From NISHMA UPDATE 5757 #1

 

Inquiry with Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

The Evil of Chesed

In Vayikra 20:17, we find one of the most fascinating comments in all of the chumash. In describing the incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister - and outlining the punishment for this transgression - the Torah states chesed hu, that relations between a brother and a sister is a chesed. The commentators are obviously perplexed. Chesed is usually associated with the highest standard of behaviour. It is generally translated as loving-kindness and reflects actions that are beyond the call of halachic duty. Applying this word to transgressions, especially of such a major magnitude as incest, obviously demands explanation.

Indeed the commentators approach this problem, almost without exception. Rashi presents a straightforward answer: chesed can also mean shame. Chesed hu means that this, sexual relations between a brother and a sister, is a shameful act. Ibn Ezra further supports this explanation with reference to Mishlei 25:10 which uses the verb chesed to mean "to shame or embarrass someone". In Mishlei one is being told to be careful what he/she says in an argument lest one who hears you will in turn shame or embarrass you. The question is, though, how does the word chesed encompass loving-kindness, the concept of going beyond the strict demands of the law, and embarrassment or shame?

Malbim explains that the true essence of the word chesed is the concept of expansion or excessiveness either for good or for evil. Shame is, in turn, within the parameters of this word for shame is the result of excessive evil. See also Ibn Caspi and the clear inference to this concept in Ibn Ezra. Yet, given these explanations and the numerous sources that the commentators bring that do tend to support this more generic definition of chesed, the strangeness of its usage in this verse - and other verses where this usage is applied - still remains. Chesed as loving-kindness, as going beyond the law (lifnim meshurat hadin) permeates our consciousness. How can the Torah, in isolated cases, simply reject this consciousness and the implied meaning of this term in the vast majority of its usage, to use this word, albeit its generic essence, in an opposite context?

Indeed, Ramban seems to be bothered by this very question. While referring to the above noted opinion that chesed in this case means shame, he rejects this possibility. "For it appears to me unlikely that the word chesed in the Sacred Language should bear such opposite meanings [as 'kindness' and 'shame'], when Scriptural texts abound in the praise of chesed and use it in prayers. The term chisudo, however, in Aramaic is another matter" (translation by Rabbi C. Chavel, the bracketed insert within the quote is his as well). Ramban is simply not willing to make the transfer from Aramaic to Hebrew that Rashi presents as the foundation for his translation of chesed as shame. Within the Hebrew language,this word always refers to a positive value.

Ramban, having said this, explains that chesed hu in our verse does not refer to the incestuous relations between a brother and sister but rather to their inherent bond. "The verse is thus stating that the brother's kinship is kindness, and it is not proper for the uncovering of nakedness." Chesed hu, the relationship between brother and sister is chesed and therefore sexual relations are inappropriate. Ramban then goes on to explain this concept with the assumption that any sexual relations of this nature would be initiated by the brother who "should have done the kindness to her that brothers do, to give her in marriage to a husband, but he blemished and troubled her." The difficulty of this approach, though, is that it is a forced reading of the verse; chesed hu does seem to apply to the incestuous relationship itself and so Rashi and the other commentators felt it necessary to translate this word as shame. This in turn leads to Ramban's problem with the use of this term in the negative. However we turn, there is a question.

Ramban, in his defense, quotes Sifra, Kedoshim 116, which also explains chesed hu as not referring to the incestuous relationship per se but rather to another matter, an actual act of chesed i.e. kindness. See also T.B. Sanhedrin 58b and T.Y. Yevamot 11:1. According to these Rabbinic sources, the verse is making reference to the bonding of Kayan (and Hevel) with their sisters by which thereby the world was populated. Chesed hu: it was an act of chesed by which Kayan married his sister but this type of sexual contact is generally to be forbidden. These sources further go on to explain that it was this act of chesed, the bonding of the sons of Adam with their sisters, to which Tehillim 89:3 was referring in stating that "the world was built upon chesed." In fact, the gemora in Sanhedrin includes the idea that Kayan was to specifically marry his sister so that the world could be built upon chesed. Yet the very same difficulty that existed with Ramban's own explanation exists with this one. In simply reading the verse, chesed hu seems to be referring to the incestuous relationship itself, not specifically Kayan's connection with his sister.

