It is well-known that Avraham Avinu epitomized chesed. The rabbinic sources teach us that Avraham’s first son, Yishmael, also represented this trait, but he misapplied it. The word chesed is usually translated as kindness. However, according to this definition it is difficult to understand how Yishmael in particular distorted kindness. To develop these ideas, we must deepen our understanding of the Torah’s definition of the word chesed.
In parashas Kedoshim, the Torah enumerates the various forbidden relationships and their punishments. Toward the end of this list, the Torah states: “A man who takes his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness – it is a chesed, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the members of their people; he will have uncovered the nakedness of his sister, he shall bear his iniquity.” There is a glaring problem with this verse: If chesed simply means kindness, what kindness is involved in arayos?!
It seems that chesed is more appropriately understood as an overflowing lack of boundaries. One significant positive outgrowth of this kindness is the desire to unabashedly share with others, erasing all boundaries of selfishness. However, a negative manifestation is that a person can lose all sense of boundaries. Arayos involves ignoring the Torah’s assertion that certain relationships break down the appropriate boundaries. Consequently, the Torah describes arayos as chesed.
Avraham Avinu epitomized chesed in its ideal form. His tent was open on all four sides, a lack of boundaries resulting in unparalleled kindness. Moreover, Avraham so overflowed with a desire to give that he was upset when there was no one to give to.
Chazal tell us that Yishmael was also overflowing, but in a very different way. In parashas Vayeira, the Torah records that Yishmael was metzachek (laughing, playing). Rashi writes that one sin implied by this term is that of forbidden relationships. Thus we see that Yishmael acted without appropriate boundaries. Another result of inappropriate chesed is stealing. A person with no sense of boundaries does not respect ownership, seeing the property of others as his for the taking. Accordingly, it is no surprise that Chazal tell us Yishmael was also deeply involved in thievery. An attitude of “mine is yours and yours is mine” causes a person to believe he has the right to infringe on other people’s wives and material possessions. It seems that Yishmael’s perverse chesed was revealed to Hagar even before his birth. The malach tells her that her son will be a wild man, “whose hand will be on everyone, and everyone’s hand will be on him.” In other words, Yishmael would have no boundaries.
We now understand how Yishmael represents the negative form of chesed, but why did he so abuse this trait? The answer seems to be that his chesed was not acquired through working on himself based on the Torah’s guidelines; rather, it came as a result of genetics and upbringing. Even a generally positive quality such as chesed has undesirable offshoots if misapplied. For example, a person with a natural inclination toward chesed may be kind in the wrong way or measure. He may be overflowing with chesed to friends but not family. Or, as we have already demonstrated, he may not maintain appropriate boundaries. Yishmael inherited the tendency toward chesed from Avraham Avinu but did not emulate his father’s efforts at self-perfection. Consequently, his yetzer distorted this attribute to the extent that he applied it to the lowliest pursuits.
The example of Yishmael teaches us a stark lesson in the importance of channeling one’s natural middos in positive directions. The abuse of chesed may not lead a person to the blatant sins committed by Yishmael, but it can have a deleterious impact. A naturally kind person will find it difficult to set appropriate boundaries. For example, he may have trouble being punctual or reliable, because he cannot limit his time. Furthermore, without well-defined boundaries, he may be hard-pressed to limit himself to the truth.
Another common failing of a person naturally endowed with chesed is that he expects people he helps to be equally giving to him. Consequently, he may not hesitate to request that others do significant favors for him, because he would do the same for them. However, while demanding abundant giving, the Torah requires that we strive not to rely on the kindness of others. As Shlomo HaMelech asserts, “…he who hates gifts will live.” Our gedolim were overflowing with chesed, yet they often refused to take from anyone else. A striking example is the Brisker Rav, ztz”l. In Brisk, there were a number of children whose fathers were unknown and whose mothers were unable to raise them. No one wanted to assume the tremendous responsibility of caring for these children. What did the poor mothers do? They would come in the middle of the night and place their children on the Brisker Rav’s doorstep. When morning came, and the Rav found a crying child outside his door, he brought him inside. He took upon himself the task of finding someone to care for the child. If he was unsuccessful, then he himself took care of all the child’s needs.
Yet the Brisker Rav never accepted gifts, even under the most difficult circumstances. When he and the Mirrer rosh yeshivah, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, ztz”l, arrived in Palestine in 1941, they were detained in the passport control offices. The delegation awaiting the two gedolim was told that they did not have the money to pay the poll tax, so they could not enter the country. One of the heads of the Jewish Agency offered to pay the tax for the Brisker Rav, but he staunchly refused, saying, “Never in my life have I taken money from anyone.” After much deliberation, an elderly former resident of Brisk had an idea. He told the Brisker Rav, “The members of the Brisker community in Eretz Yisrael want the rav to continue serving as our rav. We will pay the rav a salary just as we did in Brisk. Therefore, I would like to give the rav the money to pay the tax, which will be deducted from his salary.” Only then did the Brisker Rav agree. The Brisker Rav may or may not have been naturally endowed with chesed. Regardless, he excelled in the correct form of chesed and avoided its negative aspects.
We have seen that chesed does not simply mean kindness. Rather, it signifies an overflowing lack of boundaries, which can be utilized for good or bad. Moreover, there is a striking difference between a person who is kind by nature or nurture and someone who develops chesed within the framework of the Torah. May we all use the middah of chesed constructively.
Notes and Sources
 See Sifrei, Haazinu 212 and Vezos Haberachah 343; Pesikta Rabbasi 39; Tikkunei Zohar 15:30b.
 Malbim, Vayikra 20:17
 Rashi, Bereishis 18:1.
 Mishlei 15:27.
From the book “Beacons of Light”