Rabbi Michael Friedland, Sinai Synagogue
In November, Lizzie and I and about 30 members of the Jewish community were guests at the home of Barbara and Dave Lerman at a communal dinner for members of the Muslim and Jewish communities. About 30 members of the Islamic Society of Michiana were invited as well. The dinner was the initiative of Bob Feferman our Community Relations Council and Haidar Alkeladar of the Iraqi Refugee community. At the dinner, before I led the motzi, I mentioned how Abraham, who is the father of both the Jewish and Islamic peoples, was noted for his quality of compassion and kindness. When he welcomed the three visitors into his home and placed hospitality as one of the outstanding acts of gemilut Hasadim, he was not aware that the result of his and Sarah’s efforts at hospitality and kindness would be a promise of a child, Yitzhak who would be born a year later. I concluded my remarks saying that when we break bread together, we break down barriers, and when acting with kindness toward others, productive and creative results occur.
Abraham came out of a pagan culture that our tradition considered to be one of cruelty, exploitation and immorality. Abraham’s revolution brought into being a process that resulted in the revelation at Mt. Sinai and the gift of Torah, hundreds of years later. But our tradition ascribes to Abraham and the other patriarchs a knowledge of Torah, specifically the mitzvot of Gemilut Hasadim, acts of loving-kindness. Where did this knowledge come from? How did Abraham know the values of kindness and compassion, of standing up for justice, speaking truth to power as he did in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, of fair negotiations in business as he engages with his nephew Lot and the local king Avimelekh?
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the Sage asked, “His father did not teach him nor did he have teacher; from where did he learn the Torah? God made his two kidneys serve like two teachers as it is written in Psalms, “I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel; in the night my kidneys instruct me”. In the Biblical world, the kidneys were the seat of wisdom and the psalm suggests that God placed Torah wisdom within the Abraham’s organs that produce wisdom. It is a way of saying that Abraham had an intuitive sense of right and wrong.
As important as Torah is in providing guidance and moral authority, it often depends on a person’s internal compass to comprehend what is right and what is wrong. So, without those kidneys imparting wisdom, even religious teachings may not keep a person from acting immorally.
Kindness is a motif that runs throughout the Abraham narratives. Even in sending his servant to find a bride for Isaac, kindness is important. Eliezer determines the most important quality for a suitable bride by a test - he will approach various women and request a drink of water and the one who not only offers him water, but who offers to draw water for his camels, will be the right woman for Isaac. When Eliezer arrives he prays to God, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham”. The commentator known as Malbim elaborated on the character test that Eliezer devised:
(This test) would indicate that she was a hospitable, considerate and unassuming person. First, he stated, “Here I stand by the spring” – the ordinary reaction of the girl would be – You are standing by the spring, get the water yourself!”
Second, it was a spring in which many women and girls were gathering water. Would the girl asked for water say, “Why me? Pick someone else, I am busy”.
Third, Eliezer asked her to tilt the jug herself. This would mean a special effort for her to provide the water. Would she be annoyed at having to do an extra level of assistance?
And finally, if Eliezer were to ask for water for himself would the young woman be thoughtful enough to think, ‘this man must be disabled in some way that he cannot provide for himself, certainly he won’t be able to water his camels. Let me do that as well”. Rebecca responds positively to all four components of the test, and even exceeds what Eliezer was hoping for. The Torah makes clear in her response. “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” There were 10 camels with Eliezer, that meant 10 or even more trips, patiently making sure that all had their fill of water. This was a real act of hesed. Such a quality fit well with the hesed expressed in Abraham’s home as Torah emphasizes how he welcomed his visitors to his home. Why should this have been the ultimate test for a suitable mate for Isaac?
Well Henry James said it best, “Three things are important in life: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
All of us need compassion and kindness. When Abraham sends Eliezer out on his mission, he tells him, the Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from my native land, who promised me on oath, saying, ‘I will assign this land to your offspring’ — He will send His angel before you, and you will get a wife for my son from there.” This beloved of God was confident that God would direct Eliezer in finding the right person. And yet when Eliezer arrived he prayed to God, “O Lord God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham.” Said Rabbi Haggai, “Everyone needs kindness, even Abraham who was so sure that God would make everything work out, still needed kindness done on his behalf.”
Our Torah commands acts of kindness. Abraham and Rebecca for their part exhibit innate understanding of kindness and cultivated a culture of hesed. Hesed it appears can be taught through texts and through culture. What is without a doubt, is that when gemilut hasadim, acts of kindness and concern, are both communicated by book and community, there is a better chance that the individual will embrace that culture.
May we in our Sinai community embrace these values by having Torah wash over us and through us.