Notwithstanding this problem with the reading of the verse, the exact nature of the chesed involved in Kayan's marriage with his sister also still needs to be explained. Rashi, Sanhedrin 58b, d.h. Chesed Yibaneh states that it was the kindness in G-d's command to Adam to act kindly and step aside and allow Kayan to build up the world. Rashi, though, also describes the kindness in G-d's allowance for Kayan to marry his sister. In fact this is how Rashi in Sanhedrin explains chesed hu in our verse: this act is forbidden; G-d's allowance for Kayan to marry his sister was a chesed. Building upon this explanation, we have, in fact, arrived at a most interesting explanation of the essence of chesed. Chesed would seem to be some acceptable deviation from what is absolutely correct in order to achieve a righteous goal such as closeness to G-d or kindness to other people. In this case, it was G-d's allowance of something which is inherently wrong -the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister - in order to achieve a kindness, of monumental proportion, for Kayan. Maskil L'Dovid, Vayikra 20:17 perhaps tempers this view by defining, between the lines, chesed not as an allowance for behaviour that is incorrect but rather as the determination and application of a method by which a behaviour, normally forbidden, can be permitted. In any event, chesed would seem to represent a deviation from one standard of correct behaviour for another standard of what would also have to be defined as correct behaviour. How, though, are these two standards defined? How, also, can these two mutually exclusive standards both be deemed correct? (See, also, Chatam Sofer, Torat Moshe, Kiddushin, d.h. Chesed Hu which, on one level, seems to incorporate this line of reasoning yet presents a completely different explanation of why this allowance, by Hashem, for Kayan was an act of chesed.)

This understanding of the basis of chesed as an acceptable deviation from the essentially correct path in order to achieve other righteous goals, in fact, meshes with the definition of the chasid in Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot 1:5. After defining the middle path of the chacham, the wise person, Rambam then goes on to define the chasid as one who departs slightly from this middle path to the more self-effacing side. In other words, the chasid is one who deviates from the inherently proper behaviour to observe a more righteous standard of behaviour. But if the behaviour of the chassid is more righteous, why is it not defined as the essentially correct behaviour? As the Lechem Mishna points out, Rambam is actually very confusing. Which path is the ideal, the middle path of the chacham or the path of the chassid? Which path should be our goal? Which path is, in fact, more correct? If the middle path is the pure ideal, why is the path of the chassid tolerated? If the stricter path of the chassid is of a higher level, why does Rambam stress the inherent correctness and wisdom of the middle path? Somehow, Rambam is presenting us with two options -- two mutually exclusive options -- for the Torah's ideal behaviour. Somehow, also, these two options co-exist. Our question is how?

Most attempts to explain these two paths of the chacham and the chassid do so by defining the former as the basic acceptable standard of Torah expected for most individuals with the latter representing a higher standard for those who are more pious. In fact, a review of Rambam, Shemona Perakim, c.4 actually seems to point to the opposite: that the standard of the chacham is the higher one. The language of Hilchot De'ot, though, honestly is unclear. Rambam seems to be presenting two independently idealistic standards. The answer cannot be found in comparing and weighing the two but in understanding their co-existence.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Vayikra 20:17 in explaining chesed hu introduces another explanation of how the word chesed can be applied to a negative value. "As the character of one's own behaviour, [chesed] is, accordingly, the highest selfless devotion to the well-being of another...But where it refers, not to the person himself, but to another...causing somebody else to be devoted, it becomes the complete opposite, the ruthless abandonment of the well-being of another." If one chooses to act with chesed, one is accepting to go beyond the call of duty. If one, though, forces another to act with chesed, forcing the other to go beyond the call of duty, one is grossly imposing upon the other for the over-extended benefit of self. Inherently, though, these two forces within Rabbi Hirsch's definition of chesed necessarily apply in every situation where one acts beyond the call of duty. As one acts beyond his/her obligation, another necessarily benefits beyond his/her right ; and as one benefits beyond his/her right, another necessarily is called upon to act beyond his/her obligation. Duty actually represents the perfect balance within existence. Deviation from this duty, inherently upsets this balance.

This recognition provides the basis for understanding Rambam's view and gaining a fuller comprehension of chesed. The middle path is indeed the ideal of existence; within this path, there is perfect balance. Everything is within its place; duty, obligation and rights are in equilibrium. Our world, though, is not perfect -- in fact, as a world of growth, it, by definition, is not perfect. See Ramchal, Da'at Tevunot. Thus, while the path of the chacham is the ideal for which we must strive, we must also recognize another ideal: the path of the chasid founded on deviations from the middle path, from balanced duty, to accept greater obligations in response to the reality of imperfection. Yet, as the chasid's path inherently deviates from the mean, it also maintains the imperfection.

Chesed within this broader perception now takes on new meaning. For the individual who does chesed, who acts beyond the call of duty, it is indeed the acceptance of a higher standard of personal behaviour. Yet, by definition, chesed also reflects imperfection and, on a certain level, sustains imperfection. In accepting more responsibility, the ba'al chesed is allowing for another to gain more rights and evade responsibilities. While chesed in the microcosm of individual existence may always represent an elevated standard of piety, in the macrocosm of existence as a whole, by tipping the scales, it represents a unique challenge.

