Somewhere in the Middle Ages, Jews discovered embryology. They even fashioned the theory into a blessing for the pidyon haben (redemption of the first born), a ritual for first-born boys who make it past 30 days of life, the age at which newborns were considered viable. We no longer recite the blessing, but it was used for centuries, and from it, we know what the Jewish theory was.
Nothing about it was scientific. It was, instead, moralistic, the rabbinic equivalent of what Greek philosophers were after when they pondered human virtue.
The rabbis knew how conception occurred and how long it took for the baby to be born, but could only speculate about what happened in between, using hints from the Bible, like: “God clothes it [the foetus] with skin, and intertwines it with bones and sinews, as it is written [Job 10:1]: ‘You have clothed me with skin, and intertwined me with bones and sinews.’”
The next line of the blessing, however, stands out as altogether unexpected: “God summons angels to guard it in its mother’s womb, as it is written [Job 10:12]: ‘You granted me life [“chaim”] and lovingkindness [“chesed”] and your providence sustained my soul.’” Fancifully, the rabbis read “life and lovingkindness” as the names of angels, providentially assigned to sustain the embryonic soul.
But more is at stake than mere fancy. In their own way, the rabbis were grappling with a genuine philosophical problem: what constitutes human life? Our “bones and sinews” are life’s raw “material.” But somehow, our inanimate organs “come alive” to become a person; and once “alive,” they develop also a moral impetus toward acts of lovingkindness. As the rabbis see it, these two qualities, “life and lovingkindness” (chaim vachesed) are our non-corporeal essence. They are what make us “angelic,” which is to say, “God-like.”
So we enter the world with chaim vachesed (“life and lovingkindness”). How then do we end it?
That answer arrives this week, as Jacob begs his sons to “treat me kindly” by “burying me” in the Land of Israel, not the foreign soil of Egypt. The Hebrew of “kindly” is the strange construction “chesed va’emet,” literally, “lovingkindness and truth.” Why “truth,” the commentators wonder, to which they answer, “truth implies death.” Ba’al Haturim, for instance, identifies the three Hebrew letters of “emet” (truth) as the initials for “coffin, deathbed, and shrouds” (aron, mitah, takhrikhin).
So we are born with “life and lovingkindness”; and we die with “lovingkindness and truth.”
Here is a rabbinic pronouncement on what we can amount to in our years upon this earth. Life itself should not be taken for granted. It is a mysterious angelic gift acquired at birth along with lovingkindness. We are to pursue “life” with “lovingkindness” as its guiding virtue. Our “life” will eventually be taken away, just as mysteriously as it was given, but the “lovingkindness” we have had since birth remains behind. So too do the truths that we have gained along the way: they too become our legacy.
What remains of us when life itself is gone is not our bodies, but the lovingkindness that we once wrought and the truths that we once taught.
At stake are personal fulfilment and generational continuity. We are born with the gifts of life (chaim) and lovingkindness (chesed). The lovingkindness (chesed) remains behind even when life (chaim) is gone, for life is temporary. But while we live, we attain what we could not be given at birth: truth (emet). Already at birth, the potential for lovingkindness is in our being. Truth must be discovered in the act of living.
Lovingkindness and truth: these are the things we pass along to those who follow us. If we die having practiced the lovingkindness that is our birthright, and having added also to the sum of truths that make life richer, we fulfill the Jewish dream of a life lived wisely and well.