Monday, March 9, 2015

A question regarding Chesed

When I switched from the synagogue rabbinate to my primarily-educational role in Toronto's YU Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash, I wrestled with a particular dissatisfaction that came from leaving the shul rabbinate. In retrospect, several years down the road, I have come to realize that part of my discomfort came from the following question:

Is teaching a class an act of chesed (generosity)?

I have my own thoughts, and I may expand on them later this week, but what do you think?


  1. 1. Maybe it depends on how much the students benefit.

    2. Is the chesed aspect diminished if the teacher draws a salary?

    1. 1. Why would that matter?

      2. I would think so, yes.

  2. On one hand can bring up the gemaras point about paying for torah not being allowed because torah is morasha kehilas yaakov. Students are in that sense entitled to the torah they are being taught. As well, from the teachers side, being in the Klei Kodesh field makes teaching a requirement rather than a pas besalo situation.

    On the other hand, if one chose to sacrifice a potentially lucrative or easier career to go into chinuch because thye know they can make a difference and they want to help enrich others spiritual lives, than every moment of teaching then becomes a sacrifice and a chesed.

  3. Yes. People need intellectual and spiritual stimulation in addition to food and shelter. Especially in a society where the latter are much easier to come by than they were anywhere on Earth until the last 100 years or so.

  4. Mike S.s's comment is the essence of Logotherapy. See even just the title of Victor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning.

    R' Wolbe offers a similar model of the human mind, when he talks about Torah describing man as not only having a subconscious with its seated physical desires, but also a superconscious which also excludes awareness, but is a font of spiritual needs and desires.

    Rav Wolbe's essay (in a Laniado Hospital journal for Torah and Medicine) is available from here.
    My second installment of a translation of that section of that essay is on Torah Musings,
    I am referring to the subsection I titled "Subconscious and Super-Conscious", pg 68 in the original.

  5. It's a good question - the categories of "Avoah, Torah, and Mitzvah" (Divrei ha-Yamim's description of Hizkiyahu's achievements), which parallel Avot's "Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim" (H/T Reuven Kimelman for the comparison) do seem to be distinct, but I don't know that this means they are mutually exclusive. Perhaps performance (mitzvah/gemilut hasadim) is a reference to acts that affect people, avodah is something done in the Mikdash (or mikdash me'at), while Torah refers to what is done in battei midrash. Each of these functions as possible spheres of life that different people emphasize. Not only that, but the nature of each is somewhat different. You are doing something different when you visit and help the sick, and when you bury the dead, and when you make the bride and groom happy, than when you teach Torah. You get involved in their personal lives as they are lived in every-day life, and I think that is what you are missing. At the same time, I don't think anyone would deny that Hizkiyahu wasn't also fulfilling God's command (mitzvah) when he taught Torah. It's just that the sphere of life he was involved in when he taught Torah was different than when he did justice for the widow or orphan.

  6. RAM, Anonymous 2:13 PM-
    So you define chesed based on the degree of sacrifice involved?

    Mike S., R' Micha-
    According to you, we define chesed based on people's needs?

    Thanks for the food for thought! So how do you define chesed?

  7. Actually, following Rav Shimon Shkop, I would define chessed as dropping the barrier between I and Thou, self and other and then to share one's resources accordingly. (Buber and Levinas references, intentional.)

    This is why incest is also called "chessed", and why in Birkhas Avos we have to specify "gomel chassadim tovim -- supports others through good acts of chessed". Incest drops the I-Thou division in a destructive way, and Hashem providing for us to the extent that we are robbed of our existence as independent beings would be chessed that is not good.

    The term "louinge kyndnesse" (or "lovingkindness") was coined by Myles Coverdale in his Coverdale Bible of 1535, because English didn't yet have what he felt to be an accurate translation of "chessed". Personally, I agree with Coverdale. Chessed isn't kindness, generosity from the have to the have-not, which would be defined by entirely by need. On the other hand, it isn't love without the act of giving.

    So lefi aniyus da'ati and extrapolating from Rav Shimon's introduction to Shaarei Yosher, it's not so much that chessed is defined by need as much as defined by sharing what one has because of feeling a shared need.

    1. R' Micha-
      I heard a similar approach from the Rosh Yeshiva zt"l in KBY when I learned there. The reason I asked re: "needs", though, is because Mike's comment - on which you commented - placed the emphasis on people's needs. If chesed is a dropping of boundaries, then chesed exists whether I am filling an existing need or giving in an unnecessary way.

    2. How long ago were you there? Are you speaking of "R.J", haRav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht? (I was in KBY from Elul 1983 through Elul 1984.) Getting to the topic...

      I think the dropping of barriers itself is ahavah. When I view my children as part of my extended "ani", the "me and mine" it's easy to be meitiv (to give benefit to).

      Acting on the fact that I feel someone is part of my "ani" is chesed. Giving specifically out of love.

      Now I can't believe that it means where the act is meaningless to the recipient. There has to be some need or want on the recipient's behalf. Rav Shimon proves that "olam chesed yibaneh -- the world is built on chesed" has to refer to chesed toward the created based on the fact that the Creator has no needs.

      I would think the act of giving only has value if it addresses a need or want.

      And yet, we do attempt to give to Hashem, and in particular qorbanos. Does He need dead animals? He made us such that we want to give to those we are in a relationship with, and gave us a need to give. According to the Narbonni, this is the concession the Rambam refers to in the Moreh, when he speaks of Qorbanos. We need an act of giving in order to feel connected to Him. (Halevai my relationship to HQBH were real enough to me that I would pine for qorbanos or a *tangible* replacement. I'm not there yet.)

      Anyway, perhaps the need/want is the thing being given. Perhaps the need/want is emotional, to feel loved, and the experience of being given to.

      But as I said, the giving has to have a point.

      In the case of teaching a class, there is an existential need for meaning and value that the teacher is helping the student satisfy. Does it need to be a "need" rather than a "want" to be chessed? I don't know. But since there is a need, I answered your question that teaching could be a chesed.

      I guess it depends whether the teacher is teaching in order to be a teacher, or out of a sense of connection to the students.

    3. 1. Gulf War I and the year after; and yes, Rav Goldvicht will always be "The Rosh Yeshiva" to me, without intending any disrespect to his successors.

      2. Doesn't your point from Rav Shimon support the idea that it is not chesed unless there is a need on the part of the recipient?

    4. Need or want would be a necessary ingredient. Which is why I wrote about need in my first comment. But it's not a sufficient ingredient. Generosity without feeling shared need, without giving because the recipient is "one of mine" wouldn't fit Rav Shimon Shkop's definition of chesed, as I understand it.

      Making that distinction between need as part of the definition and as the entire definition was what I tried to clarify in response to your question.

      People need meaning in their lives, so a teacher who teaches because they identify with their students and their need for meaning, would be (to my mind) performing chesed.