As we take our leave of Avraham Avinu (in the parshiyos of the Torah reading), it behooves us to understand the essential characteristic that made him the father of the Jewish People. Obviously it was his emunah in Hashem — but was that enough to assure him that his descendants would follow in his ways?
The possuk states (Bereishis 19:19), “For I have known him (Avraham) — that he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the ways of Hashem (derech Hashem), to act with tzedakah and mishpat, in order that Hashem bring upon Avraham that which he had spoken of him.” One of the interpretations of the Ramban on this possuk is that Hashem is stating that he is elevating Avraham to greatness so that he will command his children after him to do what is righteous in the eyes of Hashem (i.e., that he would be the father of an Am Hashem), and it is for that reason that He would establish him as a great Nation (and thus that instruction would be that much more fruitful). This possuk is thus giving us the basis for Hashem entrusting Avraham with the proper instruction of those who would ultimately be Hashem’s Nation. Rambam writes similarly (Hilchos Dai’os, 1:7) that the “walking in Hashem’s ways” which was defined earlier in that perek by the Rambam as having middos tovos is what is known as “derech Hashem,” the path of Hashem. Rambam writes, “And this is the way that Avraham Avinu made sure to teach his children (Rambam then quotes our possuk) — the way that is called “derech Hashem”; and following in this “derech Hashem” brings upon a person all good and much blessing…”
This is amazing! The Rambam is stating that the quality of the descendants of Avraham is that they will keep the “derech Hashem “that they were taught — and that “derech Hashem” refers to middos tovos! Now, the possuk says that they will keep “derech Hashem” and act with tzedakah u’mishpat. We can assume that tzedakah and mishpat, in the vernacular of the Torah, refer to the laws of the Torah, bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam laMakom (with mishpat referring to the mishpetai haTorah). And the foundation stone of both of these groups is middos tovos!
How do we understand that? Granted it can be understood on the level of “derech eretz kadmah l’Torah.” But I would like to suggest a deeper meaning, and perhaps a deeper understanding of that quote as well — an understanding that would give us sort of a “unified field theory” of the core value of Avraham, thus the core value of a Jew. (Previously I had thought that that bedrock is emunah. However, upon studying what the Torah tells us of Avraham, his chessed and his reaching out to others, I have come to realize an even deeper nexus.)
If the essence of a Jew is that his or her neshamah is G-dliness itself, and we see that the Rambam places the mitzvah of following in the ways of Hashem as the fountainhead from which the Jewish Nation was made, then it follows that we must try to understand Hashem’s essence as best we can, however we can relate to it, so that we, too, follow in that derech.
Ramchal teaches us, in many places throughout his sefarim, that what we can know of Hashem is that he is a Giver, a conferrer of tov. Since Hashem needs absolutely nothing, anything that exits, for whatever reason, any will of His which is manifested in the existence which He brought about, is focused on the benefit and advantage of His creations. So what we most know of Hashem is that He is a giver. The ultimate Giver, in fact, since he gains absolutely nothing from anything which exists.
We come now to a fundamental, cardinal, almost primordial principle espoused and explained by Rav Eliyahu Dessler zt”l in his sefer Michtav Mi’Eliyahu, in the first volume of that work, in his classic “Kuntrass Hachessed,” or, “Essay on chessed.”
Rav Dessler writes that Hashem put into people two opposing forces, which are the root of all that we do. He created them with the power of giving and with the power of taking. The power of giving is the G-dly power, for that is the attribute of Hashem Himself — He is the “giver” par excellence. Our service to Hashem is not for any need of His, but for our own — for even if we do not presume a person’s raison d’etre is to receive a reward (an act of taking), nevertheless, even at its most sublime, it is a means of expressing our gratitude to Him.
And so we have this power: we can give, award, be merciful, bestow happiness, all being “in the image of Hashem.”
On the other hand stands the faculty of taking, through which a person aspires to appropriate unto oneself all that he can reach. This self-centered, egocentric existence is the very root of evil, or anti-Hashem actions.
At an extreme, there are those actions which take without any giving whatsoever. This is what murder is, what stealing is, what makes swindlers swindle, and really what allows any violation of bein adam lachaveiro to take place. This is our basic yetzer hora, and this is why Chazal teach us, “If not for the fear of the government (i.e., a legal system), each man would swallow his neighbor alive” (Avos 3:2). Less extreme are those who would take in a civilized, legal manner, but do not give in return; these people too are involved in “taking,” and Shlomo Hamelech’s words “and He who hates gifts, shall live” (Mishlei 15:27) would apply to them. For it is the yetzer tov faculty (which is a Giver, as Hashem is) that can truly considered to be alive, since it is synonymous with our neshamah, which is G-dly and G-dlike.
These two powers form the roots of all our actions, but are at their essence character traits through which our deeds are filtered. There are shades of intensity, of course, and sometimes a mix of emotions; but every thought, word, or deed is either essentially an act of loving kindness — is outward-centered, and is giving — or it is grasping, taking, ego-centered, and self-centered.
To be continued, im yirtzeh Hashem, as we explore further what it really means to be “m’talmidov shel Avraham Avinu.”