Avraham was the epitome of a giver who truly personified the midah of chesed. What’s the essence of the midah of chesed, and what does it mean to be a real ba’al chesed?
Let’s picture a person who goes about his daily affairs, and is constantly met by people who have various requests and needs. This person’s heart goes out to all the needy people who come his way, and in his merciful nature he doesn’t hesitate to ascertain how he can help and supply their needs as best as he can. At first glance, this may seem to us like the type A baal chesed—he passionately gives to anyone who comes his way. However, although this person is a tremendous giver and his merits may indeed be too great to enumerate, essentially, this giver may not have necessarily attained the midah of chesed and thus not the prototype definition of being a ba’al chesed.
The Chovot Halevavot says that one who is pained by seeing the plight of others and gives to people out of mercy for them, it is as if he is giving to himself, for that which he is giving to the other is in order to alleviate his own pain he has for that person.
Rav Elya Dessler clarifies that feeling another person’s pain as your own is a tremendous level and is a great midah—if only we would always be like that! However, explains Rav Dessler, this isn’t the real meaning of the midah of chesed, but rather this is the midah of rachmanut (mercy). What’s the difference? The giving of the rachman (merciful person) is motivated by external matters—the needy person was necessary to stimulate his pity and thus desire to give. A true baal chesed on the other hand, loves the act of giving for its own sake. His motivation to give doesnt stem from people’s plight per se, but rather stems from within: His essence is so filled with the midah of chesed that he is overflowing with the desire to just give and give, and thus, he sees every moment in his life as an opportunity where he can give. As a result, he actively pursues chesed—he goes out and looks for situations where he can give (“Michtav m’Eliyahu,” 2).
A rachman is very great, but his act of giving is taluy b’davar—dependent on something, namely, the stimulus of people’s needs. The prototype baal chesed, however, loves to give for the sake of just giving, and is therefore purely self-motivated. He doesn’t need a person’s plight to move him to give. He’s ready to give, even if in theory there were no people in need.
This is actually the midah of Hashem, so to speak. R’ Yerucham Levovitz says that although it might seem that Hashem is kind and giving because He gives good to people, that’s not why He is considered a giver and a “good God.” Rather, Hashem, so to speak, is in essence a giver and had the desire to give even before He created the world—before there were those to whom he could give (“Da’as Chochma u’Mussar” 2:57).
We see from here that the midah of chesed is unaffiliated with the idea of giving. Giving doesn’t necessarily make one a genuine baal chesed. The ideal baal chesed is someone who at his core is a giver, whose essence is one that desires to give for its own sake. Giving is just an outgrowth of that. A rachman isn’t essentially a giver. Rather, his essence is mercy. It happens to be that an outgrowth of that is also giving. But he doesn’t have the middah of chesed.
In this week’s parsha we’re immediately introduced to a mind-blowing passage detailing (in unusually great detail) the chesed Avraham does for his guests. We immediately see his overwhelming love for chesed: for example, Avraham was greatly pained by not having guests. Why? We perhaps see from here that Avraham had such a longing to do chesed that despite the excruciating heat outside and the excruciating pain from his recent bris, plus the fact that he was in the middle of an indescribable experience of basking in the Shechina, he is still eagerly hoping for guests and is so pained by the lack of the opportunity to give to others. A real baal chesed desires to give for its own sake and is pained if he can’t. Another example: He sends Eliezer to look for passersby and Eliezer reports back in the negative, but Avraham doesn’t believe him. Eliezer was his loyal servant and disciple-; Why all of a sudden specifically here he doesn’t believe him? Here too, perhaps Avraham is so head over heels with the idea of giving, that his intense yearning and hunger for it causes a denial of even his loyal and trustworthy servant’s report.
There are many other of Avraham’s acts which seem to stand out, in a positive way:
1) Avraham stations himself at the entrance of his tent in hopes of seeing a passerby to whom he can give. Avraham was known for having a wide open house. If people needed help wouldn’t they know or at least see his home is widely available? Why then does he sit at the entrance?
2) Avraham runs towards the passersby who he thinks are idol worshippers, and pleads that they come into his home so take care of them. Why does he run?
3) He wants to serve even idol worshippers?
4) He bows to them and refers to them as his master. Is that really necessary?
5) He is so aware of their needs that he even notices that they can use some water to wipe off the dirt on their feet. Some dirt ain’t gonna kill them!
6) He serves appetizers first, and for the main dish slaughters three cows. Not one. Three. He wanted each of them to have their own tongue of the cow—with mustard! He gave them not the ordinary but the best. Why so much?
From Rav Dessler, we can derive two fundamental and practical ramifications that result from the difference between the rachman and the ideal baal chesed, and through this baal chesed lens we can perhaps begin to see the root of Avraham’s outstanding, yet curious, chesed behaviors.
1) A rachman may not actively look to give until someone comes his way and his rachmanut is triggered, while the ideal baal chesed is a go-getter. Since he loves chesed itself, he invites chesed and pursues opportunities to give; He goes out of his way to look for situations where he can give: So, Avraham stations himself at the entrance of his house so he’ll have a better angle to see people to whom he can extend an invitation and give to. Despite the heat and physical pain he’s in, he runs: a real baal chesed will chase after and run to grab those opportunities.
2) When the rachman gives it may be limited, for his barometer is based on the pain he feels for the other. He will give what is necessary for the needs of the other to be fulfilled, which will alleviate his own pain for him. However, the giving of the ideal baal chesed is unconditionally and indiscriminately generous and boundless, since he loves giving for the sake of giving. There’s no cap on how much to give and to whom to give; He therefore goes above and beyond even if not necessary: Some bread could’ve filled their hunger, but he instead goes far beyond the basic needs and uses a grand total of three cows to serve each of them their own personal piece of the finest meat. He doesn’t just provide for their physical needs, he also gives such honor—he bows and calls them his master. Some food with some respect without all this heavy honor could’ve cut it. They can also live just fine with some dirt on their feet, but this is another opportunity where he can help and give beyond the basic needs. The guests are idol worshippers, but for him it doesn’t matter—he just wants to give; he goes so far as to even persuade them.
When one develops the midah of chesed and loves giving for its own sake, he sees every moment as an opportunity to give, he invites and pursues ways to give and his generosity is unconditional and boundless.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work