The central event of this week’s parsha is the quest to find a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer is the “shadchan” and is given the mandate to find a wife from Avraham’s family. The story unfolds with the miraculous, immediate answering of his prayers in his discovery of Rivka. The lesson to be learned from the entire parsha is that of “chesed”. Rivka’s test was her level of commitment to the concept of chesed and she passed with flying colors, proving herself worthy of joining the household of Avraham Avinu, known for their exemplary behavior in this area.
That was a summary of the parsha as we generally read it. I would like to suggest an alternative reading, one which I admit is experimental and I await input from the readers.
According to the above reading the key lesson is chesed. I find it interesting that not once does the Torah refer to Rivka’s actions by using the word chesed. I find it equally interesting that, despite not using it in the context of Rivka, the word does appear in our parsha twice, which is surprising given the fact that it seems to appear in the entire Torah only 15 times (in various forms).
In our parsha we read (24:14): [Eliezer says] “the girl from whom I will ask for water, and she will respond ‘drink and I will give your camels as well’, it is her that you have proven for your servant Yitzchak and I will know that you have done CHESED with my master”
And later we read (24:49): [Eliezer says] “Now if you will do CHESED and truth with my master, tell me, and if not I will turn to the right or the left”
In other words, the concept of CHESED does appear in our parsha as a central theme, however not as expected. There are two characters that act in a manner of CHESED in our parsha, one is God and the other is Lavan/Betual and both of them are directing the CHESED towards “my [Eliezer’s] master” meaning Avraham.
I think we need to examine the proper translation of the term CHESED. In general we seem to view CHESED as altruism, an act of kindness with no ulterior motives or hidden agenda. Altruism is defined as unselfish concern for the welfare of others. True altruism does not discriminate based on any criteria and is followed through as a feeling of real concern for those around us. In addition, there is no expectation of reciprocal assistance. This type of behavior is clearly represented in the behavior of Avraham with the angels and with Rivka in our parsha.
It is not clear to me that this definition works for either of the instances in which the word is used in our parsha. Is Eliezer asking God to perform an act of altruism in assisting to find a bride for Yitzchak? Could be, however the second case is more difficult. What CHESED is Rivka’s family doing? After all they have been well bribed and they are given the opportunity to marry into a very successful branch of their family. Where is the “unselfish” part of CHESED?
The commentaries are bothered by this and they offer different solutions, such as that of the Seforno that they were being asked to sacrifice their daughter who was being sent far away from them, or that of the Malbim who says that they were doing CHESED by agreeing to a great deal, but one presented to them by a slave (!!), something clearly not suitable to their social position.
The term CHESED appears in other places as well (less than one would imagine, given the stress that we place on acts of kindness) and in many it is not clear what the meaning of the word is. The most puzzling is in Sefer Vayikra 20:17 in the list of incestuous relationships that are forbidden by the Torah. If one has relations with one’s sister, it is “CHESED”, and the person committing such an act is to be cut off from the nation. Clearly the standard definition of the word does not fit here.
Two explanations are given. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim writes that the term CHESED refers to an overabundance. In general it is used in a positive context leading to the idea of altruism but in this case it is used in the negative form as a term of extreme immoral behavior. Rashi and most of the other commentaries see this use of the word CHESED as stemming from a totally different root, in fact from a different language. According to Rashi the term comes from the Aramaic and means disgrace. This, of course, solves the problem and helps us understand the verse in Parshat Kedoshim, however it seems to be a bit of a stretch to suggest that the etymology is Aramaic.
CHESED- A New Definition
I would like to suggest a new definition for the word CHESED in the Torah. I believe that CHESED means to do something for another person because of a previous connection or relationship. This is not an altruistic behavior at all but rather a form of either repayment for some reciprocal good deed or assistance to those who we know or to those to whose family we are connected. (In “modern Hebrew” the term that most closely resembles this is “Protektzia” whereby things get done through one’s connections and family ties.)
In terms of our Parsha I think this reads very well. Eliezer asks God to help him on his mission as a “CHESED with my master”, in other words for the sake of Avraham and in light of the special relationship that Avraham has with God. Later Rivka’s family is asked to perform a “CHESED with my master”, once again they are being asked to recognize the family connection and act upon the responsibility that is inferred by it.
This definition will allow us to read the passuk in Vayikra in a much simpler manner. The problem with incest is precisely because of the familial relationship. In general the relationship infers assistance and fraternity but not always. In this case the relationship breeds the prohibition.
I think that we can examine a few more places where this definition fits better than that of altruism.
Breishit 40:14- Yosef asks the Sar Hamashkim to help him get out of prison when he is reinstated in his position. Yosef says, “When things improve for you [as I have interpreted your dream to be] you should do a CHESED with me and remind me to Pharaoh and get me out of this place.”
We could read the request as a plea for altruism but I think it makes much more sense to see it as a call for a payback for the assistance that Yosef has provided for the Sar Hamashkim.
Shemot 34:7- In the list of the thirteen attributes of mercy we read: “Notzer Chesed L’alafim”, “Guards (or watches) CHESED for thousands [of years]”.
What is meant by the passuk? In his explanation, Rashi inserts a phrase, so that the passuk is understood to mean that God guards the CHESED that a person does for thousands of years. Once again Rashi understands that CHESED is an act of kindness that a human performs and the reward for such an action is invested for thousands of years. The greatness of God is simply in allowing the reward to have a much longer shelf life than we would expect. The Siftei Chachamim explains that Rashi was forced into the approach he gave because the word “Notzer” guard or watch can only refer to an event that has happened in the past and therefore does not refer to the benevolent acts of God.
Our definition of CHESED would lead us to a different reading of the passuk. God guards or watches the CHESED, the relationship with the previous generations, and acts in a kind fashion to the latter ones because of the relationship. According to this reading, it is God who is involved in CHESED and not simply repaying a human for their CHESED (note: the Seforno seems to adopt this reading).
Devarim 7:12- At the outset of Parshat Ekev the word CHESED appears again and I find our definition the only one that really can fit the meaning of the verse. “If you keep the laws….God will keep the Brit and the CHESED that he promised your forefathers.” Our definition makes the passuk quite clear. The word CHESED is synonymous with “Brit” and, if we fulfill our end of the deal, God will do His part in remembering the CHESED with the Avot. (It seems that the Rashbam was bothered by the problem and tried to deal with it; see his commentary on the passuk.)
The approach to CHESED that we have offered makes a totally new reading out of the passuk in Tehilim: “Teeten Emet L’Yaakov, CHESED L’Avraham”. This is usually seen as describing the relative qualities of Yaakov (Emet) and Avraham (CHESED). According to our reading of CHESED, we are not referring to the good deeds of Avraham but rather we are referring to the result of the relationship with Avraham that God has established. We ask God to provide help because of His CHESED with Avraham.
As a disclaimer I need to point out two things. Firstly I am referring only to the use of the term CHESED in the Torah (and maybe even Nach). Chazal clearly used the term to describe altruistic behavior and not in the manner that I have described above.
Secondly, I am not opposed to altruism and I do not think that the Torah is either. In fact, as I wrote above, we clearly see such noble acts throughout the Torah and the association with Avraham Avinu as well. My claim is simply that the simple meaning of the word, as used in the Torah is not altruism.
I eagerly await your feedback on these ideas and I would see it as a great CHESED to help me understand this issue more clearly.