Parshas Shemini & Pirkei Avos: The Path to Kindness

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shemini, we read of kosher and not kosher animals, birds and fish.  Amongst birds that are forbidden to us is the חֲסִידָה (Vayikra 11:19).

We would expect that a bird whose name is derived from the root word .ח.ס.ד – kindness – would be permitted, not forbidden, to us!  Why is this bird forbidden? 

Rashi (ibid) teaches: החסידה. זוֹ דַיָּה לְבָנָה, ציגוני”א, וְלָמָּה נִקְרָא שְׁמָהּ חֲסִידָה? שֶׁעוֹשָֹה חֲסִידוּת עִם חֲבְרוֹתֶיהָ בִּמְזוֹנוֹת – This is the white dayah (type of bird identified as the stork).  And why is it called a חֲסִידָה?  Because she does chessed – kindness – with her friends, with food

Should not one who is a doer of chessed be kosher and permitted, one to emulate and learn from, rather than forbidden and not kosher?

However, the answer to this question lies in the following words of Rashi: שֶׁעוֹשָֹה חֲסִידוּת עִם חֲבְרוֹתֶיהָ בִּמְזוֹנוֹת – The bird does kindness, shares her food, and bestows grace and compassion upon her friends.  Period. 

What of those who she may not agree with?  Who may be “down on their luck”?  Who may be less fortunate than she?  What of one who does not fit into her class, category, or clique of friends?  Well, that is simply not her problem.  If you are her friend, she will surely share her food, her warmth, her home, her love and compassion.  And if you are not her friend, not to her liking, and not of her kind – you may as well take your problems, your tears, your heavy heart, your need, elsewhere, for the חֲסִידָה is not interested in you.

This, says the Torah, is absolutely forbidden. This is not the Torah way, it is not the Jewish way, it is not the way of Avraham Avinu, the founder of the Umah Yisraelis, whose tent, heart and mind were open to all in need.  And so, the חֲסִידָה, as compassionate as she may be, is in fact, very much forbidden to us. 

In Pirkei Avos this week, we learn:  Yosei ben Yochanan of Yerushalayim said: יהי ביתך פתוח לרוחה, ויהיו עניים בני ביתך – Open your home wide and let the poor be members of your household (Avos 1:5).

In his commentary on Pirkei Avos, R’ Yisrael Meir Lau writes, “Just as a person’s home must be a center of Torah, so must it radiate חסד, kindness.  It must welcome guests and extend generosity to the needy.  A person should treat poor guests with no less consideration than he gives to the members of his own family… In the burning heat of the day, Avraham Avinu sought out any traveler who might need aid (Bereishis 18:10), inviting those unable to come by themselves or embarrassed to ask for assistance.

“Furthermore, ‘Avraham gave wheat bread even to those not used to eating it and meat to those not accustomed to eating meat.  Moreover, he built large mansions alongside the highway, where anyone could enter, eat and drink to his heart’s content, and then bless G-d, thus affording G-d pleasure.  Anything that one might desire could be found in the house of Avraham’ (Avos d’Rabbi Nosson).”

If we are to be “kosher Jews” and emulate the ways of the founder of this compassionate nation, we must strive to always learn from the חֲסִידָה what not to do.

R’ Lau relates the following powerful story: R’ Elimelech of Lyzhensk (1717-1786, Poland) and his brother, R’ Zusha of Anipoli (1718-1800), were students of the famed Maggid of Mezeritch (1704-1772), and great chassidic rebbes in their own right.  In their youth, they wandered together as merchants in self-imposed exile, spreading the teachings of chassidism as they did so. 

On occasion, they came to the city of Ludmir.  A leading citizen of the city, who might have been expected to host them, would refuse to do so, saying that it was beneath his dignity to invite beggars into his home.  And so they would stay at the home of a poor Jew who was more than glad to have them.

Years later, when the brothers gained fame, their chassidim purchased a handsome carriage with strong horses for them, and the continued traveling from town to town. 

One day they again arrived in Ludmir.  When that same leading citizen heard that two tzaddikim had come, he hurried out to greet them and he invited them warmly to his home.

The brothers replied, “No, thank you.  But you are welcome to look after our horses and carriage.”  The leading citizen was perplexed, and so, the brothers explained, “We have not changed.  We are the same Elimelech and Zusha that we were the last time we came here.  There is only one difference: the fact that now we have horses and a carriage.  Since these are apparently what impress you, you may take care of them.”

To be of the students of Avraham Avinu is to ensure that יהי ביתך פתוח לרוחה, ויהיו עניים בני ביתך – our home is open to all.  For one whose chessed is selective and exclusive, remains, for all time, a most forbidden bird. 

It is easy to be the חֲסִידָה and do חסד with our friends.  But this is not the Torah path to kindness. 

May we be wise enough, humble enough, gracious enough and kind enough to be of the kind who does chessed for all.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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