As such, chesed is, in fact, a most complex concept. When is one to deviate from the ultimate ideal of the balanced path, compensate for the existence of imperfection, accept more responsibility, allow for another's failings and follow the path of chesed? When, however, is one to strive for the ideal of the chacham, meet the challenge of balanced perfection, pull one's weight and demand that others do the same? In fact, both paths do represent independently idealistic standards -- and both paths not only do co-exist but need to co-exist. Within this world, there is the need for the chacham and there is the need for the chassid. The concept of chesed and its proper place with the greater matrix of existence, though, needs to be further clarified.

We can now see chesed as acts of compensation within this growth world of imperfection. Without chesed, without the possibility of corrective deviation from the idealized path of balanced perfection, the world could not exist. Paraphrasing the above-noted quote from Tehillim, the world had to be built upon chesed. Kayan's marriage to his sister takes on a fuller meaning. Yet, as a deviation, chesed also presents a challenge, for it also represents an imperfection. One must always weigh against the standard of the ideal, now and into the future, the corrective benefit of this deviation with its inherent nature as a deviation.

This must demand of us, with every act of chesed that we examine the entire picture. The most obvious question is: whether, through our acceptance of greater obligations, we are allowing others to avoid their basic responsibilities? Is this acceptable or justifiable? There are times when we must carry an extra weight. There are times, though, when we must recognize our own needs and demand from others simply because the other person must also develop sensitivity and the recognition of another.

The greatest challenge associated with chesed, though, may be that we do not idealize it. In my article The Essence of Chesed, NISHMA Update, December 1990, I address the fact that we must not find fulfilment in charitable work for this would make the existence of people in need necessary for us. When there is a need, we must respond but we must ultimately wish there to be no people in need -- thus we must not have a lifestyle and an understanding of righteousness that needs someone to benefit from our chesed. Chesed represents inequality. We must strive for equality.

The sad reality is that there are those who, in fact, delve into the world of chesed precisely because it does maintain the perception of inequality. As a deviation from the balanced path of perfection, it should not be surprising that the imperfection of chesed itself can challenge us. Even as one accepts greater responsibility, the possibility of developing an egotistical vision of oneself as the giver also develops. One of the beauties of balance is that it does project the equality of existence. Perhaps one of Torah's main challenges to a priestly sect devoted solely to the needs of others is that it does project inequality. The taker must be taught not always to take; to eventually stand on his/her own to the greatest possible extent. The giver must also be taught not only to give, not only to attain fulfilment in giving for this can result in a need for the inequality, the need for weakness in others. The giver, in fact, must be taught to sometimes take so that the other may have self-dignity and also be allowed to contribute.

Placing chesed as the ideal can also tragically blind us. The old joke about the boy scout who walked the old lady across the street even though she did not want to go is, unfortunately, not as imaginary as one may think. There are those who attempt to find problems to solve -- to do chesed when there is really no need -- because they need to be the giver. They bask in the inequality. Do they also not see the shame they bring to the other in always giving, always maintaining the inequality with themselves always in the superior mode? Often the one who, in praise, claims that he/she never takes, only gives, not only is one who basks in the inequality but also cannot receive musar. Their chesed actually is a manifestation of their own self-aggrandizement; they need to give for their own ego. Indeed, chesed has its place -- and its unique standard cannot be lost for us. It is a standard for which we must also strive. But chesed also presents a challenge by its very nature -- and it is a challenge of which we must be aware, for chesed inherently can have its dark side. How do we actually find the correct balance of chesed? That is the challenge.

The Torah's use of chesed hu in describing incest between brother and sister can now, perhaps be fully understood. It is a deviation from the balanced ideal that at times was justified - but it was always a deviation and must be perceived in ideal terms as wrong. This is the concept of chesed. Yet, perhaps, there is also a further meaning with a Torah lesson about sexuality in general. Brothers and sisters inherently have unequal relationships; one is older, the other younger. The difference in age between brother and sister is more than a matter of age, it defines the relationship. One is the giver, the other the taker. Chesed hu. The Torah view of sexuality, though, must not be bound by the realm of chesed but must exist in the world of the ideal of balance. Sexuality must exist between equals who neither only give nor only take but share their existence in balance. The Torah view of sexuality exists in the realm of the chacham; is it not surprising that the verb "to know" also refers to sexual contact? In a world that praises giving as the only ideal, it is not surprising that those who are perceived to attain the highest form of this ideal are also expected to be celibate. But that is the realm of inequality. Torah's goal is equality and so, sexuality has an important place - for in its highest realm it is not chesed but a manifestation of equality.


Return to top

2002 NISHMA