A Fool for Love: The Meeting of Chesed and Emet

I just finished my first year of teaching in a new location, and I finally have the time to write up the conclusions of a learning experience I had with my 7th Grade Advanced Chumash class a few months ago. I thought we broke some exciting new ground and have been wanting to share it publicly.

The topic of our learning was the 13 Middot of Hashem’s Mercy, as we were coming to the end of Parshat Ki Tisa. It struck me that Middot #7 and #8, Rav Chesed and Emet, could be seen as polar opposites. If Hashem is a “Rav Chesed,” meaning that He extends Himself to show benevolence beyond the point at which it is warranted, how can we say that He acts with “Emet,” truth, according to the strict letter of the law? The two descriptions of Hashem seem incongruous.

As we had many times during the year, we turned to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch for guidance, and he did not disappoint.

חֶסֶד קָרוֹב לְ”אֵשֶׁד,” לַעֲלוֹת עַל גְּדוֹתָיו [עַיֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר כא, טו], וְלָכֵן מַשְׁמָעוּתוֹ “לְהִתְמַסֵּר לַחֲלוּטִין” (“חֶסֶד” פֵּרוּשׁוֹ: לִמְסֹר אָדָם, לִנְטֹשׁ אוֹתוֹ לְחֶרְפָּה [עִיֵּן פֵּרוּשׁ וְיִקְרָא כ, יז]). אוֹפְיָינֵי הַדָּבָר אֵיךְ הוֹסָפַת “וֶאֱמֶת” מְשַׁמֶּרֶת אֶת הַמֻּשָּׂג הָאֲמִתִּי שֶׁל “חֶסֶד,” כָּךְ – “כָּל־אָרְחוֹת ה’ חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת” (תְּהִלִּים כה, י). אָדָם יוֹצֵר לְעִתִּים קְרוֹבוֹת רָעוֹת מִתּוֹךְ אַהֲבָה. “חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת” הִיא אָהֲבָה שֶׁאֵינֶנָּה מְסִיטָה עֵינֶיהָ מִן הָעִקָּר מִתּוֹךְ עָצְמַת הַהִתְמַסְּרוּת.

The Hebrew word חסד (chesed) is etymologically close to the word אשד, cascade, to overflow beyond one’s borders. Therefore, its meaning is “to give oneself over completely.” The method by which the addition of “truth” preserves the true meaning of “kindness” is as follows: “All the ways of Hashem are kindness and truth” (Tehillim 25:10). Man sometimes creates bonds of closeness out of love. “Kindness and truth” is love that doesn’t lose sight of itself despite the strength with which it is given.

Because Chesed, kindness, has a tendency to go too far, Emet is there to anchor it and ensure that it remain rooted and proportionate. Hirsch proceeds to give two examples from stories in the Book of Bereishit which illustrate the intersection of kindness and truth, the first rooted in the story of Avraham’s quest to have his servant find a wife for Yitzchak:

לְאַבְרָהָם הָיְתָה תְּשׁוּקָה עַזָּה בְּיוֹתֵר לִרְאוֹת אֶת בְּנוֹ מֵקִים בַּיִת. אַךְ אִם הָיָה כֹּה לָהוּט אַחַר תְּשׁוּקָה זוֹ, עַד שֶׁאִם לֹא יִמְצָא אִשָּׁה רְאוּיָה רוּחָנִית וּמוּסָרִית לְזֶרַע אַבְרָהָם, יִבְחַר בְּאִשָּׁה שֶׁאֵינָהּ רְאוּיָה, לֹא יִהְיֶה זֶה “חֶסֶד שֶׁל אֱמֶת”. “אֱמֶת” הִיא תָּמִיד תְּנַאי שֶׁמַּגְבִּיל אֶת הַ”חֶסֶד” (עִיֵּן לְעֵיל כַּד, מט).

