TORAH FOR THE NATIONS
The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people
THE MILK OF HUMAN KINDNESS
LECH LECHA Genesis 12:1-17:27
Many of the Torah's most important teachings for all humanity come to us not in the form of laws and directives but embedded in story form, as in the cycle of stories of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which begins with our present portion of Lech Lecha. The lessons that come from the figure of Abraham are especially universal, as God Himself testifies in explaining the significance of his Hebrew name: "I have given you as father of a multitude of nations". Not only is Abraham the founding father of the people of Israel through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. He is also the father of all the nations, because Abraham's oldest son, Ishmael, and his grandson, Esau, are each considered the leader of thirty-five of the seventy nations of the world.
Abraham came to teach the world how to love God, Who calls him "My lover" (Isaiah 41:8). Abraham is the archetypal human embodiment of God's attribute of expansive Kindness (Chessed), and this may be discerned as the common theme of all that Abraham does. The Torah sages expressed this by saying that Abraham served as the "chariot" of God's Kindness, which "rode" upon him so as to be revealed in all the world on account of Abraham's perfect emulation of this attribute.
Kindness is the third of the "three things upon which the world stands" (Pirkey Avot 1:2), together with Torah study (see our commentary on Bereishit) and Prayer (see commentary on Noah. "The world is built on kindness" (Psalms 59:3).
God is intrinsically good, and the nature of goodness is expansive - to bestow good upon others. "God is good to all" (Psalms 146:9). Since God is the ultimate good, the greatest goodness and kindness to His creations is to enable them to partake of God's goodness. This is possible when we humans strive to emulate His ways and thereby incorporate His attributes in our own souls and personalities (see Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, "The Way of God" Part 1).
God's plan is to reveal Himself to all the world and teach His creations to partake of His goodness by following His ways. To accomplish this plan, He bestowed upon Abraham a unique soul that instinctively yearned and craved to understand the meaning and purpose of the universe. Abraham's unflinching quest to discover the Source of all things led him to the conclusion that there is but One Creator and Ruler over all: Him alone is it fitting to serve.
Thus Abraham followed his ancestor Noah in turning to be a righteous rebel against the God-denying wickedness of his age. Abraham famously smashed his father Terach's idols and defied the aggressive world tyrant-leader, Nimrod, who cast Abraham into the furnace in Ur of the Chaldees (Nehemiah 9:7).
Following his miraculous delivery from the furnace, Abraham distanced himself from Nimrod and his corrupt culture, but unlike Noah, who did not try to save the rest of the world from disaster, Abraham set himself to repay his debt to God for being redeemed by striving to draw the rest of the world under His wings.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught:
"Abraham would come into a city and run about crying, 'Woe! Woe!' and people would run after him the way they chase a madman. He would argue with them at length, trying to show them they were all caught up in a profoundly mistaken way of thinking. He was quite familiar with all the arguments and rationalizations they used to justify their idolatry. He used to demonstrate the falsity of their ideas and reveal the truths of faith. Some of the young people were attracted to him. He never even tried to draw older people closer because they were already firmly entrenched in their false beliefs and it would have been very hard to get them to change. It was the younger people who were drawn after him: they ran after him. He would go from city to city and they would run after him...." (Tzaddik #395).
Thus when Abraham "took Sarai his wife and Lot, son of his brother, and all the possessions they had acquired AND THE SOULS THEY HAD MADE IN HARAN " (Genesis 12:5), the Targum (Aramaic translation/commentary on Torah) explains that the latter were the converts he and Sarah had made: Abraham would talk to the men and Sarah to the women. They had hundreds of followers, of whom the most notable was Abraham's servant Eliezer (Gen. 15:2), who by tradition was Nimrod's son.
At the beginning of the comprehensive "Mishneh Torah" Code of Torah law, Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204) writes:
"The Torah commands us to love and fear God: 'And you shall love the Lord your God' (Deut. 6:5); 'Revere the Lord your God' (ibid. 6:13). And what is the way to love Him and revere Him? At the time when a person contemplates His works and His wondrous, great creations and through them sees God's incomparable, endless wisdom, the person is instantly filled with love and praise and is overwhelmed by a great craving to know the great God, as David said, 'My soul thirsts for God, the living God' (Psalms 42:3). And as the person dwells on these very matters he immediately retreats in fear, realizing that he is a tiny, lowly, dark creature standing with minimal superficial understanding before the One that has perfect knowledge. As David said: 'When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, what is man that you take him into account?'" (Psalms 8:5; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodey HaTorah, Foundations of the Torah 2:1).
