Vayechi: Relative Kindness? ~ Yehoshua Steinberg
בראשית מז:כט -וְעָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת אַל נָא תִקְבְּרֵנִי בְּמִצְרָיִם.
Act towards me with kindness and truth [חסד ואמת]; do not bury me in Egypt (Gen. 47:29).
Rashi explains that חסד ואמתin this verse refers to חסדdone without any anticipation of reward. Writes Rashi: חסדdone with the deceased is חסד של אמת- the truest form of חסד, as one does not anticipate any payment of reward [תשלום גמול] (from a dead person).
The qualifying term אמתimplies that that there may be other types of חסדas well, perhaps less noblein nature. Furthermore, we find additional modifying terms coupled with חסד, making it unique among words associated with loving-kindness. Words such as גמלandטובare linked at times to חסד, as inחסדים טוביםor גמילת חסד, whereas similar terms such as רחמיםand צדקהnever appear with such additions. Throughout Scripture, liturgy and Rabbinic literature, one never finds expressions such as רחמיםגמילותor צדקהטובה. Why should the word חסדrequire qualifying terms?
Additionally, Rashi’s extended description of compensation as “payment of reward” [תשלוםגמול] requires explanation. As these two words are virtually synonymous, it would have sufficed to write “one does not anticipate any payment” or “any reward.” What does the reiteration add?
The root חסדappears in Scripture with two contrasting denotations. Normally, it is used to describe attributes and actions of a lofty nature, often applying to G-d, as in: Blessed is the Lord, G-d of my master Abraham, whose kindness (חסד) did not desert him(Gen. 24:27).1On the other hand, the word חסדhas a negative meaning, as Radak mentions in his Sefer Hashorashim: The verse, חֶסֶד הוא(Lev. 20:17) refers to an act of a disgraceful nature[of consorting with one’s sister]. The word is also found in verb form in the following verse: פן יְחַסֶדְךָ שֹׁמֵעַ(Prov. 25:10), where it means shamingand embarrassing.
Some commentators explain that the word חסדdenotes addition, for better or worse. Thus, Ibn Ezra, explaining the above verse, writes that the meaning of חסדהואisexcessive(“additional”) promiscuity. Similarly, Radak (entry חסד)writes: These two meanings of the word חסדhave the same feature. Just as the attribute of חסדmeans augmenting goodnessandincreasing benevolence, so too, it can refer to increasing promiscuityand anextra degree of ignobility.2
Ramban (Lev.ibid.) suggests that the word חסדrefers at times to the conferral of kindnessand other times to its cessation(similar to the oft-cited opposite meanings of the roots שרשand דשן, as follows, in Ramban’s own words): “In my opinion, the verse פן יְחַסֶדְךָ שמע(Prov.25:10) means the listener will abstain from bestowing kindness(since the speaker did not show kindness to his friend who confided his secret). This is similar to the double meanings of דשן(Ex.27:3) [which ordinarily refers to adding ashes / fat / oil (e.g. Ps. 23:5), but in this instance means the removal of ashes] andתשרש(Job 31:12) [to root out, but whose common usage is to implantor take root(e.g. Isa. 27:6)]. I find it hard to accept that the word חסדin the Hebrew language should have such disparate connotations, whereas Scripture gives praise and prayer3with the word חסד.”
Haketav Vehakabbala (on Lev. [ibid.]) offers a different solution to the contrasting meanings of the word חסד. While חסדis praiseworthy from the perspective of the giver, it is dishonorable from the standpoint of the receiver. In his words: “Rashi explainsחֶסֶד הואasdisgraceful, per the Targum. Ramban counters that it seems far-fetched that the word חסדshould have such disparate denotations, as we always find Scripture praising the attribute ofחסד. But this is not a valid claim. The praise is due to the giver of kindness, who benefits others without any thought of compensation. However, from the standpoint of the receiver, it is shameful for him to receive such kindness, as a pauper receiving a handout. As the Sages say: One who eats from others is embarrassed to look his benefactor in the face.4This would explain the opposite meanings of חסד.”5
Yet, since G-d is praised as being generous and benevolent, Ramban’s question still stands. Does it make sense that G-d should show kindness, when it will cause recipients feelings of shame?