Avraham had the strongest possible desire to see his son (Yitzchak) establish his own household. But if he had been singularly focused on this desire, to the extent that if he had not found a match spiritually and ethically suitable for Avraham’s progeny he would have allowed him to marry someone who was not suitable, this would not have been “kindness of truth.” “Truth” is always the condition which creates a boundary for the “kindness.”

Again, the goal of Emet is to keep Chesed from running amok. Finding the most beautiful wife would have been an act of Chesed indeed, but it would not have been enough to overcome the Emet missing from Avraham’s request, namely that Yitzchak’s wife should be from his own family. This is all that Hirsch says on the story of Avraham’s search for Yitzchak’s wife, but I had a suspicion that a closer look at that story in context would uncover additional gems. Before coming to that, however, we must see Hirsch’s second example of “Chesed” and “Emet” working in tandem. When Ya’akov made Yosef swear that Ya’akov’s burial would be in the Land of Israel rather than in Egypt, Ya’akov referred to this as “Chesed V’emet,” “a kindness and a truth:”

ספר בראשית פרק מז פסוק כט
וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִֽׂים נָ֥א יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֔ת אַל נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם׃

The time came close to when Yisrael would die, and he called to his son Yosef and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, place your hand under my thigh and do for me kindness and truth. Please do not bury me in Egypt.”

Hirsch explains the odd phraseology of the commitment, as a “Chesed V’Emet,” in the same way that he explained the phrase in our Parsha:

יַעֲקֹב יוֹדֵעַ הֵיטֵב שֶׁיּוֹסֵף יִקְבֹּר אֶת אָבִיו בְּרֹב פְּאֵר וְהָדָר. אַךְ הוּא אוֹמֵר לוֹ: “עִם כָּל הַ’חֶסֶד’ שֶׁלְּךָ, אַל תַּעֲלִים עֵינֶיךָ מִן הַ’אֱמֶת.’ נוֹחַ לִי יוֹתֵר שֶׁלֹּא לְהִקָּבֵר כְּלָל מֵאֲשֶׁר לְהִקָּבֵר בְּמִצְרַיִם.” הַדָּגֵשׁ הוּא עַל בַּקָּשָׁתוֹ שֶׁלֹּא לְהִקָּבֵר בְּמִצְרַיִם. הָיָה מִתְקַבֵּל עַל הַדַּעַת שֶׁקִּיּוּם בַּקָּשָׁה מֵעֵין זוֹ אֵינוֹ כֹּה קָשֶׁה, עַד שֶׁתִּהְיֶה נִדְרֶשֶׁת שְׁבוּעָה גְּדוֹלָה שֶׁכָּזוֹ. אַךְ נִרְאֶה מִכָּל הַסִּפּוּר שֶׁפַּרְעֹה וְהַמִּצְרִיִּים לֹא הָיוּ רוֹאִים בְּעַיִן יָפֶה, אִלּוּ יַעֲקֹב וּמִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ הָיוּ יוֹצְאִים וְעוֹזְבִים אֶת מִצְרַיִם לָגוּר בְּאֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת. גַּם הַעֲבָרַת גּוּפוֹ שֶׁל יַעֲקֹב לִכְנַעַן לֹא תַּעֲשֶׂה רֹשֶׁם טוֹב; הִיא תִּרְאֶה בְּאֹפֶן בָּרוּר שֶׁבְּנֵי מִשְׁפַּחַת יוֹסֵף טֶרֶם רוֹאִים עַצְמָם כְּאֶזְרְחֵי הָאָרֶץ, וְשֶׁלִּבָּם עֲדַיִן קָשׁוּר לְאַרְצָם הַקּוֹדֶמֶת.

Ya’akov knew well that Yosef would bury his father with all due pomp and circumstance. But he said to him, “With all of your kindness, do not avert your eyes from the ‘truth.’ I would rather not be buried at all than be buried in Egypt.” The emphasis is on his request that he not be buried in Egypt. It would appear at first glance that this request would not be a difficult one to fulfill, or at least not to such an extent that it would necessitate a swear such as this one. But it appears from the whole story that Pharaoh and the Egyptians would not have taken kindly to Ya’akov and his family leaving and abandoning Egypt to live in another land.* Even transporting the body of Ya’akov to Cana’an would not have made a good impression; it would have showed that the family of Yosef still sees themselves not as residents of the land, and that their heart is still in their original land.