Encouraging us to study and ponder the wonders of creations and its workings, Rambam continues:
"When man contemplates these matters and recognizes all the different levels of God's creations, from the angels and the heavenly spheres to man and other creatures, and when he sees the wisdom of the Holy One blessed be He in all His works and creations, this increases his love of God and his soul thirsts and his flesh longs to love God and to stand in awe and fear on account of his lowliness and insignificance. and he finds that he is like a vessel filled with shame and disgrace, empty and lacking" (Rambam ibid. 4:12).
Through Abraham's miraculous delivery from Nimrod's furnace (archetype of the later redemption of his descendants from slavery in Egypt ), he came to recognize God not only as the original Creator of the Universe but also as its ever-watchful Ruler, Who controls every detail of all that is happening constantly. Abraham realized that he was beholden to God for his freedom and his very life. He knew that he must devote himself entirely to His service. That is why he went around seeking to bring others to God, and Abraham introduced the world to the concept of serving God.
One of the most important components of serving God is the practice of true kindness. This is not necessarily the same as trying to be "nice" to everyone and handing out candies and cookies. Politeness, good manners, a smiling face and the offer of a helping hand wherever possible all contribute to a humane civilization. However, it is necessary to distinguish between helping the people we like and members of our own group as opposed to the altruistic bestowal of true, unstinting kindness upon all without discrimination.
Thus the Torah sages pointed out that the stork is in Hebrew called CHASSIDAH because she shows kindness (CHESSED) in sharing her food with others. Nevertheless she is an impure species of bird because she only shows favor to her own kind (Leviticus 11:19; Chullin 63a). However, God extends His kindness to ALL His creatures, to the righteous, the intermediates and even to the wicked. Many times we are required to help those we find alien and even repugnant (though certainly not to support the wicked in their wickedness). The giver of kindness and charity may not particularly like or love the needy recipient or the way he looks and behaves, yet he still has a duty to try to help him.
Among the forms of kindness listed by the Torah sages are:
1. Giving non-interest monetary loans to those in need. Providing someone with a non-interest loan is considered an even greater form of kindness than giving them an outright gift of charity to cover their immediate needs, because the loan enables them to establish a long-term means of independent livelihood in an honorable way.
2. Hospitality to wayfarers. Welcoming guests in one's home is considered greater than welcoming the Divine Presence (Talmud Shabbat 127a).
3. Providing the requirements of needy brides and grooms, enabling them to set up a home and rear a new generation of worthy humans.
4. Mediation: Making peace between warring parties or individuals, and particularly between husbands and wives.
5. Burying the dead (i.e. attending their funerals). This is called the Kindness of Truth as the one who practices this can expect no repayment from the dead person!
The greatest kindness of all is to help others attain the truest good in the world: connection with God. But this cannot be achieved by force, and nowhere do we see that Abraham made people convert to his faith under the threat of being put to the sword if they refused. Faith in the true God has validity only if people are allowed to come to it of their own free will. Abraham surely used every possible argument to persuade people to come to the right conclusion, but more than anything he taught through his own personal example.
It may be ideal to flow out to others with unstinting kindness, but as humans our ability to do this is limited. Moreover, true kindness must be attenuated to the needs of the recipient in order that he or she should not be overwhelmed. Mother's milk is a universal symbol of kindness because it is perfectly attuned to the needs of the new, growing baby - yet only in the right quantities and only for a time. As the child grows, milk alone is insufficient. Children may crave sweets and candies but it is no kindness at all to pander to all their desires, which can be very harmful.
Being kind does not mean you have to be soft. People often do not care to dwell on the fact that life comes to an end with death, but it is a great kindness to make them aware that our time in this world is limited and that we should use it to acquire merits that will stand for us in the everlasting life after life. It is kind to people to help them understand that their actions are likely to have long-term consequences, and that they need to make wise choices. Where appropriate, it is a great kindness to reprove others for their unwise choices and bad behavior, as long as we do so with tact and sensitivity. "Good is open rebuke that stems from hidden love" (Proverbs 27:5). "He who spares the rod hates his son, but one who loves him chastises him regularly" (ibid. 13:24).
Liberal sentiment generally tends to oppose any kind of strictness not only in disciplining children but even in punishing delinquents, criminals, terrorists and mass murderers. Yet the Torah teaches that appropriate chastisement of wrongdoers is necessary both for the welfare of the wider society and for the wrongdoers' own long-term benefit (Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:18). The Torah sages have taught us that one who shows kindness to those who are cruel ends up being cruel to those who are kind (Meiri on Yoma 22b).
God chose Abraham because "I know him that he will instruct his children and his household after him and they will guard the way of God to practice charity and justice, in order that God should bring upon Abraham all that He has said about him" (Genesis 18:19).
All who follow the pathway that Abraham taught are called the people of the God of Abraham. "Clap your hands, all ye peoples; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. The princes of the peoples are gathered together, the people of the God of Abraham; for unto God belong the shields of the earth; He is greatly exalted" (Psalms 47 vv. 2, 10).
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