This was originally an e-mail I sent out a year ago for Shavuot. As a giver of tzedakah, a worker for a tzedakah, and yes, even a recipient, this d’var Torah sums up my feelings and experience being on both sides of the coin.
There is a problem with chessed (kindness). Chessed kills. Every time something is done for someone else, that person feels that a small part of his independence has been taken away, that a small part of him has died. Chazal tell us “he who hates [receiving] gifts [is one who] lives.” – not “is better off,” but “lives.” Additionally, according to Chazal, the only true act of chessed is for one who is dead. This is because only by performing chessed for the dead does one give in such a way that it does kill the person who receives the chessed.
Lot was crushed by the chessed of Avraham Avinu. The more Avraham did for Lot, the more Lot hated Avraham. Lot eventually leaves Avraham and becomes a dayan (government official) in Sodom, a land defined by the antithesis of chessed, a land where “what is mine is mine and yours is yours.” When Lot eventually is forced to leave Sodom, the angels offer him to go to Avraham, but Lot refuses to go. As long as he is by Avraham, he is crushed by Avraham’s chessed and his independence is lost.
Avraham was not the first being to encounter such a reaction to chessed; God was. Upon being approached by God for his partaking in forbidden fruit, Adam not only admits his sin, but according to the Midrash adds “and I’ll eat it again.” Any scenario, no matter how much it reflects paradise, is an infringement of Adam’s independence by which he asserts himself. He had to sin in order to truly live. The Gemara asks if Adam had a choice in sinning and indeed, one opinion states that he did not. He wanted to live and God had taken all independence from him. He had no choice.
But there is a choice; there is always a choice. When someone receives the chessed of another, he is allowing that person to flourish as a human being. We are the consequences of our actions and those who give are defined by their generosity; it becomes part of their very being. Those who receive in turn give the givers the ability to grow into a better human being.
The first place we encounter this view of chessed is with Ruth. When Ruth comes back to Boaz’s field, Naomi asks her “where were you? Where did you glean today? Thank God for whoever helped you out.” Ruth responds somewhat strangely, “the person for whom I did chessed was Boaz.” She did not recognize Naomi’s question of who helped her. She states that it was she who performed chessed for Boaz by letting him be nice to her. She gave an old man the chance to give, and in doing so gave him the ability to live again. Ruth’s view of chessed is the basis for relationship, love, and eventually the basis for the ideal government of the king who is defined by love (Dovid means “the one who loves.”)
On Shavout we answer the objection of Adam and Lot. They told us that chessed kills. We respond that it does not; when viewed from the point of mutuality, chessed becomes a relationship of love. And so, on Shavuot we experience both the love we have for God as well as the love we have for one another. For it is only in the context of others – God, our parents, children, siblings, spouses, and friends– that we can truly appreciate all that we are and what we have.