The juxtaposition of “Chesed” and “Emet” in the Ya’akov/Yosef story is designed to highlight the fact that a burial of pure Chesed, an elegant and tasteful state funeral, would not have been enough to meet Ya’akov’s needs. It was important to Ya’akov that, in all the fastidiousness of the funeral preparations, the Emet of where he be buried – as unsightly and distasteful as it would be in the eyes of the Egyptians – nevertheless not be neglected. Once again, as Hirsch delineated before, the goal of Emet is to keep Chesed in check.

When I went back to explore the Avraham/Yitzchak story in context, I expected to see the same phrasing we have come to expect, “Chesed V’Emet,” “kindness and truth,” in Avraham’s request to his servant that he find a suitable match for Yitzchak. I was surprised to find that the phrase was not there, or at least not initially:

ספר בראשית פרק כד פסוקים ב-ד
פסוק ב
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֗ם אֶל עַבְדּוֹ֙ זְקַ֣ן בֵּית֔וֹ הַמֹּשֵׁ֖ל בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר ל֑וֹ שִֽׂים נָ֥א יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֥חַת יְרֵכִֽי׃
פסוק ג – וְאַשְׁבִּ֣יעֲךָ֔ בַּֽיהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃
פסוק ד כִּ֧י אֶל אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק׃

(2) And Avraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who was in charge of all that he owned, “Put your hand under my thigh.
(3) And I will make you swear by Hashem, the God of Heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live.
(4) But to my land and to my birthplace you will go, and you will take a wife for my son, for Yitzchak.”

Although Avraham does ask his servant to swear to him, as Ya’akov would ask Yosef to swear in that later story (note the same language in 24:2 and 47:29), Avraham does not refer to his servant’s search as a “Chesed,” as an “Emet,” or as a combination of the two. This surprised me until I kept reading:

ספר בראשית פרק כד פסוקים יב-כז
פסוק יב – וַיֹּאמַ֓ר יְהוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם הַקְרֵה־נָ֥א לְפָנַ֖י הַיּ֑וֹם וַעֲשֵׂה חֶ֕סֶד עִ֖ם אֲדֹנִ֥י אַבְרָהָֽם׃
פסוק יג – הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י נִצָּ֖ב עַל־עֵ֣ין הַמָּ֑יִם וּבְנוֹת֙ אַנְשֵׁ֣י הָעִ֔יר יֹצְאֹ֖ת לִשְׁאֹ֥ב מָֽיִם׃
פסוק יד – וְהָיָ֣ה הַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֹמַ֤ר אֵלֶ֙יהָ֙ הַטִּי־נָ֤א כַדֵּךְ֙ וְאֶשְׁתֶּ֔ה וְאָמְרָ֣ה שְׁתֵ֔ה וְגַם־גְּמַלֶּ֖יךָ אַשְׁקֶ֑ה אֹתָ֤הּ הֹכַ֙חְתָּ֙ לְעַבְדְּךָ֣ לְיִצְחָ֔ק וּבָ֣הּ אֵדַ֔ע כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד עִם־אֲדֹנִֽי׃
פסוק טו – וַֽיְהִי־ה֗וּא טֶרֶם֮ כִּלָּ֣ה לְדַבֵּר֒ וְהִנֵּ֧ה רִבְקָ֣ה יֹצֵ֗את אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֻלְּדָה֙ לִבְתוּאֵ֣ל בֶּן־מִלְכָּ֔ה אֵ֥שֶׁת נָח֖וֹר אֲחִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם וְכַדָּ֖הּ עַל־שִׁכְמָֽהּ׃
פסוק טז – וְהַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ טֹבַ֤ת מַרְאֶה֙ מְאֹ֔ד בְּתוּלָ֕ה וְאִ֖ישׁ לֹ֣א יְדָעָ֑הּ וַתֵּ֣רֶד הָעַ֔יְנָה וַתְּמַלֵּ֥א כַדָּ֖הּ וַתָּֽעַל׃
פסוק יז – וַיָּ֥רָץ הָעֶ֖בֶד לִקְרָאתָ֑הּ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הַגְמִיאִ֥ינִי נָ֛א מְעַט־מַ֖יִם מִכַּדֵּֽךְ׃
פסוק יח – וַתֹּ֖אמֶר שְׁתֵ֣ה אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתְּמַהֵ֗ר וַתֹּ֧רֶד כַּדָּ֛הּ עַל־יָדָ֖הּ וַתַּשְׁקֵֽהוּ׃
פסוק יט – וַתְּכַ֖ל לְהַשְׁקֹת֑וֹ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר גַּ֤ם לִגְמַלֶּ֙יךָ֙ אֶשְׁאָ֔ב עַ֥ד אִם־כִּלּ֖וּ לִשְׁתֹּֽת׃
פסוק כ – וַתְּמַהֵ֗ר וַתְּעַ֤ר כַּדָּהּ֙ אֶל־הַשֹּׁ֔קֶת וַתָּ֥רָץ ע֛וֹד אֶֽל־הַבְּאֵ֖ר לִשְׁאֹ֑ב וַתִּשְׁאַ֖ב לְכָל־גְּמַלָּֽיו׃
פסוק כא – וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מִשְׁתָּאֵ֖ה לָ֑הּ מַחֲרִ֕ישׁ לָדַ֗עַת הַֽהִצְלִ֧יחַ יְהוָ֛ה דַּרְכּ֖וֹ אִם־לֹֽא׃
פסוק כב – וַיְהִ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר כִּלּ֤וּ הַגְּמַלִּים֙ לִשְׁתּ֔וֹת וַיִּקַּ֤ח הָאִישׁ֙ נֶ֣זֶם זָהָ֔ב בֶּ֖קַע מִשְׁקָל֑וֹ וּשְׁנֵ֤י צְמִידִים֙ עַל־יָדֶ֔יהָ עֲשָׂרָ֥ה זָהָ֖ב מִשְׁקָלָֽם׃
פסוק כג – וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ בַּת־מִ֣י אַ֔תְּ הַגִּ֥ידִי נָ֖א לִ֑י הֲיֵ֧שׁ בֵּית־אָבִ֛יךְ מָק֥וֹם לָ֖נוּ לָלִֽין׃
פסוק כד – וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו בַּת־בְּתוּאֵ֖ל אָנֹ֑כִי בֶּן־מִלְכָּ֕ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלְדָ֖ה לְנָחֽוֹר׃
פסוק כה – וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו גַּם־תֶּ֥בֶן גַּם־מִסְפּ֖וֹא רַ֣ב עִמָּ֑נוּ גַּם־מָק֖וֹם לָלֽוּן׃
פסוק כו – וַיִּקֹּ֣ד הָאִ֔ישׁ וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לַֽיהוָֽה׃
פסוק כז – וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בָּר֤וּךְ יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹֽא עָזַ֥ב חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ מֵעִ֣ם אֲדֹנִ֑י אָנֹכִ֗י בַּדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ נָחַ֣נִי יְהוָ֔ה בֵּ֖ית אֲחֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי׃

Avraham’s servant – let’s call him Eliezer – stops in the middle of his journey to request from Hashem that He help him by providing a “Chesed,” a kindness, in helping him fulfill his mission. In fact, he asks for Hashem’s Chesed twice, in Pasuk 12 and Pasuk 14. However, in making this request, Eliezer does not ask Hashem to help him find precisely the young lady that Avraham had sworn him to find. Instead, he concocts a new test to determine whether the wife will be the right choice: whether she has the kindness to feed someone else’s camels. This was nowhere in Avraham’s instructions, perhaps because Avraham had full faith in Eliezer’s being able to fulfill his mission without this additional litmus test.

