Epitome of Chesed

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

Rav Soloveitchik taught that if one wants to understand what the epitome of chesed is all about, one merely opens a chumash and read about the life of Avraham Avinu.

In the book of Bereishit (12:1) we read about three travelers coming to visit the ailing Avraham: one to announce the birth of Yitzchak, one to destroy Sedom, and the third to heal Avraham (Bava Metzia 86b). Rashi, [18:12] citing the Midrash, explains that each angel is given but one assignment [Bereishit Rabba 50:2]. (This is also true of human beings; we are given but one main assignment in life).

HaShem said, ”Will I hide from Avraham what I plan to do?….For I know him, that he will command his children…that they too shall keep the way of GD, to do righteousness and judgement, that GD may bring upon Avraham that  which He has spoken of him. And HaShem said, Because the cry of Sedom and Amora is great, and because their sin is very grievous…(18:17-20)

Sedom was successful and prosperous. As long as Sedom prospered, Avraham’s sermonizing and preaching meant nothing. One cannot preach goodness and kindness if malchut ha’risha, the kingdom of evil is rich and powerful. One cannot gain converts for an idea if its opponents, no matter how bad they are, prosper-are strong, respected and feared. True, an angel came to announce the birth of Yitzchak-in other words, the continuation of Avraham’s heritage. But Sedom’s existence contradicts everything Avraham has claimed. Avraham preached equality, kindness, charity and hospitality; Sedom laughs and scoffs at these ideas. Sedom is prosperous and mighty, Avraham is just one person. Therefore, when the angel  came to tell Avraham that Yitzchak will be born and that his hopes will be fulfilled, another angel came to say that not only will Yitzchak be his successor but his powerful opponent will be destroyed.  This will strengthen his position, and people will begin to realize that evil does not pay. That is why the two angels came together.

And then the Torah tells us something extraordinary about Avraham. If we had been in his place, we would simply have thanked GD with all our heart for destroying the kingdom of evil so that our task would be simplified. But NO, Avraham pleads for Sedom, knowing that its very survival meant his own defeat.  He was ready to accept defeat in order to give Sedom an opportunity to reform and restore itself. Avraham dropped his hatred for Sedom for the dictates of his conscience. He was ready to sacrifice his life and have his new philosophy appear to be a total failure. He was prepared to forgo his hopes and his vision for the future just that Sedom would not be destroyed. This is the epitome of chesed in the full sense of the word.

(Source: Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriach by Rav Soloveitchik)

About Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Aharon Ziegler is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Agudath Achim of Boro Park and the Dean and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Agudath Achim. He is the author of six volumes of Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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