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Yishmael: The Wrong Type of Chesed

Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

A significant character in these Torah Portions is Ishmael, Abraham's eldest son. Understanding his personality can give us a deep understanding about our own challenges. The Holy Books say that Ishmael represents the misapplication of 'Chesed'. This seems difficult because the normal translation of Chesed is kindness, but on further anlaysis this does not seem to be the most apt translation.

In the latter part the Torah Portion of Kedoshim the Torah enumerates the various forbidden relationships and their punishments. Towards the end of this list the Torah states: "A man who takes his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, it is a chesed and they shall be cut off in the sight of the members of their people; he will have uncovered the nakedness of his sister, he shall bear his iniquity." (1) There is a glaring problem with this passuk - the description of an incestuous relationship as being a 'chesed'. If chesed simply means kindness then what kindness is involved in arayos?!

It seems that chesed is more appropriately understood as a character trait that is characterized by overflowing and lack of boundaries, which can manifest itself in a positive or a negative way.(2) One significant outgrowth of this is kindness in that chesed causes a person to want to unabashedly share with others, breaking his boundaries of selfishness. However, that is just one manifestation of chesed. One negative manifestation is that a person can lose his appreciation of a proper sense of boundaries. Arayot (immorality) involves ignoring the Torah's assertion that certain relationships break the appropriate boundaries. Consequently, the Torah describes arayot as chesed.

Abraham epitomized chesed in its ideal form - this is demonstrated by the tent that he had open on all four sides. This is the ultimate expression of how lack of boundaries results in unparalleled kindness. Moreover, we know that Abraham was overflowing with a desire to give to the extent that he was upset when there were no potential recipients of his kindness.(3)

The Sages tell us that Ishmael was also 'overflowing', but in a very different way. In this week's Portion the Torah tells us that Yishmael was 'metsachek'. Rashi writes that one of the sins that this refers is that of immorality.(4) Thus we see that Ishmael acted without the appropriate boundaries. Another result of inappropriate use of the trait of chesed is stealing. A person that does not have the correct sense of boundaries will not respect the boundaries on ownership, seeing that the property of others is not outside of his limits. Accordingly, it is no surprise that the Sages tell us that Ishmael was also deeply involved in thievery.(5) An attitude of 'what is mine is yours and yours is mine' causes a person to believe that he has the right to infringe on other people's wives and material possessions. Indeed it seems that Ishmael's negative chesed was revealed to Ishmael's Hagar before his birth. The Angel tells Hagar that she will bear a son who will be a wild man, "whose hand will be in everyone and everyone's hand will be in him".(6) This shows that Ishmael would have no boundaries, he would be involved in everyone else's business and they would be involved in his.

We now understand how Ishmael represents the negative form of chesed, but it needs to be understood why he so badly misapplied this trait. The answer seems to be that his chesed was not acquired through avodat hamidot (self-development) based on the Torah's guidelines, rather it came as a result of genetics and upbringing. Even a generally positive mida such as chesed has undesirable offshoots if it is not applied in the correct way. For example, a person with a natural inclination to chesed may do kindness in the wrong way or quantity. He may be overflowing with chesed to friends, but forget about sufficiently caring for his own family. Or, as we have already demonstrated, he may not have appropriate boundaries for himself in various aspects of life. Yishmael inherited the mida of chesed from Abraham but he did not emulate his father in the efforts at self-perfection that Abraham evidently made. Consequently, his yester hara (negative inclination) distorted this mida to the extent that he applied it to the most lowly pursuits.

The example of Ishmael provides a stark lesson as to the importance of directing one's natural character traits so that they are applied in a positive way. The trait of chesed may not lead a person to such blatant sins as was the case with Ishmael but it can have a deleterious impact. A person with the natural trait of chesed will find it difficult to have the appropriate boundaries, therefore he may, for example, he may find it difficult to be punctual or reliable because he cannot set limits on his time. Further if a person does not have well-defined boundaries then he may face a great challenge in avoiding falsehood because honesty requires the ability to adhere to the boundaries of truth.

Another common failing of a person naturally endowed with doing chesed is that he expects people that he helps to be equally giving to him. Consequently he may not hesitate to request that others do significant favors for him because he would do the same for them. However, whilst demanding that we give in great abundance, the Torah requires that we strive not to rely on the kindness of others. This is demonstrated in Shlomo HaMelech's assertion that "one who hates gifts will live." (7) Great Torah Sages were overflowing with chesed and yet they often refused to take anything from anyone else. A striking example of this is the Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik. When he was the Rav of Brisk, there were a number of children whose father's identities were unknown and whose mothers were unable to raise them. No one wanted to assume the tremendous responsibility of caring for these children. What did the poor mothers do? They would come in the middle of the night and place their children on the Brisker Rav's doorstep. When morning came and the Rav found a crying child outside his door, he brought him inside. He took upon himself the task of finding someone to take care of the child. If he was unsuccessful, then he himself took care of all the child's needs.(8)

Whilst he was overflowing in helping others the Brisker Rav was extremely careful never to accept gifts of any kind, even under the most difficult of circumstances. When he first arrived in Palestine in 1941, along with the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, they were detained in the passport control offices. The delegation awaiting the two Sages was told that they did not have the money with which to pay the poll tax of one-half to a full-lira (approximately 80 shekels) and it was forbidden to allow entry to anyone who had not paid. One of the heads of the Jewish Agency offered to pay the tax for the Brisker Rav, but he staunchly refused, saying, "Never in my life did I take money from anyone." After much deliberation, an old resident of Brisk had an idea - he entered the office and approached the Brisker Rav, "The members of the Brisker Community who have come to the land of Israel want the Rav to continue serving as our Rav. We will pay the Rav a salary just as we did in Brisk. Therefore, I want to either give or lend the Rav the money to pay the tax, which will then be deducted from his salary." "That's an offer I can accept," agreed the Brisker Rav and he accepted the money.(9) The Brisker Rav may or may not have been naturally endowed with the trait of chesed. Regardless of his natural inclinations he excelled in the correct form of chesed and simultaneously avoided its negative aspects.

We have seen that chesed does not simply mean kindness, rather it represents the propensity for overflowing and lack of boundaries, and this can be utilized for the good or bad. Moreover, there is a striking difference between a person who has the trait of chesed through genetics or habit, as opposed to someone who develops his chesed within the lens of the Torah. May we all use the trait of chesed only for the good.


1. Kedoshim, 20:17.

2. Malbim, Kedoshim, 20:17.

3. Rashi, Bereishit, 18:1.

4. Rashi, Bereishit, 21:9.

5. Rashi, Bereishit, 16:12.

6. Bereishit, 16:12.

7. Mishlei, 15:27.

8. R'Shlomo Lorinz, "In Their Shadow."

9. Lorinz, "In Their Shadow," pp.261-2.

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