Parashat Chayei Sarah is known as the parashah of chessed (lovingkindness), primarily in relation to the match between Yitzchak and Rivka. The critical component that Eliezer was looking for in the bride that would enter into the home of Avraham was that she be endowed with the attribute of chessed. We shall return to this.
Factually, the beginning of the parashah also focuses upon chessed and the ultimate opportunity in this regard that Ephron failed to perform. Ephron was a greedy individual and he saw a prospect to capitalize upon Avraham’s desperation to afford his wife a fitting burial plot. This resulted in Avraham paying an exorbitant amount, but the land itself was the ultimate winner, as Rashi explains: the transfer of the property from a commoner to Avraham and the Jewish people elevated the status of the property (Bereishit 23:17).
Once Avraham had fulfilled this ultimate chessed for his wife, he was able to focus upon finding the proper wife for Yitzchak. In the process, Avraham taught respect for the dead and concern for the future. This lesson has been absorbed by his descendants: not to dismiss the past, nor to neglect the future.
Eliezer devised a test to gauge the character of the proper bride for Yitzchak: How would this very young girl respond to a request for a drink of water? Rav Moshe Feinstein explains (Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim II #52) that although Rivka only agreed to provide water for the stranger, she then, with great alacrity, drew tens of gallons for the camels. Her kind nature, as Rav Moshe explains, dictated that she would attend to other’s needs, and it was that very same chessed – personality that deemed watering the camels so obvious that there wasn’t even a need to talk about it.
Eliezer invokes the term ‘chessed’ several times as the critical criteria necessary to become Yitzchak’s bride. When he makes his appeal to Rivka’s family seeking their consent for the marriage, (24:49) he says, “If you intend to do kindness and truth with my master…” The Ibn Ezra explains that “kindness” refers to the intention to do that which is not required and “truth” fortifies the kindness with permanence.
Rabbi Nison Alpert famously explained at the funeral of his Rebbe, Rav Moshe Feinstein, just thirty days before his own passing, that throughout Tanach, chessed always precedes truth. For if it would be the other way around, adherence to truth may prevent a person from coming to do chessed.
Kindness is often associated (sometimes even confused) with tzedakah (charity). The connection between kindness and charitable acts is apparent, as both are selfless acts on behalf of another. Yet there is another connection, that finds expression in Halachah.
The root of the word chessed, according to the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Mishlei, is the word chus which denotes something to which one is connected. The word appears twice in Tanach: first when Pharaoh tells Yosef’s brothers: V’einchem al tachos al kleichem — “Don’t worry about your belongings…” (Bereishit 45:20) and later when G-d reproves Yonah: Va’ani lo achus al Ninveh — “Should I not be concerned for Ninveh?” (Yonah 4:11). In both instances, the apprehension relates directly to that which is in one’s possession. Herein lies an important (even though, prima facie, obvious) lesson. The most fundamental chessed is to those that are near and dear to you.
Some people are very kindly disposed to strangers and causes, but less magnanimous to members of their own family. Such an outlook violates the essence of chessed.
The paramount value of chessed to those that are near and dear to you is mirrored in the laws of charity. According to the Shulchan Aruch, when it comes to priority in giving charity, “a relative precedes a stranger, the poor of your own home precede the poor of your town and the poor of your town precede the poor of a different town” (Yoreh Deah 251:3).
Significantly, the Shulchan Aruch continues: “The dwellers of Eretz Yisrael have precedence over the inhabitants of the Diaspora.” The upshot is that the residents of Israel are not only our brothers in a figurative sense, but in the halachic mandate. Hence the expression, “charity begins at home” is not only in consonance with Judaism, but it is also revelatory about how large the home and how connected the brethren.