Chesed is never quite disinterested. Even the tahara (purification) of a deceased person, chesed shel emes done without any expectation of reciprocity, provides the one performing the mitzvah with a feeling of satisfaction. Part of that satisfaction lies in the feeling that doing chesed is in the category of eino mitzuveh v’osei – one who performs without being commanded — and that one has therefore gone beyond the call of duty.
Obviously, a person who takes great pleasure in doing chesed for others is at a very high level. But there is nevertheless a danger that one will desist when the chesed is difficult or other pleasures beckon. An even higher level is when one acts on behalf of others out of a sense of obligation. Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky gives a moshol to capture the distinction. If one lends someone money, he has done an act of chesed. But if one becomes a guarantor for a loan, and subsequently has to repay the loan, that repayment is not an act of chesed, it is obligatory.
That distinction lies at the heart of the Torah’s comparison of Noach and Avraham. Rashi, at the beginning of parashas Noach, goes to great lengths to emphasize the contrast. Noach is described as “a righteous man . . . in his generations.” The mention of “his generations” hints, according to one rabbinic opinion, to the fact that he would have been of little account in the generation of Avraham. In addition, we are told that “Noach walked with G-d,” in contradistinction, Rashi notes, to Avraham, who “walked before G-d.”
What is gained by comparing Noach’s level of righteousness to that of Avraham? And if such a comparison is to be made, why do so in terms of the generation of Avraham, which was not exactly filled with other tzaddikim besides Avraham? Just say Noach was not a great as Avraham.
The Zohar makes the criticism of Noach explicit. According to the Zohar, as Noach surveyed the destruction, upon leaving the Ark, he challenged Hashem to explain how the Merciful One could have wrought such destruction. Hashem replied that it was too late for Noach ask such a question, when Hashem had fairly begged him to pray for his generation before the Flood. Elsewhere we find the Flood referred to as “mei Noach – the waters of Noach” (Yeshaya 54:5). Because Noach did not do everything he could have to prevent the Flood, either influencing his generation to do teshuva or praying for them, he is held responsible.
The reference to Noach as a “righteous man in his generations” is now understood. Because he was the most righteous of his generation he was responsible for that generation. In the generation of Avraham, he would have been of lower status, and therefore not held responsible for the generation. But as the greatest figure of his generation he was held accountable. That is the meaning of the rabbinic statement, “Yiftach in his generation is comparable to Shmuel in his generation.”
Context is everything. One’s degree of responsibility is contingent on his surroundings. Mesilas Yesharim begins with the question: What is a man’s obligation b’olamo? – in his world, the world in which he finds himself.
True, none of us are likely to be numbered among the greats of the generation, and held responsible for the entire generation. But each of us in “his world” will find himself in situations where he can help a fellow Jew and no one else is capable or willing to do so. In such situations, we should not view ourselves as having been presented with an opportunity to do chesed, but rather has having an obligation to help.
It is not enough that we “walk with G-d,” and piously console ourselves that if Hashem wants a Flood – or its equivalent in the context of our world – it will happen, and if not, it won’t. We are obligated to “walk in front of Hashem” and do everything we can to forestall the tragedy from taking place. That is what Hashem demands of us.
Even though the survival of the Ark, given the magnitude of the Flood, was miraculous, Hashem did not extend the miracle to feeding the animals in the Ark. Noach was kept busy around the clock providing food to the animals as a tikkun (corrective) for his failure to save his generation. He was placed in a situation in which he was responsible for each animal, and even the slightest delay in feeding a single animal would result in punishment.
Humility is also no excuse. When Noach was told that he and his family would be spared the decree of destruction, he may have felt that he was unworthy to be saved and therefore in no position to pray that Hashem’s beneficence be extended even further to the evildoers of his generation. Yet when Avraham prayed for the people of Sdom, he did not do so based on any claim of his own merits. He admitted that he was but “dust and ashes,” and nevertheless advanced his plea. No one else was in a position to do so, and therefore he was responsible.
There is a second element to recognizing our efforts on behalf of others as obligatory, rather than in the category of optional good deeds. That element is identification with others. When I daven for myself, I don’t view that as doing an act of chesed with myself. Nor do we view davening for our children as an act of chesed; our children are an extension of us.
Rabbi Dessler describes the power of Moshe Rabbeinu’s tefillah after the Sin of the Calf as deriving from his total identification with the entire Jewish people, expressed in his plea that Hashem either forgive the Jewish people or “erase me now from Your book that You have written.” If we understood the implication of the principle, “Every Jew is a guarantor for every other Jew,” which means we are each a part of a single corporate body, we would come to view the good we do for our fellow Jews not as an optional act of chesed, but as an obligatory act of self-preservation.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha, November 9.