Parashat Vayechi concludes the book of Bereshit and the story of the family of Abraham and Sarah. Next week, when we begin the book of Shemot, we will be reading the story of the Jewish people. This week, though, we focus on Abraham’s grandson and great-grandsons, Jacob and his sons.
As Jacob nears the end of his life, he asks Joseph to swear that he will not bury him in Egypt, but in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. He says, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh and do ‘chesed shel emet’ [kindness of truth, i.e., true kindness] with me; please do not bury me in Egypt.”
Now, if you have ever been to a Jewish funeral, you have surely heard the phrase chesed shel emet, true kindness, in connection with the burial of the dead. As Rashi explains it, “The kindness which is shown to those who are dead, that is true kindness, for one does not look forward to repayment.” Rabbi Yonatan Binyamin HaKohen of Solish expands on this: “At first blush, it would appear that the kindness one does for the dead also has compensation, because, as our Sages tell us (Moed Katan 28): If one eulogizes others, he is eulogized, if one buries others, he is buried.’ However, we should note that Rashi states that ‘one does not look forward to the payment of a recompense.’ In other words, there is indeed compensation, even for doing something for the dead, but no one looks forward to this compensation or wants to receive it. On the contrary, every person hopes that he will live a long life.”
This is certainly true, but there is another important aspect to chesed shel emet. Rabbi Joseph ben Wolf Kranz, the Maggid of Dubno (1740-1894, Poland), wrote: “When dealing kindly with a person in life, one cannot know whether it was truly kindness, for many times that which one thinks is an act of mercy and kindness results in harm. But the mercy one shows to the dead is always true mercy because this is loving-kindness which the dead truly require and it therefore cannot result in harm or evil.”
Perhaps, then, we should understand chesed shel emet to mean that with all your kindness, do not forget truth.
• Is a parent who is reluctant to say “no” to a teenager — because the parent wants to be his child’s “friend” or because he can’t face another screaming, door-slamming argument — doing true kindness?
• Is a sister who repeatedly bails her spendthrift brother out of debt doing true kindness?
Surely it’s not difficult to come up with more examples.
The Rabbis teach us that unbridled compassion, compassion that is not balanced by justice, will return the world to chaos. And kindness without truth has the potential to destroy those it claims to help. With all your kindness, do not forget truth.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.