The answer may be found in the explanation of the author of Lev Eliyahu to the expression גמילות חסדים, as used by the sages (Berachot 60b): Blessed are You, the Lord, Who is גומל חסדים טובים6to His people, Israel.CommentsRav Eliyahu Lopian (Lev Eliyahu vol. 1 p. 199)7: “The word גומל(bestow) is derived from גמול(reward), as G-d acts with man as if He is required to recompense man for his mitzvot,8and so a person feels that he is not being shown the bread of charity. This removes his embarrassment, and is what makes G-d’s חסדso great.”
Since receiving kindness from G-d is in turn for our deeds, there is no reason for the feeling of “nahama d’kisufa.”9
However, even though the word גמילותhelps highlight the positive meaning of חסד, the root גמלitself, like חסד, seems too to bear paradoxical meanings. While the familiar meaning ofגמולis paymentin a positive sense, as in: II Samuel 19:37 – Why should the king reward me [יִגְמְלֵנִי] with this benefit [הַגְּמוּלָה הַזֹּאת],10there are also examples where גמולmeans a negative form ofpayment: Isa. 59:18 – Just as [his earlier] retributions [גְּמֻלוֹת], so shall He repay wrath to His enemies, retribution [גְּמוּל] to His adversaries.11However, Radak (entry גמל) resolves this: “Meaning, the beginning of [either] good or bad, which incurs a response of [either] good or bad.12
There is yet another meaning to the root גמל13, and this one seems to be the key to resolving our initial question: Why did Rashi write both words, תשלום גמול, when seemingly either of them would have sufficed? In Radak’s comment to Num. 17:23,14he states that גמולis השלמת בשול(completion of theripeningof fruit), as in:וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים – and almonds ripened, and also Isa. 18:5 – grapes approaching ripeness [וּבֹסֶר גֹּמֵל]. The word השלמה(completion) derives from the same root as תשלום,payment. Both words express the completion of a process (coming full circle).
To sharpen this idea before applying it to our question, we’ll add that the passive form of the root גמלmeans to go from dependence to independence, as in: the child grew and was weaned[וַיִּגָּמַל] (Gen. 21:8). גמילה,weaning, certainly does not seem like a reward or payment of any kind. On the contrary, the baby will now no longer nurse from its mother! However, Radak connects this with the ripening of almonds above: “…his nursing was completed… and the same applies for the completionof fruit.15
In light of the above, we can understand that there is no greater gift than the weaning of a child. Completion of his nursing career is precisely parallel to the ripening of a fruit on a tree.16Just as the ripening of the fruit demonstrates that it has completed its period of dependency on the tree and has begun its existence as an independent entity, so too the weaning of a child is a transition point on his way to independence. The process of weaning can be compared to the eight levels of charity listed by Rambam (Laws of the Poor, 10:7-14), the highest of which is assisting a fellow Jew -if only through a loan- in order that he not require further assistance. In other words, helping one to wean himself from dependency 17is the premier level of giving.
With this, I believe that we can answer Rashi’s seeming redundancy with which we opened this article – תשלום גמול.With these two words, Rashi resolves the contradictions inherent in the root, גמל. By adding the word תשלום, Rashi implies that the basic meaning of גמלis connected to the meaning of the root, שלם,payment andcompletion, or “coming full circle.” The true גומלsees his bestowing of kindness as a complete act in and of itself, requiring no additional completion or recompense (as if to say גמול מושלם– complete, consummate גמול). This meaning fits all appearances of this word in Scripture –completion / end of dependency on benefactors,completion/ end of growth,completion/ finishing with any sort of debt– whether positive or negative.
