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“True Kindness,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

December 17, 2021 / 13 Tevet 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings as we make our way toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

There is a special kind of compassion expressed in this week’s Torah portion, the last one of Genesis.

Seventeen years have passed since the entire clan of Jacob’s family arrived in Egypt. But the time arrived when death would take Jacob. He wanted to be prepared so he summoned Joseph. Jacob must have decided at some point as they all settled in the land of Egypt what he wanted to happen upon his death. With Joseph before him, Jacob made a request that was really a promise, first from Joseph and later in the portion from the rest of the brothers. His language dictated the behavior.

A pledge of steadfast loyalty, חסד ואמת, hesed v’emet.

These words individually translate as love and truth. Combined, they mean true kindness. The midrash (Genesis Rabba 96:5) calls it true, disinterested kindness. Jacob made Joseph pledge to bring his coffin back to the land of Canaan where his grandparents, parents, and one of his wives, Leah was buried. In death, he wanted to lie with his ancestors. To grant Jacob this favor would be to acknowledge no reward or benefit. The dead can never return a favor.

It is the ultimate act of kindness to ensure the burial of the dead. The commentator, Rashi, drove home the point. The mercy shown to the dead is “mercy of truth” since one cannot hope for any reward. Joseph could honor his father even as it would take a tremendous effort to ensure it would happen.

Joseph and his brothers honored the pledge. Perhaps, Jacob wanted it to be a brotherly effort that would bring them together. Or maybe, Jacob considered how the brothers had sold Joseph and forced him to end up in Egypt. Returning Jacob to the land of Canaan also brought back Joseph there as well. Joseph, on his deathbed, would exact a similar promise from his brothers to show true kindness at his death and after his death.

The book of Genesis ends with the words “coffin in Egypt.” The coffin belonged to Joseph. The trajectory of Genesis from the beginning of creation and life ends with a strong image of death. At the same time, it allows for a profound message that will carry through the Torah and beyond: acts of loving kindness matter particularly when it is for reasons when kindness can never be returned. It touches the core of human existence. We each have this capacity for true kindness.

Exodus will open without compassion, with a Pharaoh bent toward evil. When the Jewish people finally escape with their lives from the shackles of slavery, they will depart with Joseph’s bones as the generations before had promised. True kindness does not die or disappear, it remains as a potential in each of us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Connect with me here. I look forward to corresponding with you and to hearing your thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Elaine Zecher