Jacob is sick and believes that he is about to die. Eager to ensure that he will be buried in the land of Canaan, he calls Joseph to his bedside and asks him for one final favor: “Do for me chesed ve-emet, kindness and truth. Do not bury me in Egypt.”(Genesis 47:29) Rashi cites the rabbinic tradition which reads “chesed ve-emet” as a hybrid word. It refers not to two things, but to one: a truthful kindness.
A truthful kindness, for the Rabbis, is a purely motivated one. It is a kindness that we do for those who have died, a kindness done without any expectation of reward or reciprocation.
There is a different type of chesed ve-emet that we can do for a person who is near death. These acts of chesed are ones whose truth is not to be found in the purity of their motivation, but in their ability to help bring a greater truth into the world.
Often it is at a person’s last moments that they reflect on relationships that have been badly damaged or broken. They may have even cut off communication with a child or a sibling due to an event that took place decades ago. Beyond all the hurt and pain, and all the walls that both sides have built up, there may also be a deeper truth here – one of love and caring – that has been hidden or ignored all these years. Perhaps now, at these final moments, this truth can finally be acknowledged. A chesed that can be done for she who is dying, is to help her to reach out to this child or sibling, to express her true feelings, and to achieve some form of reconciliation. When a relationship is restored, a greater emet has come into the world.
A person on his deathbed may also be carrying a burden that has weighed him down all his life: a secret that he has never shared, a lie he has never owned up to. Helping this person to take responsibility for his actions, to say what needs to be said while there is still time, is a tremendous chesed ve’emet, a kindness that brings about truth.
An ethical will is another form of emet. It is the truth of a person’s life. Although relatively common in the past, the practice of writing ethical wills is rare nowadays. Which is a shame, because writing an ethical will allows a person to share his or her life lessons with the next generation. A deep sense of meaning and purpose can be achieved when a person knows that the life that they have lived, and all that they experienced, will live on, in some way, even beyond their death. Their lives will have meant something.
This is a chesed that a friend or relative or rabbi can do for this person. They can sit down with her and say, “Tell me about some of the most meaningful moments in your life. What are the lessons that you learned? What teaching do you most want your children to take with them?” This conversation, and the record of its salient points that can be saved, treasured, and passed down, can give expression to the emet of a person’s life.
Purely motivated kindness is important. Much more important, though, is a kindness that allows for a deeper truth to enter into the world.