This resolution can help us understand another aspect of חסד. In addition to the meaning of disgraceinherent in חסד-from the perspective of the recipient of handouts (which the word גמילהcomes to “right”)- there is another potential negative association. Namely, a person who claims to be charitable, but his intentions are not entirely pure, as he at some point expects some form of recompense for his “charity.” Rashi addresses this tendency in explaining that חסד של אמתiskindness done without expecting any payment of reward, as opposed toless-than-gallant performers of “חסד”, who do expect this.
In the appearance of the word חסדin Lev. 20:17 as well, it is clear that consorting with one’s sister is done for the sake of selfish pleasure and not to bestow altruistic kindness. From here we can perhaps arrive at the fundamental difference between חסדand רחמים. As mentioned, the word רחמיםis never accompanied by qualifiers as is חסד. We do not find expressions such as רחמים של אמת,רחמים טוביםorגמילות רחמיםto clarify which type of mercy is being shown.
The wordרחמיםderives from the word רחם,the womb – the organ in which a fetus develops within the mother’s body. The mother showers רחמיםupon her children without limit. She cares for the fruit of her womb without any thought of compensation. All of her thoughts are on her children’s good alone. In a word – רחמים…no embellishment or additional description is necessary.
May we always be among those who bestow kindness – true and good kindness – and merit the compensation and reward G-d has in store for us, without ever having to accept gifts from others.
1See also Ex. 34:6 and Deut. 7:9
2See also Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Gen. 47:29; Ex. 34:6); Shoresh Yesha (entry חסד).
3כלומר המלה חסד היא יסוד לדברי שבח ותפילה בתהלים ועוד מקומות במקרא.
4This quote is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, with a variant reading (quoted in a footnote below).
ונראה להוסיף עפ”ז הסבר גם להוראות המנוגדות של שרש’עזב’,המורה על נטישהמחד גיסא, ועלעזרהמאידך:רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹבתַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ(שמות כג:ה)- דברוהיפוכו!אמנם,כדרך שמורה לנו הלשון את ההנהגה הנשגבת של הענקת צדקה ללא בושה דרך ההוראות המנוגדות של שרש ‘גמל'(כמבואר להלן במאמר,שמלת”להיגמל” [בנפעל עתיד]פירושהסוףהתלותבגמילותחסדיםשל אחרים),כך היא מורה לנו על ענין דומה במשמעויות ההפוכות לכאורה של ‘עזב’.כלומר,בהושטת יד לזקוק לעזרה פשוטה,תדאג גם להשאיר אותו עם הרגשה שאינו חייב לך דבר,ובכך תעזבהו במצב חזק ומחוזק יותר מהמצבבומצאת אותו.כמו כן מצינו’עזב’במשמעותחיזוק ועזרהבעוד מספר פסוקים:יחז‘כז:יב– וְעוֹפֶרֶת נָתְנוּ עִזְבוֹנָיִךְ;רש“י– עזבוניך- חוזקיךועוזרךכמו:וַיַּעַזְבוּ יְרוּשָׁלִַם (נחמ’ג:ח);תה‘י:יד– יַעֲזֹבחֵלֵכָה;רש“י– מנחם פ’ יעזובלשוןעזרהכמו: עָזֹבתַּעֲזֹב(שמ’כג:ה).
6ושרשיםאלו-‘חסד’ו’גמל’-מופיעיםסמוכיםזהלזהגם במקרא,כגון:חַסְדֵי ה’אַזְכִּיר…אֲשֶׁר גְּמָלָנוּ ה’ (ישע’סג:ז),וַאֲנִי בְּחַסְדְּךָ בָטַחְתִּי…אָשִׁירָה לַה’ כִּי גָמַל עָלָי (תה’יג:ו).
8So too, one can explain the use of גמולas a borrowed term synonymous with “gift,” as in: Mesilat Yesharim 26 – “Holiness is double in nature, meaning its beginning is work and its end is גמול; its beginning is effort and its end is a gift.”גמולhere means the giving of commensurate payment.
