Living in the era of the debilitating COVID-19 virus, we, unfortunately, hear and read many overused clichés, and commonplace vocabulary is becoming stale and superfluous. Within the Jewish community, one of these idioms is “chesed.”
As a time-honored trademark of our tradition and religious observance, chesed has long been a platitude used to describe a proclivity for kindness, charity, and good deeds. However, we have recently discovered that chesed is much more profound.
Tracing its roots to the Torah and its Rabbinic interpretation, true chesed manifests itself as the core of personal sanctity. On the individual and societal levels, and as the virus has revealed, genuine chesed is sacred as a manifestation of the essential wellspring of self-sacrifice.
A few weeks ago, we should have read in our synagogues Parshat Emor. When describing the rituals of Yom Kippur in the Beit HaMikdash, the Torah states: “Thus shall Aharon enter the Holy section of the Temple, with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.”
Why “a ram and a bull”? The bull is a reminder of Avraham Avinu’s hospitality as he rushed to serve a welcoming meal for his (angel) guests with a main course of a succulent roasted bull. The ram reminds us of Yitzchak’s obedient readiness to comply with G-d’s instruction to become the ultimate sacrifice, until a divine merciful decree substituted a ram instead.
Rabbinic commentators (Midrash, M’chilta, Baal HaTurim, and more) hasten to point out that the merit both these optimal symbols – Avraham’s chesed and Yitzchak’s self-sacrifice – jointly accompanied the Kohen Gadol as he entered the Holiest Chambers of the Beit HaMikdash on Yom HaKippurim to repent and plead on behalf of the Jewish nation. Even for the Kohen Gadol, the greatest spiritual leader, chesed (lovingkindness) alone was insufficient. It had to be accompanied by a genuine demonstration of self-sacrifice.
For us, in the United States and in Israel, who are undergoing and coping with the unimaginable and excruciating pains and pangs of the pandemic, the “plague” serves as a bold and striking demonstration of the ultimate interface of the two trademarks – chesed and self-sacrifice.
Mere charitable chesed, and even routine benevolence and lovingkindness, would have been entirely insufficient. For the past almost three months, the trials and tribulations of the coronavirus era became tolerable only because they have been surpassed by unimaginable demonstrations of the indispensable link between self-sacrifice and chesed. This vital link was manifested globally by individuals of all ages, by local and national communities, by clergy and by medical, civic, business, and even political Jewish leaders.
While achieving self-sacrifice is seemingly not an easy accomplishment, a midrashic insight at the end of Sefer D’varim offers a fascinating perspective on the reason why the Beit HaMikdash was built in the territory parceled to the tribe of Binyamin. According to the Midrash, the choice for this location was because Binyamin did not participate in the malevolent plan to sell Yosef to the passing travelers – a heinous plot that would cause Yaakov grief and agony. Thus, intuits the Midrash, Binyamin’s thoughtfulness and sensitivity for his beloved father was an act of self-sacrifice of his status among his brothers, intended to spare Yaakov years of bitter anger, fury, and disdain for his other children. For this, he merited the eternal reward of the construction of Beit HaMikdash on his inherited plot in Eretz Yisrael.
Such nobility, driven by gentleness of self-sacrifice, is the trademark that commenced with Yitzchak, ran through the veins of his decedents, and became part of the Jewish DNA. In fact, when the Chazon Ish was asked, “What is the optimal accomplishment that a person can achieve during his lifetime?” he responded: to live an entire life based on self-sacrifice rather than hurting the feelings, emotions, and spirit of another person. Such self-sacrifice requires sympathy and empathy, compassion and understanding, a kind heart, and a far-sighted mind.
Similarly, the legendary Chafetz Chayim referenced the midrash on Kohelet to answer the question that many of us ask during this period of Sefirat Ha-Omer: Why were Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students punished to die? In response, the midrash recounts Rabbi Akiva’s welcoming address to the five students of his reconstituted rabbinic seminary. He forewarned them: Do not emulate your predecessors, for their death resulted from their jealous envy of each other’s scholarship and dismissive attitude of each other. Instead, dear students, love and revere each other and demonstrate the true Jewish trademark of self-sacrifice with sensitivity and consideration for your peers’ personal, spiritual, and intellectual needs.
As we analyze the silver lining of the effects that the pandemic brought out in the greater Jewish community, we certainly notice the remarkable trademarks of chesed crowned by self-sacrifice. Every day, we heard and read additional reports of generous aid, incredible support, and abetment offered to strangers of all walks of life. But beyond these, we were overwhelmed by the display of self-sacrifice to provide rapid response to many whose survival depended on it, immeasurable acts of emotional and physical nurturance, as well as timely encouragement, hand-holding beyond the call of duty, meaningful advice, prompt care, emotional and spiritual guidance, active attendance, and expedient attention.
All these responses are not trite acts of ordinary kindness of the human spirit. These are the blossoming seeds of inherently Jewish chesed crowned by self-sacrifice planted by our biblical forefathers, and symbolized by the bull and the ram that accompanied the Kohen Gadol into the holiest chambers of the Beit HaMikdash.
Hopefully, these bull and ram trademarks are the merits that will soon enable us to greet each other face to face, freely and lovingly. These hereditary Jewish DNA qualities will heal us and open the doors of our synagogues. These “crowns” are our well-earned Jewish pride and joy as individuals, families, and as an eternal nation.
By Rabbi Shaul Arieli
Congregation Ohel Yitzchok,
Kew Gardens Hills