Abraham always includes his famous 4-doored tent which was so-designed so as to welcome passersby on any side. These wayfarers would be invited in for food and drink. This kindness, known as Hachnassat Orchim, or welcoming guests, is listed among the shortlist of Kind Deeds (Bavli, Shabbat 127) for which there is no minimum or maximum – one is encouraged to engage in these activities not as a defined obligation, but as a kindness toward others. Maimonides, too, includes this Mitzva in his explanation of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Chesed, Kindenss, Good Deeds, are all terms with which we are familiar. There isn’t a religion or community that does not value these practices and for good reason: the famous Mishna in Pirkei Avot (1:2) states that acts of kindness (more accurately “conferring of kindness”) are one of the legs of the tripod “on which the Earth stands”. Interestingly, it is not Tzedek; Tzedaka or Charity which makes that list. There is something that makes Chesed a vital part of humanity on one hand, and not the same requirement as Tzedaka is, on the other.
Tzedek is Justice; the idea that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ and, as the Torah enjoins us, we are to “surely pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). When we talk about justice and its pursuit, we are talking about making the world a more perfect place, righting wrongs and creating or improving more rights. Charity, therefore, is righting the wrong that is poverty, and criminal justice, for example, is righting the wrong inherent in crime. Of course, the opposite is also true: if we do not engage in the pursuit of justice, we are guilty of neglecting that which is right in favor of that which is wrong. Case in point: A baby is crying because she is hungry. Her father gives her a bottle. He has solved this child’s problem and, in so doing, has made the world just a little more just / a little less unjust. If that same parent were to ignore the child, we would call that neglect and perhaps call child services to report him.
If, instead of a baby crying, it is a hungry adult, the need is just as great and, therefore, the requirement is just as great. This isn’t an act of Chesed or Loving Kindness (don’t get me wrong, it is certainly a kind act), but something more basic: this is the pursuit of Justice. If there is a mouth to feed, then feed it. If there is a diaper that needs to be changed for an infant or an adult, change it. If a cold person needs warmth and a lonely person needs a friend, offer that. Not as an act of piety (after all, a Chasid in classic literature, is one who is pious), but as an act representing your personal pursuit of justice.
Sure, sure….but what’s the difference? We can give charity or blankets or a listening ear regardless of the title! Here’s the thing: Titles bear nuance. The words and labels we choose broadcast a host of ideas not just to readers or listeners, but to ourselves. The woman asking for help with her packages was in need of help. That’s N-E-E-D. The principles of justice dictate that she should receive the help she requested and whomever was supposed to be the recipient of the girls’ Chesed that day could wait because, after all, that person doesn’t have a need, even if they would legitimately appreciate the benefits of some home made Chesed.
Now let’s talk about inclusion. Let’s talk about making sure the social and communal needs of others are met before we engage in Chesed. Let’s also talk about not relegating living, breathing, thirsting people to “chesed cases”. When your shul’s Chesed committee attracts volunteers for Bikur Cholim or Hachnasat Orchim, that’s great! Did someone check to make sure the parents of the child with special needs have the ability to go to Shul on Shabbat? Does said child have a place in the youth groups? The Teen Minyan? The *dare I say it* kiddush club? And what about employment opportunities? Too many well-meaning businesses and their owners are willing to offer a few hours a week “to make him/her feel like she has a real job”. Feel like?!? Why not just give him/her a real job?!? Ramba”m is pretty clear on that one. The best way to do Tzedaka is to give someone a job. If we are pursuing Tzedaka….if we are willing to write a check for charity, let that check be in the form of employment for someone who otherwise might not be offered a chance to make a salary. The answer, it seems, is that our beautiful and incredible society of Chesed has overlooked responsibility in favor loving kindness. It is no secret that fund raising for so-called Chesed organizations is often easier than it is for Yeshivot and Shuls….. And while Chesed doesn’t need my approval, its shortfall is in its lack of required minimums. Tzaedek requires righting a wrong and Tzedaka requires filling a need (Deuteronomy 15:8). Chesed has no minimum or maximum (Peah 1:2) so relegating a person or a project to the status of Chesed, means leaving them and their needs hanging. And that’s the opposite of Tzedaka.
Here’s another thing about Tzedaka. In the pursuit of justice, there is no power structure. The giver as well as the recipient are engaged in making the world a better place. Not (always) so in the case of Chesed. Chesed comes with a qualification: we confer Chesed. We help people. We invite people. We encourage people. Chesed doer and Chesed passive participant. Give Tzedaka and someone is empowered to do more. You’ve both made the world a more just place.
Look around in your shul, at the supermarket, or in the train station. Find someone who has a need and then ask yourself how you can help fill that need. Ask if your community is doing enough and consider how Tzedaka funds are appropriated. Is there a fund which will help with employment, job training, or offsetting the salary a small-business is paying their employee who is somewhat less productive? Is ther a shiur which actively targets the disengaged or not-yet-engaged population in shul? A basketball league or movie club? Can we assess and maybe reprioritize so that needs come before Chesed?
After all, “if one pursues justice his whole life but does not engage in kindness, it is as if he has filled the world with kindness” (Bavli Sukkah 49b).