Eliezer, however, had his doubts. He did not see how it was possible to find the genealogically correct woman in a country so large and with no house address or directions! Although it would have been an acquiescence to Emet were Eliezer to find such a wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer was ready to abandon Emet for the sake of Chesed; he was prepared to settle on a young lady with the most sterling of Middot, despite this not having been Avraham’s request. In Eliezer’s worldview, in order to preserve the spirit of Avraham’s request, he was willing to abandon the Emet, the letter of the law. He could not see that he would be abandoning Chesed as well by neglecting the Emet that had been designed to keep the Chesed in check. Like Ya’akov’s request that the Chesed of his funeral’s beauty not be sacrificed by neglect of the Emet that he be buried in the Land of Israel, Avraham’s request that Eliezer find a wife from his own family was meant to qualify the Chesed of finding a nice wife for Yitzchak. By neglecting this requirement, Eliezer risked losing everything.

It is thus not surprising, given Eliezer’s misshapen priorities from the outset of his mission, that he does not ask Rivka for her pedigree (Pasuk 23) until he has already seen that she met his criteria for being a wife whose selection signified a Chesed from Hashem (Pasuk 22), for Avraham’s requirement was beyond the limit of his imagination. We can imagine the amazement in Eliezer’s voice in Pasuk 27 when he realizes that it was not the Sophie’s choice he had imagined it to be. Hashem has provided him not a pure Chesed, which would have necessitated his abandoning Avraham’s guideline in order to find a wonderful match, but a Chesed V’Emet, because the very young lady who met Eliezer’s requirement that she be nice also met Avraham’s requirement that she be from his family! Any less, Eliezer now understood, would have meant effectively admitting to the failure of the whole operation. What Avraham did not tell his servant from the outset – what he wanted him to learn on his own – was that Chesed devoid of Emet ceases to be Chesed any longer. Eliezer emerged from the experience blessing Hashem that He had allowed him to fulfill the Chesed inherent in finding a nice wife for Yitzchak without compromising the Emet of her pedigree, for to have abandoned Emet would have meant abandoning Chesed at the same time.

We live in a world of compromise in which we can apply this lesson in so many ways. Emet stands to keep an eye on our Chesed, to ensure that it remain the Chesed that we wish it to be. A parent who gives their child everything they could possibly want and more may feel that they are acting with an abundance of Chesed, but time will show that their inability or unwillingness to instill a sense of discipline, Emet, has caused their Chesed to be lost as their children grow up spoiled and lacking in mores and values. The Rambam makes clear in his hierarchy of Tzedakah that the highest value is not to give a person the shirt off of one’s own back, but to help him become self-sufficient, even if that means pulling back on the Chesed and exercising some Emet along the way. To do otherwise is to neglect to give any Chesed at all, because ultimately the poor person will be left with nothing.

We end where we began. How can Hashem be both a Rav Chesed and act with Emet? Because without Emet, Hashem’s Chesed would be dust in the wind. The discipline of Mitzvot and the Halachic system that sometimes seem to hold us back from living a maximally enjoyable life are in fact that which allow us to make our life most enjoyable because they keep that enjoyment in its proper proportion. When Shuls closed due to the Coronavirus, some felt that the Chesed of Davening in the nicest way – with a Minyan – should supersede our admitting and coming to grips with the fact that that was not what Hashem wanted of us at that moment; it would not have been Emet, and thus would not have been Chesed either. Like a parent who periodically needs to step in and remind their child who makes the rules, we at times need Hashem to step in and remind us that it is He who decides when and how His rules should be followed. And like a child may only come to appreciate his parents later on in life as he appreciates the value of his having been raised with a sense of discipline, we look to Hashem all the more lovingly as our more mature understanding reveals to us that His Emet has provided us true Chesed all along.

* I have explored this theme in the past: Link

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