“The Torah has at its beginning chessed and at its end chessed. At the beginning Hashem gave clothes to Odom and Chava and at the end He buried Moshe Rabbeinu.” (Sotah 14a). Chazal’s statement not only connects the end of the Torah with its beginning, which is always a theme of darshanim at this time of the year, but also indicates the theme of the whole Torah – chessed.
Although clothing Odom and Chava is the example which Chazal gave for chessed at the beginning of the Torah, it is not the earliest example. The first posuk of the Torah is already an act of chessed. “Bereishis bara Elokim eis hashomayim v’eis ho’oretz.” Why did Hashem create the Heaven and Earth? Did He need them – or us? But as the Mesilas Yesharim says, “Man was created to enjoy being close to Hashem and to benefit from the lustre of His Shechina. He created this world which has all that we require to gain entry, after our lives, to the World to Come which is the place of the greatest pleasure which can possibly exist.” We see that the creation of the world was pure chessed by Hashem.
Every detail of the creation was and is an act of chessed. Water and air are in plentiful supply; vegetation has both nutritional and medicinal value and is pleasing to look at. The sun provides us with sufficient heat and light and helps create oxygen for us to breathe, through photosynthesis. The moon stabilizes the Earths’s axis, controlling the climate and, through its gravitational pull, prevents catastrophic flooding in the North and South of the globe. (Scientific American). The division of time into periods of twenty-four hours makes it much easier to manage our lives. According to Rosh Hashana 31a, birds and fish are for us to admire and enjoy. The animal kingdom contributes in many ways to our ability to live productively and successfully in the world.
Arguably the greatest chessed is mentioned in perek 2, posuk 7. “Vayipach b’apov nishmas chaim.” Hashem gave us a neshama. Without our neshama we would be totally controlled by our natural instincts. Our sole pre-occupation would be finding food to eat and satisfying our natural drives. Our “philosophy” would be “survival of the fittest” with no aspirations to share with others and certainly not to put ourselves out for them. We would have no ambition to improve ourselves spiritually. No thoughts of “walking in the ways of Hashem” would enter our minds. And our end would be somebody else’s hand bag or leather shoes, if not his supper. As we say in ‘Modim’, “We thank You Hashem for our lives and our neshamos which are totally dependent on You. (Iyun Tefila).
Avrohom Ovinu, later, noticed all this. He saw the constant chassdei Hashem and felt that the correct way to honor such a Creator would be to emulate His ways, particularly in doing chessed with other people. And we, as Hashem’s creatures as well as talmidim of Avrohom Ovinu also try to lead a life in which we consider the needs of others.
Chessed as a way of life should not be thought of as “basic” or “natural” morality – the obvious way to live. It is a chiddush taught through our Torah to mankind. An African leader once confessed to a rabbi that before religious influences reached his country, the different tribes would be regularly at war with each other, the winners eating the losers!
We all try to follow the ways of the Torah in considering the needs of others, but some people excel and invest heroic efforts on behalf of others. These people inspire us to do more in our own lives. One example is the late Mrs Recha Sternbuch whose bravery is described in the recent biography of Rav Aaron Leib Steinman which I have just read, who lived for a time in Switzerland at the same time as Mrs Sternbuch. Mrs Sternbuch was heavily involved in rescue efforts during World War II.
“One night, Mrs Sternbuch was waiting near a forested area by the Swiss-German border for twelve refugees she was supposed to meet. Unfortunately all twelve refugees were captured by the Nazis. Fearlessly and without her guide who refused to go, she entered the no-man’s land between Germany and Switzerland to negotiate their release. She came face to face with German guards who had ferocious dogs straining at their leashes. With unbelievable bravery she stood there and argued with the commander that she had twelve passports for the twelve refugees, (which was not true), rendering them Swiss citizens. The commander threatened to behead her for her audacity. However she continued and threatened that if the refugees were not released, the commander would be in violation of international law. Despite the ferocious dogs barking and threatening her, she maintained her calm and convinced the commander to release the refugees whom she managed to bring back with her to Switzerland.”
The late Rav Yisroel Belsky was once taken to a hospital for an emergency operation and a senior surgeon was called in. However news came through that a more senior surgeon in another hospitable was available and perhaps Rav Belski would like to move to that hospital so that he could have the best possible care. He would not hear of it. “Whether I live or not is in the hands of Hashem. How can I cause any embarrassment to the surgeon who is already here by suddenly going to someone else?”
Also in the biography of Reb Aaron Leib, the following question that he was asked, is quoted. A father of a bride had managed to find an apartment in Bnei Brak at a cheaper than average price for the young couple. However, despite the apparent lack of alternative accommodation and despite the fact the wedding was shortly to take place, the bride did not want that apartment. Her reason was that she knew that in that building a friend of hers lived and she had an elder sister who was not yet married. She felt that this elder unmarried sister might feel uncomfortable seeing her younger sister’s friend, married and living in the same building. “What should I do?” asked the father of the bride. Reb Aaron Leib was very impressed by the bride’s sensitivity and blessed her that she should merit to build a beautiful Jewish home. As to the question, with his classic down-to-earth wisdom, Reb Aaron Leib told the father to buy this apartment for his daughter but rent it out first to someone else until the older girl married – which indeed happened a few months later.
The Torah begins with chessed and ends with chessed as we quoted before. We learn that “Olom chessed yiboneh” – the very foundation of the world is chessed. (Tehilim 89:3). “Toras chessed al leshona – The teaching of kindness is on her (the Torah’s) tongue” (Mishlei 31:26). How sad and self-destructive the world would be without it. How beautiful it is with it and how inspiring are those who practice it.
 Reb Aharon Leib. Mesorah Publications Ltd. There is also an older book, by Mesorah Publications, all about Mrs Sternbuch called The Heroine of Rescue