9“Nahama d’kisufa” literally means “bread of shame.” This idea is based on the Jerusalem Talmud (Orlah 1:3), which states that “one who eats from his friend’s [portion] is embarrassed to look at him” (as per the commentary of Pnei Moshe). The Maggid, in Maggid Meisharim of Rabbi Yosef Karo (Gen., Ohr Layom Shabbat 14 Tevet), employs this concept to explain the dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel (Eiruvin 13b) over whether it would have been preferable for man to have been created. The basis for the opinion that it would have been preferable for man notto have been created is that deriving pleasure from the radiance of the Shechinah is worthwhile even though such pleasure incurs the shame of receiving benefit without effort. The opposing view is that since man can “pay” for his pleasure by the performance of mitzvot, it is preferable for him to be created. See also Meshech Chachmah (Gen. 50:10).
10וכן בת”י- וּלְמָהיְשַׁלְמִנַנִימַלְכָּא תַּשְׁלוּמָאהָדָא.
11וכןמצינו את”פרי”מעשיו: ישע‘ג:י–יא– אִמְרוּ צַדִּיק כִּי טוֹב כִּי פְרִי מַעַלְלֵיהֶם יֹאכֵלוּ,אוֹי לְרָשָׁע רָע כִּי גְמוּל יָדָיו יֵעָשֶׂה לּוֹ.משלי יב:יד-מִפְּרִי פִי אִישׁ יִשְׂבַּע טוֹב וּגְמוּל יְדֵי אָדָם יָשִׁיב לו.
12השוה גם את דברי ראב”ע ליואל ד:ד.
13See our article on P’ Chayei Sara for a suggestion about the etymology of the wordגמל itself.
15וכן קישר ביניהם רש”י:רש“י– ויגמל- כשהוכר הפרי…לשון:ויגדל הילד ויגמל (בר’כא:ח),ול’זה מצוי בפרי האילן,כמו:ובוסר גומל יהיה נצה (ישע’יח:ה).ובתלמוד פרש”י את “גמול”כל’הבדלה:יבמות יב:– תני רב ביבי קמיה דר”נ,שלש נשים משמשות במוך:קטנה,מעוברת,ומניקה…מניקה- שמא תגמול בנה וימות;רש“י– שמא תגמול את בנה -אם תתעבר תהא צריכה לגמול את בנה מלהניק כמו ויגמל -לשון הבדלה (בר’כא:ח).והשוה גםתמ”י,שתרגם”ויגמול שקדים” – “גמר”:במ‘יז:כג-וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים;תמ“י– וְאָנֵיץ נִצִין בֵּיהּ בְּלֵילְיָא גְמַר וַעֲבַד לוּזִין;ובלשון תר’ירושלמי- “חסיל”:תר“י– וַאֲנֵיץ נִיצִין וְחָסִיל לוּזִין בַּר לוּזַיָא.וראה גם ת”א לבר’ כא:ח;ת”י לש”א א:כב-כד,ישע’יא:ח.והשוה גם פרשר”ה(בר’מא:ד)להוראות השונות של ‘קוץ’ / ‘יקץ’.
16ואכן,מצינו את “פרי”כמושג מקביל של “גמול”במקרא:ישע‘ג:י–יא– אִמְרוּ צַדִּיק כִּי טוֹב כִּי פְרִי מַעַלְלֵיהֶם יֹאכֵלוּ;אוֹי לְרָשָׁע רָע כִּי גְמוּל יָדָיו יֵעָשֶׂה לּוֹ,משלי יב:יד-מִפְּרִי פִי אִישׁ יִשְׂבַּע טוֹב וּגְמוּל יְדֵי אָדָם יָשִׁיב לו.וכן הוצאת הפרי בעצמו מכונה “גמילה”:במ‘יז:כג– וְהִנֵּה פָּרַח מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לְבֵית לֵוִי וַיֹּצֵא פֶרַח וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים.
17See also Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Gen. 21:8) who explains that the root of גמלdenotes maturingor ripening, as a child weaned develops independence and self-sufficiency.