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The Torah's Definition of Chesed

Masay (Numbers 33-36 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Towards the end of the Torah portion, the Torah speaks at length about the cities of refuge; areas that are set aside for unintentional murderers. If a person carelessly causes the death of a fellow Jew then he is in severe danger of being killed by relatives of the victim. The Torah therefore instructs him to go to a city of refuge where he is protected from danger and must simultaneously undergo a process of teshuva (repentance). He can only go free when the present Kohen Gadol (High Priest) passes away.

The Mishna tells us that since the sentence of the murderer is dependent upon the death of the Kohen Gadol, there is the distinct likelihood that he will pray for the Kohen Gadol to die so that he can go free.(1) Consequently it was customary for the mother of the Kohen Gadol to give gifts to the murderer with the hope that he would not pray for her son to die.

The Talmud asks why there should be any fear of the prayers being actualized - the Kohen Gadol did not commit any sin and therefore does not deserve to die. The Talmud answers that he was in fact at fault because he should have prayed that no such disaster should occur to the Jewish people. Since he evidently did not do so, he is considered guilty and susceptible to prayers that he die. The Ben Ish Chai asks, if he was guilty then what is the significance of prayers that he die? He will surely be punished regardless of whether someone is praying for him to die or not. He explains that he would indeed be punished with suffering but that the prayers could cause him to actually die.(2)

There are many interesting issues and questions that arise from this subject,(3) one of them is that it would seem that the Kohen Gadol did not commit any terrible sin. He did not actively cause damage to anyone, he was merely guilty of neglecting to pray as much as required - a punishment of suffering or death seems to be very severe for such a seemingly mild transgression!

In order to answer this, it is instructive to analyze the Torah's expectations of a Jew in the realm of kindness. There are three general levels of interaction with other people: Harming them; helping them; and doing nothing to them, neither good nor bad. In the secular view, harming someone without a valid reason is looked on negatively, whilst helping someone is viewed positively. Doing nothing is seen as neutral; it is neither good nor bad. The Torah view also holds that helping someone is good and harming someone is bad, but what does the Torah say about doing nothing; neither helping nor harming

The Gemara in Bava Metzia discusses the prohibition of 'tzaar baalei chaim,' causing pain to animals.(4) It questions the source of this prohibition. Its conclusion is that it is learnt from the obligation to help unload a donkey that is suffering because of the heavy load on its back. Leaving an animal in this state of discomfort is considered tzaar baalei chaim. This source is somewhat surprising - if one was asked what he thought to be an example of tzaar baalei chaim he would answer; hitting an animal or pulling off the legs of a spider. But merely refraining from helping an animal in pain would not seem to be tzaar baalei chaim - that is a neutral act, perhaps cold, but not in the category of actively causing pain. However, the Gemara sees things somewhat differently; it is clear in the Gemara's eyes that refraining from helping an animal in distress is a clear case of tzaar baalei chaim - it is no different from actively causing pain to an animal. Thus, it is apparent that the Torah view of 'doing nothing' is decidedly different from the secular attitude. The Torah considers 'doing nothing' as an act of cruelty which belongs in the same category as doing active harm.

Another example of this is the Gemara that Pharoah consulted three people as how to treat the Jewish people in Egypt.(5) Bilaam advised that he treat the Jews very harshly, Yisro wanted to advise Pharaoh to be kind to the Jews but he knew he would be killed for saying that so he escaped. Job, however, remained silent. Bilaam was understandably punished by being killed by the sword for his evil advice. Job seemingly did nothing wrong - he merely remained silent. However he was punished by having to undergo grave suffering - those that are mentioned in the Book of Job. It is thus clear that doing nothing is considered as doing evil in the Torah's eyes.

This concept is not confined to the realm of Jewish thought, it also features significantly in halacha (Jewish law). The Torah commands us, "Do not stand by the blood of your fellow." (6) If one sees a fellow Jew in danger one is obligated to try to save him. The authorities explain that this Mitzva also applies to helping someone in financial need.(7) The Torah further obligates us to care about the lost property of others and strive to return it to its rightful owner through the mitzvah of hashavas aveida (returning lost objects). It states that, "you cannot hide yourself." (8) One cannot simply ignore the suffering of others, to do so is considered negligent and totally contradicts the Torah requirements. Rabbeinu Yonah stresses the seriousness of this mitzvah: "'You shall not be able to look away… Should you say, 'I don't know about this' [God] recognizes the contents of the heart and knows the hidden thoughts, and He repays each person according to his deeds. If he fails to come to the rescue of another or seek ways to help him, The Holy Blessed One considers him to have caused the damage himself." (9) If one looks away from a Jew in need, any damage that results is considered his responsibility.

We can now understand why the Torah is so strict on the Kohen Gadol for refraining from actively praying that a tragedy not occur to the Jewish people. He did not invest sufficient effort to prevent a disaster from occurring and his failure to actively pray is considered a serious sin. This lesson is not limited to the Kohen Gadol, it applies to everyone on their own level. Life is replete with opportunities to actively help people in need; a common situation is when someone is unwell and the main way to help is to pray for their health to improve. This is an easy way to avoid the problem of standing by idly whilst one's friend is in need. Another common occurrence is that we see our fellow Jew struggling to carry a number of shopping bags on the way home - it is a great act of kindness to help unload his burden.(10) But in truth the task of being a truly 'kind' person in the Torah's eyes requires constant attention and effort. If we can internalize the lesson of the Kohen Gadol then our own lives and those of those around us will be greatly enhanced.



1. Makkos, 11a.

2. Ben Yehoyada, Makkos 11a.

3. Included in this are: Why is the Kohen Gadol considered so responsible for this tragedy? (see Maharal, Chiddushei Aggados, Makkos, 11a). Why should the gifts of the mother cause the murderer to refrain from praying that the Kohen Gadol die - surely a few gifts do not outweigh the prospects of a lifetime trapped in the city of refuge! The simple answer to this is that the gifts will at least slightly weaken the power of the person's prayers to the extent that they will be less effective. Another question that arises is why it is so obvious that the Kohen Gadol did not pray that no tragedy occur - is it not possible that he did pray but nonetheless his prayers were not answered? It must be that, yes, indeed, had he prayed, then his prayer would have been answered.

4. Bava Metsia 32b.

5. Sotah 11a.

6. Parshas Kedoshim 19:16.

7. Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvas 297: Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva 237.

8. Devarim 22:3.

9. Shaarei Teshuva 3:70.



10. This is very similar to the mitzvo of 'prika', unloading an animal from his heavy burden.



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